Towards the end of the 1980s, the Second Wave of Feminism—kickstarted in the United States in the 1960s—came under widespread criticism for focusing exclusively on the emancipatory concerns of middle-class white women. Women of colour began to emerge to prominence as activists and theorists in this period, seeking to reclaim the feminist movement from the narrowly defined goals of the decades past. One of the most important voices to emerge from this time is that of Gloria Jean Watkins—better known by her pen name, bell hooks, which she fashions in lowercase to emphasise her ideas over her identity.
hooks started writing on the overlapping roles of race, class, and gender in oppression as early as 1981—eight years before the term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by fellow Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw—and is recognised as widely influential for the ushering in of Third Wave Feminism.
The history of the feminist movement in India may have been markedly different from that in the west, but hooks’ analyses of gendered social divisions in her book From Margins to Center (1984) find enough parallels in contemporary India to serve as a guide for strengthening the way we visualise and practice intersectionality in our own context.
One of hooks’ most momentous contributions is her approach to defining the diverse movement that feminism is. She questions the popular definition of feminism as a movement to make women the social equals of men, citing it as reductive and dismissive of the prevailing social reality, given that men across race and class lines are not equal. In India, where caste dynamics involved in violent atrocities such as the events that took place in Hathras last year are habitually overlooked in favour of a hollow focus on crimes against all women that eventually benefits none of us, such a definition does not have much meaning to begin with.
Instead, hooks emphasises focusing on sexist exploitation at large—including heterosexism, hierarchical gender-sexual roles, and sexual exploitation—as it occurs across the intersections of race, class, and gender.
With regards to racism in the United States, she points out a tendency “to call attention to the ‘political correctness’ of current feminist movement” without directing efforts towards “an overall struggle to resist racist oppression in our society.” A parallel can be drawn with Indian feminism regarding attitudes towards caste, where many of us Savarna women often focus on guilt and personal behaviour towards Dalit and Adivasi feminists without participating in the resistance against caste oppression and discrimination rooted within the system.
According to bell hooks, feminism needs to focus more on the systemic roots of oppression.
hooks thus defines feminism as “the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race, or class [or caste] of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives”. She appends this definition by saying that an ‘anything-goes’ approach to feminism renders it meaningless and dilutes its strength. For her, feminism is neither a lifestyle nor a ready-made identity to step inside but a political commitment to a movement towards radical change.
What this means is that hooks does not see reform within the prevailing system as a goal of feminism, but as merely a step in progressing towards revolutionary transformation. While liberal reforms tend to have some positive impact on some women, hooks ascertains that the demands they make cannot be met adequately within a system that rests primarily on a politics of domination. The relevance of this becomes plain if we look at how little effect the existing dowry laws have on the actual practice and exchange of dowry in India—it is such because the legal framework can do very little to address the social mechanisms behind such practices. hooks notes that reforms that do have transformative potential are continually resisted because they threaten the status quo—that the issue around the Women’s Reservation Bill remains unresolved in the Indian Parliament is a case in point.
hooks’ conception of a sustained, mass-based feminist movement against domination is possible, and finds a hearty example in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh sit-ins that started in December 2019 and lasted for 101 days. These sit-ins, involving thousands of participants, were set apart from India’s bourgeoise upper-caste feminism, which, like white feminists in the West, makes women from marginalised groups “the objects of [its] privileged discourse,” i.e. inferior, passive unequals rather than active participants: they were organised by, and saw massive participation from, ‘lower’ class, often underprivileged, Muslim women who articulated their demands and protest with utmost vigour and clarity.
However, as Intifada Basheer writes in an essay for Outlook India that also refers to bell hooks; despite significant male attendance in the Shaheen Bagh protest, the task of creating a “feminist revolution” was ultimately left to the women both without, and crucially, within their domestic roles. hooks notes that tasks like organising a revolution are often assigned solely to women, in line with “the sex-role division of labour, the institutionalised sexism which assigns unpaid, devalued “dirty” work to women.”
While sexist socialisation does lead to such lack of male participation in feminist struggles, most contemporary feminist activists nevertheless depart from the 1970s women’s liberationist conception that all men are enemies of all women (revived today with the common phrase, “all men are trash”). Such expressions, according to bell hooks, further designate the idea of a feminist revolution as “women’s work”, reiterating the sexist binary while attempting to fight it.
hooks is disdainful of concepts like misandry and female separatism. According to her, all-women groups are indispensable for the development of awareness and solidarity. However, female separatism as an end is counterproductive as it sees male supremacy as an absolute which one can either surrender to or withdraw from completely—neither of which pose a threat to the status quo. Such separatism is further inaccessible to a mass of women who are dependent on men in their day-to-day lives; a community built largely on biological similarity or gender identity additionally serves to alienate transgender and non-binary folks.
Instead, hooks advocates a shared struggle between the sexes. Such a struggle sees the eradication of toxic masculinity—passed from men of the ruling classes to the vast majority of men in order to make women the scapegoats for their anger against the powers above—as one of the goals of feminism. “While it in no way diminishes the seriousness of male abuse, or negates male responsibility for exploitative actions,” she writes, “the pain men experience can serve as a catalyst calling attention to the need for change.”
Such an intersectional alliance must also conceptualise power differently. According to hooks, the idea of social equality with men often translates into seeking equal access to exercising domination over others. However, individual women’s strides in careerism do not change the facts about class exploitation of women in general. In fact, women as leaders within the current social structures often replicate the oppressive attitudes of the patriarchal system—as India’s former Union Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi’s stance on marital rape makes clear.
According to hooks, given that we are all socialised to see domination as power, women do not have an inherently different value system than men. It is thus unwise to assume that powerful women necessarily act in the interests of feminism by virtue of being women, especially if they come from privileged backgrounds—white and middle-class in hooks’ context, and middle-class Savarna women in ours.
In India, the co-optation of seemingly ‘feminist’ reforms and actions by ruling male groups can best be seen in our narrowly defined Rape Laws seeking the death penalty, as well as in the overall concept of ‘Women Empowerment’. As Nivedita Menon notes, the latter not only excludes people with diverse gender identities, but also seeks to turn women into allies of the state and agents of capitalist development—institutions that are built on women’s oppression. Not only are such government schemes often based on sexist ideas of women’s inherent altruism and self-sacrificing nature, they deliberately hold from addressing foundational problems of sex-role division of labour and sexual exploitation of women and non-binary people.
In India, as the aftermath of the Coronavirus lockdown, unemployment amongst women in India rose by 13% as opposed to 2% among men. This owes to a variety of factors including the sex-role division of labour, which influences women’s domestic lives and results in their employment largely in service jobs that are deemed ‘less valuable’ in a capitalist society.
According to hooks, an intersectional feminist struggle should note the role of both economic and psychological exploitation in the devaluation of women’s labour and make their eradication an important agenda of organised struggle, in order to bring the marginalised to the forefront and unite people across various social and gendered barriers.
bell hooks’ approach to a feminist revolution is both simple and radical: by shifting focus from achieving sexual or social liberation to ending all sexist oppression, she emphasises bringing about a change in social realities from the grassroots. Indeed, her ideas on intersectionality and feminist praxis—echoing Babasaheb Ambedkar’s motto to “educate, agitate and organise”—have massive potential for transforming the feminist struggle in a country as diverse as India.
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