The Misogyny of India’s Cultural Elite: Kavita Bhanot
Guest post by KAVITA BHANOT
Thanks to the brave actions of a woman who had the courage to speak out against her very powerful boss, something huge has happened in the last week in India. The very sophisticated, cosmopolitan English-speaking cultural elite of India has been forced, for once, to look at itself, to face up to the sexism and misogyny that it has long harboured.
For many years this elite has been protesting, exposing, judging, mocking the patriarchy of the lower classes – of the policeman, the religious fundamentalist, the ‘unpolished’ politician, the working class urban migrant, the eve-teaser on the street. But rarely have the men, or the women of this class, looked, in public, at themselves – the men examining their attitude towards women and the women thinking about their own complicity, the ways in which they have allowed or turned a blind eye to the misogyny of the men of their own class.
Neither the incident, nor Shoma Chaudhury’s response to it, surprises me in the least. In the time that I spent in this world, it became quickly apparent to me that deeply entrenched in the suave, cosmopolitan world of English language media, literature, art – were problematic attitudes towards women that neither the men or the women seemed to question.
You see it in the fiction of many male writers – from the Salman Rushdies to the Samit Basus and Palash Krishna Mehrotras of the new generation; their female protagonists are often juvenile fantasy figures rather than three dimensional women. I struggle to think of English language male writers from the subcontinent or its diaspora who have created female characters with the kind of compassion, understanding and complexity that you find in the Hindi fiction of Yashpal writing in the fifties. The misogyny of these writers is there on their facebook walls – in their posts about getting laid, their photographs with ‘trophy’ women. It is there in their conversations and interactions at literature festivals, parties, in workspaces. In ‘bad boy’ themed book readings. There’s the esteemed writer and teacher who tried to seduce a female student. The high-profile editor accused of sexual harassment of a colleague. The male fiction writers who work for the men’s magazine Maxim India and boast of their access, through sexy photo-shoots, to high profile ‘hot women.’ The male writers, journalists and bloggers who led a campaign to fight the ban on the Savita Bhabhi cartoon strip. I can give countless examples of the misogyny of these men of letters who see women as sexual objects, as arm candy, eye candy, and it is a slippery slope from there to assuming that you can help yourself to these objects as and when you wish.
Living and working in this environment, with these men, women can’t assume that they will be loved for who they are. That they will be respected for the work that they do. The truth is that, if they want to get ahead, women have had no choice but to turn a blind eye to casual sexism. To silence the contrary voice in their head, as they try to convince themselves that it is for their intelligence, their talent that they are given special favour. Time and time again they are reduced to physical beings. The aggrieved woman in this case was employed as a journalist by Tehelka. Yet she was being used by Think – a company that is independent of the magazine, to co-ordinate a festival – a pretty face to have around, to take care of high profile guests such as De Niro.
“I wish again,” the reporter writes in her rebuttal to Tejpal’s personal email in which he tries to paint the incident as consensual one, “that you remembered the professional reason I had met you that evening, instead of the storm and the thunderclouds… The conversation from that night was not ‘heavily loaded’ or flirtatious, you were talking about ‘sex’ or ‘desire’ because that is what you usually choose to speak to me about, unfortunately, never my work.”
Every female employee faces this. I spent one year working, with great passion and commitment, as an editor for Osians Literary Agency. My employment came to an end when I was told (not asked – as if it was a privilege) that I had been selected by the male head of the organisation, alone with nine other young women, to walk on the stage carrying a poster, at a large gala event during which a famous actor would be felicitated. We were told that a former model who had recently joined the company would show us how to walk and tell us what to wear. Two of my colleagues who were working for the company as art historians, and I, objected. We said that we would not do it, this was not what we were employed to do. The enraged response from our employer was that we could do as we were told or hand in our resignations. I chose to resign – a luxury that many in my situation, including those other two women, do not have.
The art, media and publishing industries have been headed for many years by powerful men such as Tejpal and my former boss. They function as cults – headed by demi-gods who wield absolute power. Employees, and women in particular, flutter around them like devotees. While women have been emerging as leaders in recent years – many of them seem to follow the same path, identifying with male power, ruling their companies in the same way that men have, treating women in their organisations with as little respect.
