By Sonia Soans
Over the last few years India has seen a growth in the economy which has had an effect on our lifestyles. This newfound wealth is not equally distributed which is a matter of contention however this article will not look at that those conflicts. I am interested in way neoliberalism has been absorbed into the feminist movement and presented in the language of ‘choice’ ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment’. Open the cover of any popular women’s magazine and it conflates lifestyle choices with feminism. Taking a bath with a new soap is presented as an act of revolution, buying clothes from a certain brand are reflective not only of personality but thought to make a profound social statement.
Choice has become a deciding factor in one’s decisions. This unhistorical, asocial idea of the individual presents itself as liberation, freeing people from past oppressions. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way neoliberal language is used to talk about women’s issues. Contentious issues have been replaced with the notion of choice. Women’s choice is thought to be the deciding factor in their lives. They are presented as autonomous and in sole control of making decisions. While absolute autonomy would be ideal at the moment it does not exist and cannot exist. Indian women’s choices largely are dictated by their families, social, cultural and national norms. Some of these norms are oppressive some of them necessary in a civil society. The oppressive exist with the mundane but the mundane have subsumed the oppressive making them seem non-existent. For some women in India living a free life without answering to patriarchal power is a reality, sadly they are a minority.
Choice has the effect of producing neutrality, a false sense of it at least. Making normal anything that can be contentious into an issue of taste acquired in a free market economy. Modern neoliberal feminism does exactly that it tells women their decisions are a matter of choice with no ethical or political entanglements. Enhancing one’s body aesthetically is presented as a purely personal indulgent being both narcissistic and in denial of the male gaze at the same time. Narcissistic because it is inward looking, self obsessed. In denial of the male gaze because even though these modifications are presented as there is a sense of being seen as attractive, creating presentations of pure femininity to an ever present male gaze. Cosmetic surgery is now no longer taboo it is normalised as being an economic and personal choice. Yes women can have their bodies enhanced cosmetically but it is a pseudo argument of choice undermines the larger question of why do women have to look a certain way. Interestingly the cosmetic norm is dependent on elitist women, fair skin, slender bodies perfect in shape and size. High caste women, white women, women who have had adequate health care are the norms. Further investigations into these choices reveals they are connected to more than one kind of oppression, class caste, race and even disability.
The hyper aesthetic nature of this new feminism makes it seem less credible and elitist. For most women in India the grim reality of looking fairer with blemish free skin is not a choice but a form of oppression. Their bodies becoming a source of voyeuristic interest. This trend is reflected in films and the way Bollywood film stars have become brand ambassadors of social causes. Promoting skin lightening cream alongside supporting education of the girl child, obvious contradictions.
What is presented as choice for the new economically privileged classes is not a choice for those who work to produce these ‘choices’ for them. Women who work in garment factories did not have a choice. These material acts of empowerment and choice come at a price and are only a mask to hide exploitation using the language of liberation. The issue is not so much that women have a choice in wearing make up or dressing in a certain way but that the power is still in the hands of the oppressors and women are now willing participants in this oppression. Some of these choices have been available to women for a long time, however now they are treated as personal expressions without consequences. Morality and debate have been treated as dirty words as if the personal was only personal. Even the feminist slogan of the personal as political has been usurped while the personal is indeed political every choice is not worthy of being politicised. The effect of these new freedoms instead of producing equality has polarised groups who see themselves as being usurped by an all neutralising economy. Women in cities and villages are presented as opposites with different interests.
In short one must be suspicious of any movement that speaks the language of those in power. Words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment’ mean nothing on their own but in conjunction with other things become powerful. Feminism is needed now as much as it was before. Women’s bodies are not playing fields of economic elitist powers.
Sonia Soans – is currently pursuing a PhD in Psychology in Manchester (UK). Her work focuses on the intersections of mental illness, gender, sexuality and culture and how they produce narratives which are tied to nationalism. Twitter id -@SoniaSoanspsy