a bimonthly publication of
the forum of indian leftists

Volume 1: Number 1                    May 1, 1997

In this Issue...
Disciplining the Mother Jude Fernando
Facilitating Genocide Niraj Pant
Gendered Boundaries Richa Nagar
Intervening Carefully Ashwini Tambe
Debate: Politics of Resistance Shishir Jha
Foil Briefs

The Beauty Contest and the Politics of Resistance Against Liberalization

Kavita Philip and Priya Gopal

Feminist activism, or even simply activism with regard to women's issues in India, has always had complicated history, situated as it has been between histories of Western imperialism and the histories of Indian reaction and right-wing movements. For this reason, even the history of women's emancipation and legal empowerment often has much to do with protectionist discourses of female modesty (e.g., the rape or anti-pornography laws, which define sexual violence in terms of "the outrage of modesty") or restrictive and conservative ideologies of the goddess/strong mother (e.g., women politicians like Indira Gandhi and rabble-rousers such as Sadhvi Rithambara). In this context, progressive activists on women's issues have had to fight to distinguish their position from these without losing the issues altogether. In the best of instances, they have linked questions of gendered oppression with other issues such as caste, class, and, more recently, sexuality. The recent "Miss World" contest was another instance where feminists were called upon to apply the toughest of distinction-making skills and work out a critique of the contest with an awareness that they had dangerous and unwanted allies -- elements on the right and left who were coming together in defining the problem as one of a Western infringement of Indian-ness and Indian womanhood.
Just why at this stage in India's economic history and "integration into the global order," are Indian women gaining cachet as "global beauties"?

To a large extent, feminists in India found themselves floundering in this attempt given the complicated conundrum of unwanted allies as well as friends who weren't quite getting it. Just why at this stage in India's economic history and "integration into the global order," are Indian women gaining cachet as "global beauties"? So what, beyond the usual business of "women's objectification," might a feminist critique of beauty contests, especially large global extravaganzas like the "Miss World Contest," look like? To be sure, women are being objectified. And, no doubt they are participating in their own objectification. However for feminists, contrary to some reports in the Indian media, neither participation nor winning qualify as empowerment of Indian women. Feminists, of necessity, must give careful consideration to questions including:

What are the consequences of this paradigm of Abeauty@ for women=s bodies and subjectivities? How is the consumption of the female body by these new, highly visible paradigms related to a devastatingly violent consumerism that is intrinsically linked to the exploitation and extraction of labor?

We must criticize continuing cultural imperialism, never unconnected from economic imperialism, without succumbing to use the simplistic and dangerous binaries of 'tradition' and 'modernity' or "Western" and "Indian." The couple, tradition vs. modernity, for instance, is not merely some harmless, simple heuristic. It is in fact a gateway to two divergent sets of frameworks, each embedded in a socio-political framework that is anathema to a left-progressive agenda. Similarly, the 'Indian vs. Western' dichotomy either ignores the ways in which western capital has penetrated India for centuries, or fails to notice the qualitative shift in the (representational and economic) violence of its penetration from the 18th century on.

When we question the efficacy of legacy academic distinctions, we also need to engage in a radical questioning of our own agendas. In particular, there is the need to critique traditional left formations for the way in which they have incorporated gender, caste, and race issues. In this context, our continued usage of terms like "the left" and "progressive" (even while joining in the task of redefining their scope) does not connote that their meaning is somehow self-evident. It simply marks the absence of some better way of speaking about the core principles of a left agenda (including, but are not restricted to: a critique of capitalism, a commitment to liberatory theory and praxis, and a retrieval of our agency and subjectivity from the exploitative local and global systems) which is our own.

The left in India has been criticized for 'rigid' agendas that are either increasingly 'irrelevant' to the 'people' or totally oblivious of the pragmatics of Realpolitik. The Beauty debate suffered this same fate. Leftists were labeled as cultural, presumably for denying the 'joys' of feminine consumerism to the female half of 'the masses.' The epithet of political purism was hurled about, presumably for their denial of the 'necessity' of coalition-politics.

There are many issues here, and we will quickly outline some responses:

The issue of the ludic joys of consumerism: Here we must insist that those on the left read their Marx. His analysis of reification, of commodity fetishism, and of alienated labor form the basis for socialist-feminist critiques of consumerism. This is not a denial of the psychic complexity of the ways in which commodification actually operates. For to stop here would be to leave the job of critique incomplete. The task of understanding the specifics of how capital works in particular contexts cannot be complete without thorough critiques of films, novels, urban and rural space, the human body, and other signs.

The issue of coalitions: While recognizing the imperative to make 'on-the-ground' pragmatic decisions in the heat of the struggle, so to speak, we nevertheless abjure the simple privileging of empirical/concrete activism over conceptual/ abstract theorizing. This, like other dichotomies, reduces both processes - activism and theory - to caricatures of themselves, precluding a dialectical interaction which is the left ideal. For us, every practical/pragmatic decision to join forces with another group requires critical reflection on goals, methods, and the objective interests of both groups.

The issue of the state: Again, we note that all coalitions are not necessarily enabling or liberatory. Recall that while we implicitly assume the State's accountability to its national constituencies, multi-national corporations, in contrast, want a State that is willing to be the MNC's pawn against unions and grass-roots resistance to commodified forms of globalization. Thus, in building coalitions we must look beyond our immediate goals, and be wary of forming coalitions that may end up playing into the hands of MNC's.

It is necessary to be able to recognize the material underpinnings of representations of women, both in situations like 'beauty' contests and in cultural texts such as cinema and mythology, and criticize them without simply romanticizing the "local" or demonizing the "foreign." At a time when our agendas are being distorted and appropriated by anti-progressive forces like the BJP and the KRRS, we cannot afford to shy away from a political arena simply because these reactionaries may be mistaken as our partners. In fact, it is precisely for this reason that we must strengthen our own struggles while sharply distinguishing our critiques from opportunist ones that simply re-circulate tired dichotomies of tradition vs. modernity or Indian vs. foreign. The task at hand is to elaborate a systematic and robust critique which aids in our dual agendas of fighting economic inequalities and gendered disempowerment by simultaneously exposing the nexus between transnational capital and 'beauty' on the one hand and Hindutva and patriarchy on the other.

To sum up, we support free, open, critical and even adversarial discussion within left contexts, with a view to clarifying the modes of left analysis and praxis in the context of gender, caste, national, and global politics. Left critical positions should be articulated in careful contradistinction to conservative (whether traditionalist or free-market) agendas that seek to co-opt them. Our critique of Left Party-politics should be critical and constructive, recognizing that cadres often have different positions from the Party leadership, while our critique of MNC's and other forces of global commodification should be critical, uncompromising, and firmly oppositional.

[Kavita Philip is an Asst. Professor at Georgia Tech. Priya Gopal is a doctoral student at Cornell University.]

[Editors Note: In the next issue we will carry two more responses to the beauty contest debate: by Subhir SInha/ Rashmi Varma and Sanjay Anand]

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