Paromita Vohra: Now you see us, now you don't
As the year was ending, and feminism was declared word of the year, an interesting boo-boo happened
As the year was ending, and feminism was declared word of the year, an interesting boo-boo happened. A national newsmagazine interviewed eight comics for a cover story on comedy, only one of them a woman (Aditi Mittal). The cover featured caricatures of 7 comics. The missing one, was the woman. It reminded me of doing interviews for Q2P, my documentary on public toilets and gender. A man explained to me why there was no women's toilet near Dadar station, though there was one for men with, "auraton ko jagah zara zayada lagti hai na" (women require more space while peeing, so no ladies loo). Space taken up by women is always zara zyada, peeing or being.
Words like feminism, woman achiever, victim, patriarchy, rape, misogyny vaghera would have appeared several times in this particular magazine through the year – as they (rightfully) do in many media outlets now. The flip side of something becoming a trend, is it also acquires some easy-to-pick-up stock phrases, yaniki rhetoric, which get used for gender-cred or whatever other marginalisation-cred (it's like reading the reviews instead of the book – enough for a party conversation) without seriously questioning how sexism is played out and endorsed structurally.
For instance, this past year I have been invited to many events where the topic was, roughly, women. One such party said they wanted to show my film. "Which one?" I asked (I've made a few). The young woman said, "I'll rely on your expertise." Which, it was revealed, meant she had no idea about my work. I wasn't offended. Boss, I'm a documentary filmmaker, I'm realistic. If ten people not related to me know my films, that's good. Come to think of it, if ten people related to me do, that's also quite good. But I was puzzled. Why, invite me, if she knew nothing about me? She requested five minutes to Google, which, made me giggle (#sorrynotsorry). I declined her invitation. Imagining I was offended (sigh), she proceeded to convince me of her admiration by saying I was 'brave'. Very mysterious. I toh don't even watch Salman Khan movies for fear that my sensibilities will collapse.
But 'brave' is a handy adjective nowadays. Brave, bold, courageous. Just add water and, your feminist drink is ready. Brave starts sounding kinda cute – like Kick Ass Barbie. The conversation ended badly, with the young woman thinking I was horrible for suggesting that knowing nothing about a woman's work might not be the best way to honour one. That's roughly what happens when you point out these things. You get seen as churlish, arrogant, not grateful, acting above your station, yaniki, aukat. The truth is, it is more likely that a male colleague (even less good-looking than I) will be on a magazine cover for talking about sex, than a female colleague (or, well, me – but see, I didn't want to say it because… aukat).
Any way I look at it (and I mean I, not someone else), I've had luck and opportunity. As an artist I do consider myself lucky. As a woman – should I have to? Being a woman ignored was more fun in a year without the ready-to-eat rhetoric. As Umberto Eco wrote in an essay on Ur-fascism: "freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric." 2018, say you'll give us that in the happy new year.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com