Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Feminism is Humanism. So Why the Debate?

While speaking on the topic ‘Reclaiming Language, Space and Body: Women Writing in Odia’ during the Second Literary Festival arranged by Samanvay at IHC, Delhi on November 4, 2012, I stumbled upon some strange reactions from some of my colleagues. This predisposed me to think how poor our ideas are in such areas. As the topic was related to ‘body’ and ‘women writing,’ I marked many of the participants mingled the term ‘body’ (or exactly to say ‘woman’s body’)with sexuality. And amusingly enough, they had very limited ideas about female sexuality.  As a result, the total discussion roamed round the merits and demerits of extramarital affairs.  It could have been so much more...

In my speech, I related, we have a very blunt idea about sexuality. Common people in India can’t think more than a ‘passion’ or ‘lust’ or ‘erotica’ or ‘pornography’ while relating the term ‘female body.’ But the term is more allied with social issues primarily affecting women in our culture such as birth control, abortion, the family, sexual discrimination and harassment, and rape.
In one of my essays discussing ‘discrimination with the female body,’ I have written, “In Asian and African countries, it's a regular practice to breastfeed girls for a shorter time than boys so that women can try to get pregnant again with a boy as soon as possible. In the case of adolescent girls, they are provided with less food than their brothers by their own mothers. As a result, girls miss out on life-giving nutrition during a crucial time in their development, which stunts their growth and weakens their resistance to disease.

Sunita Kishor published a survey report in the “American Sociological Review” (April 1993). In her article “May God Give Sons to All: Gender and Child Mortality in India,” she writes, “despite the increased ability to command essential food and medical resources associated with development, female children [in India] do not improve their survival chances relative to male children with gains in development. Relatively high levels of agricultural development decrease the life chances of females while leaving males' life chances unaffected; urbanization increases the life chances of males more than females...Clearly, gender-based discrimination in the allocation of resources persists and even increases, even when availability of resources is not a constraint.” Is this not gender discrimination as related to the body of a female?
(See: ‘Seeking a Voice for Open Questions About the Sexual Rights of Women’ from http://sarojinisahoo.blogspot.in/2011/01/seeking-voice-for-open-questions-about.html)

Reacting to my speech, one Kannad poetess Mamta G.Sagar commented, from the audience, she was opposing any feminist voice in literature and stated a writer should not be a feminist but rather a humanist. I clarified my position on how anyone could expect a discussion on the topic of ‘body’ wouldn’t reach the arena of feminism? And I also clarified my view that I think it’s a vague statement to say a writer should not be a feminist but a humanist. It sounds as if feminists are not humanists and the authors who believe in patriarchal milieu are the real humanists.

But after that seminar, when I tried to know more about Ms. Sagar, I came to know from Muse India that she likes to introduce herself for her work on Women and Gender politics. In her Wikipedia page, she mentioned she had acquired her Ph.D. degree in “Gender, Patriarchy and Resistance: Contemporary Women’s Poetry in Kannada and Hindi (1980-2000).” This moved me to write the following.


Am I a feminist? I’m actually uncomfortable calling myself a feminist, but not because of my perceptions of what feminism is or who’s eligible for the label. My regular readers know the reason why I find myself uncomfortable as I possess very different views from Western second-wave feminists regarding their beliefs on the feminists’ milieu. To me, femininity (rather than feminism) has a wonderful power.  In our de-gendered times, a really feminine woman is truly a joy to behold. She can unleash her own unique yet universal femininity by just being who she is rather than what some want her to be.  Isn’t that refreshing?  We are here for gender sensitivity to proclaim gender equality.  Do not man and woman compliment one another when one strips away the not-so-hidden agendas of those committed to quests of power and control?
‘Equality’ is a term which aims to rectify institutional racism/sexism/ageism etc. through affirmative action and has long been derided as being unequal treatment, in violation of the ‘one-rule-for-all’ principle. This equality is achieved when (and if) the law treats all individuals the same, without reference to their sex, race or age. This kind of equality leaves many ‘equalists’ happy, but still ignores the long history of discrimination against certain groups in society which leaves them in a disadvantaged position with no chance of carrying out their lives on an ‘equal playing field.’ On this approach, historical grievances must be acknowledged and rectified and a special effort must be made to bring these groups to an acceptable position in society. This approach is often accused of being ‘unfair,’ ‘discriminatory,’ ‘racist,’ or ‘sexist’ by some ‘privileged’ groups who began the controversy of feminism versus humanism largely for their own purposes and maybe not for the common good.