The response from my immediate female boss when she heard about the incident above was to tell me, with anger, that I had made a fuss for no reason. She had had to do all kinds of things to get ahead in her fifteen year career in journalism and publishing, she told me. I received a similar response from another female editor that I happened to meet that same day and recount the incident to – it wasn’t a big deal she said with a shrug of her shoulders, it was standard practice in companies to use ‘young and pretty girls’ in this way. In fact, she had often used her looks to gain favour in her career – donning a pretty dress for a meeting. This is an editor who, in recent years, has brought into India, diet and fitness books by models, item girls and actresses, an Indian Mills and Boon series, chick lit – in her effort to make the Indian publishing industry more like that in the West – apparently catering to a market, but actively creating it, following the western capitalist model.
Part of the problem with this elite world, is its unthinking embrace of the ways of the West, including a male capitalism that has swallowed up the feminist struggle for sexual, bodily freedom and spat out a distorted version of this which turns women into sexual objects while convincing them that they have got what they fought for and are now free. As a layer of India goes in the same direction – urban upper class Indian women, often those who describe themselves as feminists, are failing to engage with the dead end that this is leading them towards. Instead, they write articles in support of banned adverts that feature women as sexual objects of fantasy, they write for magazines such as India Vogue, Elle and Cosmopolitan, they pose for these magazines, perhaps do a spot of modelling. All the while describing themselves as feminists.
Upper class feminist battles have tended to be directed towards men from the lower classes – and I have felt uncomfortable with the class prejudice often hovers in these writings, by men and women, in the various Pink Chaddi, Mend the Gap, Slut Walk, Blank Noise Project campaigns. While they grapple with real problems, these writings and campaigns can reveal a deep-seated fear of the uncivilised poor man on the street, a mocking sneering of the unsophisticated Hindi-speaking accountant in the office – whether or not he is a religious fundamentalist. There are few attempts to recognise the real power that they, as upper class women, actually have over those lower middle class and working class men beyond those moments of eve-teasing in the street, harassment in the bar.
While women campaign for the right to be ‘sluts’ or to be ‘pub-going, loose and forward women’ – this struggle can evolve, as it has in the west, into pressure to be a ‘slut’, into another kind of prison for women – a more dangerous one, since women believe themselves to be free in it.
As patriarchy, sexual harassment, sexism are associated with the ‘less enlightened’ men of the lower classes – upper class women can fail to recognise when they are mistreated, abused, assaulted, objectified, raped by the men of their own class, or they can feel implicated in these situations and therefore be reluctant to speak out. For it is all clothed in cool, urbane, cosmopolitan, smooth-talking – more subtle and therefore more dangerous than the overt patriarchy and harassment of more ‘traditional’ men.
As women in India grapple with their desires, with pleasure, love and bodily freedom, with the changing representations in the public domain of what a woman is or should be – powerful men, especially the ‘sophisticated’ suave men of the upper classes, use this. The implication, if you don’t accept their advances, is that you are not ‘loose and forward’, not ‘free’ enough – that you are frigid, old-fashioned, puritanical, traditional even. ‘You can love more than one person,’ said Tejpal to the woman at that time, almost placing a challenge before her.
Love is nothing to do with it – there can’t be love between men and women as long as men don’t ‘see’ the women before them, as long as they see women primarily as sexual objects, existing for their own pleasure.
Women’s attempts to be open about, talk about, push the barriers of their sexuality – are used to try to seduce them, and afterwards, they are used to implicate them. “The context of that ill-fated evening, of our conversation, as you will recall,” Tejpal writes in his deluded email to her, “was heavily loaded. We were playfully and flirtatiously talking about desire, sex….and the near-impossibility of fidelity; and of the aftermath of meeting me one stormy evening in my office when I was sitting watching the thunderclouds.”
These are the ways in which women are manipulated – made to feel that they are responsible, that they played a role in whatever happened. A rape by a stranger is clear-cut, but in such situations, a woman can often remain silent because she is manipulated by the man to feel that it was consensual. As the relationships between men and women continue to change there will continue to be many such cases – it is important for women to see them for what they are, and for men to interrogate more deeply how they relate to women – hopefully the highlighting of this particular case will encourage us to do this, to attempt to create new moral frameworks for male female interactions.