What a beautiful coup it was to watch unfolding online: the head of a platform on which women and minorities face daily abuse, unwittingly holding a poster with a radical slogan. If only Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, had held the words “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” above his head, and truly understood and endorsed them. But at least he held the poster visibly enough, in a photo that was shared the day after a closed-doors meeting he had with feminists in India. When you consider the angry backlash that came afterwards, you appreciate just what a coup it was for Sanghapalli Aruna to give Dorsey this poster, and then for him to not just pose with, but post it! Yes, the slogan is radical. But why? It should not be. It should be natural and logical. It may not be intuitive, given the extent of conditioning that many people must consciously undo, but it can at least be learned. It should be as vital as the green recycling symbol, as ubiquitous as the new rupee sign, as catchy as “Horn Ok Please”. Unfortunately, we’re still at a stage where its very meaning needs to be explained.
As Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the artist behind the 2016 poster that Dorsey held, explained succinctly, during the ensuing controversy: “Brahminical patriarchy refers to the interlocking system of caste, gender norms and rituals under Brahminic tradition that enforce caste through women and their reproductive function.” The phrase is not some shiny new hashtag event, and has been in use for decades in the works of a number of intersectional activists and thinkers. The concept itself, with or without the exact phrase, is in the foundational ethics of many more. In even more simplified terms, and in terms that directly call for action, it’s this: the only meaningful kind of feminism in India is a feminism that jointly tackles the caste system.
Feminist discourse has evolved to a place of intersectionality, requiring that other inequalities are also a part of conversation, from acknowledgment through to action. Class, race, sexuality, the environment, post-coloniality, anti-capitalism – these are some of the intersections. We cannot deny that the Indian variant of patriarchy (and to be fair, just as there are different strains of feminism, there are different strains of patriarchy, but here we speak of the most powerful form) is deeply interlinked with caste. Caste cannot be maintained without the policing of reproduction. And therein is the fundamental reason for all the controls on women and female sexuality that we experience in myriad forms in Indian society.
I can take it in good faith that Dorsey and his staff, even his Indian-origin ones, were ignorant of all the above when they needlessly backtracked and apologised for the poster. But that, above all, reveals how important this work is. Indians everywhere have managed to keep India’s most shameful, and shamefully thriving, system under wraps for a long time – obfuscating it, philosophising it, claiming other victimhoods when convenient. But no longer. That’s the beauty of this coup. It turned that conspiracy of denial on itself, making the most of corporate desire to look progressive. With just three sweet words.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 29th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.