The French philosopher and social anthropologist Michel Foucault in his two books Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 makes few references to women or to the issue of gender and he calls his ideas of transformations in the nature and functioning of power as the theory of genealogy, which challenges the commonly held assumption that power is an essentially negative, repressive force which operates purely through the mechanisms of law, taboo, and censorship. Foucault named this as ‘juridico-discursive’ conception of power and according to him the term  has its origins in the practices of power characteristics of pre-modern societies. In such societies, he claims power was centralized and coordinated by a sovereign authority who exercised absolute control over the population through the threat or open display of violence. From the seventeenth century onwards, however, as the growth and care of populations increasingly became the primary concerns of the state, new mechanisms of power and control emerged which centered around the administration and management of ‘life.’ In the complex story Foucault tells, this new form of ‘bio-power’ revolved around two poles.

One pole was concerned with the efficient government of the population as a whole and focuses on the management of the life processes of the social body. It involved the regulation of phenomena such as birth, death, sickness, disease, health, sexual relations, and so on. The other pole, which Foucault labels ‘disciplinary power’, targeted the human body as an object to be manipulated and trained. (See ‘Foucault and Feminism’by Aurelia Armstrong. Link: http://www.iep.utm.edu/foucfem/)

Like other social anthropologists, Foucault believed the body and sexuality are cultural constructs rather than natural phenomena. But ironically, of those feminists who possess the same belief on socialization of gender as Foucault called out the philosopher for his misogynist theories. Jana Sawicki, who was known as Foucault ‘s strongest supporter, criticized Foucault’s theory of genealogy in her book Disciplining Foucaultas being ambiguous and a source of conflict and agreed he did not go far enough in their direction and address their concerns with the focus on women’s experiences on which feminism insists. She questioned: How can he say so much about sex and so little about women? Does his gender matter?

Judith Butler, another Foucauldian feminist, though influenced by Foucault‘s thinking of socialization of gender and body through Nietzschean genealogy, psychoanalysis, and Derridean discourse, overlooked the concepts of technology and strategy which form a key part of Foucault‘s thinking.

Foucault’s humanism is a ‘strategic rejectionism.’ According to him, humanism is also the legitimizing force behind a liberal democracy. It tells people that although they do not have power, they are still the rulers. In short, humanism is everything in Western civilization, according to Foucault, which restricts the desire for power; it prohibits the desire for power and excludes the possibility of power being seized.

I think critics who stand for humanism saying feminism is against humanism certainly support Foucault’s ideas of the rejection of humanism. Actually, the question of Humanism was first raised by the Italian philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) when he announced that "L'homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers" (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."). By saying this, Rousseau distinguishes between ‘abstract Man' and 'actual man' caught in their social positions of conflict.

Paul Kurtz, the founder and chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, has edited a book titled The Humanist Alternative, Some Definitions of Humanism (Published by Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY and Pemberton Books, London, 1973, 190 pages) where we see different authors find different types of humanism, such as: ethical humanism, religious humanism, atheistic humanism, heretical humanism, scientific humanism, naturalistic humanism, and just humanism (without any preceding adjective). Not all of these humanisms are different from each other but on the other side, this list of humanism is far from complete.Similarly Tony Davies, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Birmingham mentions "seven distinct sub-definitions of humanism" in the Oxford English Dictionary in his book Humanism, (published by Routledge, 11 New Fetter Lane, London). And similarly, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1792) or Thomas Jefferson's the Declaration of Independence (1776) all appeal to the abstract singularity and universality of Man.Humanism, then, posits a ‘timeless and unlocalised’ condition, which is Frederich Nietzsche's radical insight in his book Human, all too Human, where he writes, “all philosophers have the common failing of starting out from man as he is now and thinking they can reach their goal through an analysis of him. They involuntarily think of 'man' as an aeterna veritas, as something that remains constant in the midst of all flux, as a sure measure of things. Everything the philosopher has declared about man is, however, at bottom no more than a testimony as to the man of a very limited period of time. Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers.”

As a consequence, Foucault's humanism, or clearly ‘anti-humanism,’ must be seen as the developing part of Nietzsche’s idea of ‘historical philosophizing’ and with it, ‘the virtue of modesty’ by which Foucault  meant ‘a healthy willingness to resist temptation to confuse our own dispositions and values with some universal and eternal human condition.’ According to Nancy Fraser an American critical theorist, Foucault opposes humanism in the sense he does not support absolute government, or torture, or the violation of rights. Rather, what he argues is that such causes are not adequately supported or opposed by humanist liberal arguments. Humanism is a discursive myth, and notions of autonomy and self-determination are illusions of a liberal hegemony form of disciplinary government which fails to recognise the historical constitution of self hood  Such a discourse, in my view, is at odds with both reason and experience. (See: “Michel Foucault: A "Young Conservative?,” in Michael Kelly’s (ed.), “Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate.” Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 185-210)

Those who are pointing to the notion feminism is an anti-humanist activity somehow are frequently charged with a strong form of epistemological relativism. It is important to establish the connections precisely in order not to misrepresent feminism. Such a conception is not metaphysical in that it does not claim to derive from a source exterior to human beings in history. Feminism, on the other hand, should not be a war with men but at war with history—a history defined by a patriarchy so tenacious and entrenched, it feels almost dangerous to say the word aloud.

Because feminism is basically a humanistic philosophy and world view, it then must be understood in terms of humanistic ideals. From feminism’s primary concerns of equal rights, authority, and the sexual roles of men and women flow a significant number of social, political, moral, ethical, religious, and economic issues of importance to individuals, families, communities, and nations as a whole. Instead of the idea that man makes himself God, which is a core attribute of organizational humanism, we should continue our attempts to establish that ‘human’ (not man or woman only) makes ‘themselves’ God.
I wonder then how our so-called feminist authors could announce at an intellectual gathering feminism is not based on humanistic philosophy. Not only Mamta G.Sagar, but many of my colleague short story writers and poets support the notion feminism is an attack against humanism. Amazingly enough, these writers, from time to time, claim to be feminists and where there is a chance to benefit from feminism, they pounce on the opportunity to be part of it.


  1. nice blog...looking forward to many enlightening articles and thoughts here...

  2. Wonderful essay, very well thought out and responsive to contemporary debates on the nature of feminism.

    I am an American woman who has resisted the label of feminism for my whole life, while at the same time being active in fighting for equal rights for women and other minorities. For me, whether or not feminism is compatible with or opposed to humanism is not important. We need to move beyond humanism and see the world in less anthropomorphic terms. This is the great challenge of the 21st century. As long as we place ourselves above nature, we will continue to destroy our home. Without this larger perspective – that all life is sacred – we will not survive and it will not matter how we treat each other.

  3. Thanks Joyce, for your comments. I solely agree with you.
    Feminism has often been misunderstood as a bunch of stereotyped hysterical man-hating fanatics who seek power and control rather than true equality. It seems ironic that feminism has been characterized as anti-male, when in fact, it seeks to liberate men from the macho stereotypical roles men often have to endure such as the need to suppress feelings, act aggressively, and be deprived of contact with children. I think we should emphasize our femininity rather to impose the so-called stereotyped feministic attitude of the second wave.
    What’s more worsen in Eastern that some feminists are using feminism to make a suitable media for their identity though they have no any untainted idea about feminism. The participants in that seminar, though are invited as feminist authors and poets, but I have doubt if they are actually belong to that category by their concept s or they are feminist by craze.

  4. well-written. went through the blog. A large amount of hypocrisy dominates educated women regarding their viewpoint on female body. Rather they don't realize it denotes a wide range of socially and sociologically important aspects such as marriage, conception, child birth, breast-feeding, sexual relations, rapes, love affairs, and what not. Apart from these, as far earning women are concerned there are umpteen number of problem they confront, beginning from the household, trams and buses, office and boss, colleagues and their social connections and their impact on their spouses. All these problems will have to be addressed. This can be done only through a scientific, but bold attempts, possibly possible only through some feminist venture.

  5. You are right! It's not possible to be a humanist unless we are feminist.
    From my point of view, I don't want to be feminist cause I don't want to live in a World where there isn't equality or difference regarding women or men.But as you have stated with examples it is not possible to become unfeminist.

  6. topic for creative writers, interesting though for anyone to look in to and see where the context in question fits in to our modern literature. for example, one might argue that the context in question as mere a secular humanism, right? (while an other might argue that the ideological humanism is as if having their different interpretations in which the statusquo has its relevance, which is almost the prevailing orthodoxy of any mainstream ideology that history has known so far--not in a positive or negative sense but on where the context in question fits against other opinions)

  7. Very well argued n a subtle commentary on the so-called champions of women liberation twisting things to their purpose.There is much more than the female body that needs to be discerned by looking beneath the surface.Need of the hour.......more sarojinies.

  8. I did read the post at least 3 times. concepts being very well expressed, it was a pleasure to read it.
    I had never thought that there are thinking women who beleive that feminism is against humanism!!.
    Now a days it is a fashion to say that I am not a feminist, but a humanist, subtly implying that feminism courts a tint of extremism and aggressiveness.
    They quote anti- male slogans by some groups for evidence and women who talk and propagate the concept[ looks silly, to me] of a world of''Only Women's"!!!

    As u said, and i beleived, both man and women are complimentary to each other and are not codified as enemies
    And, as said, the war is not with men but with history, deeply wrought with patriarchy. and its perpetuating value system.

    I am quite happy that i am a woman and would not want to be a man because he has some socio-tical privilages because of the existing patriarchial values. That does not make him superior. What i want as a woman is sweeping changes in these existing values which provide equal playing fields and opportunities. > Which in return would result in great attitudinal change in the society

    I am at war with the discrimination meted to women just because she is woman.

    yes, I fully agree with what u are saying about the ''equality'' thing.Providing [if at all] equal playing grounds NOW wont be enough, since the factors which put women far behind in every sphere are not taken care of overnight or over years[that is why our fight is so long]

    But what is the remedy? Reservation?
    extra political measures to put women ahead?

    what are the practical measures in your opinion?.

    To think Feminism being not humanism , to say least, is absurd ,. Any fight against discrimination based on caste, creed. religion ,colour or gender has to be necessarily part of humanism .[in the existing parlance of the word] because humanism is based on certain proclaimed human values Feminism, dalitism,minoriy issues etc are of certain questions raised by the victims of discrimination , within the premises of humanism,, only because there the human values are challenged and violated.So there is no question of feminism not being based on humanism .it is humanism itself.

  9. Very much enlightening. I read somewhere feminism may be interpreted as a bid to extend membership in universal human nature, and hence eligibility for human rights, to that category of beings named women. This is the point conveyed by Mary Wollstonecraft's title: "A vindication of the rights of woman." Like many other Enlightenment radicals, Wollstonecraft asks thinkers to accept the imperatives of their own reasoning. In defining women as human beings, therefore, liberal feminism has not failed to define 'woman' in a consistent or rigorous manner; it has positively refused to do so.


  10. The total discussion roamed round the merits and demerits of extramarital affairs. Which shows that how we are familiar with this terminology and ideas? This is an example of literary class which you were in interaction. What about ordinary people which may be expert in their respective fields but they have no precise idea of humanism, feminism, feminist; you have also pointed out several flavor of humanism .e.g. ethical , religious , atheistic , heretical , scientific, naturalistic , and just humanism.
    It is very true what you have said “Feminism has often been misunderstood; It seems ironic that feminism has been characterized as anti-male, when in fact, it seeks to liberate men from the macho stereotypical roles”.
    Indeed our ideas are not changed significantly as what we are taught in early ages. When we discussed “open mindedly” our criteria remain the same what we were learned in early age.
    Breast feeding for shorter time to become pregnant to have a baby boy is widespread even in highly civilized societies, which believe that generation continues with male not male.
    “. As a result, girls miss out on life-giving nutrition during a crucial time in their development, which stunts their growth and weakens their resistance to disease.” Is really a key point if girls are brought up like boys and given equal opportunities then they will not become load to the society or for parents, consequently demands for equal opportunity in latter stage will not be needed as they are really equal to men? The desire for boys will significantly reduce. It is foolish and ridiculous act to produce a load consciously and planning and demand equal opportunity and called the humanism, feminism, feminity . Humanism is a misleading term or at least not correctly understood, no one give equal rights to weaker and powerful, it is not very different as begging.
    Sunita Kishor's article “May God Give Sons to All: Gender and Child Mortality in India,” is really very interesting and explains the situation in world and in underdeveloped world in particular
    Old wounds play an important role as mentioned “historical grievances must be acknowledged and rectified and a special effort must be made to bring these groups to an acceptable position in society.” But this question will arise when equal rights will be given; it appears to be very far away.

  11. Very well written and thought provoking ! When we say we want to be treated equal we are protesting against a lesser human treatment or in the words demanding to be treated an equal human , therefore I do not see why humanism shoud be temed as opposed to feminism . One doesn't come across male ism or man ism. Why is it so? Are men already fully qualified to be human that they don't need any isms to protect their human rights? I am legal professional & writer and some one who has boldly stood up against sexual harassment at work place - because I felt that as a woman, as a human I had a right to walk with my head held high