What defines equality, after all?

Updated: Jul 05, 2019, 08:28 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello

We, the oppressed, must script our own emancipation, not the oppressors who only want to accommodate us in their world

What defines equality, after all?
Feminist stalwart Judith Butler says that "we've assumed that inclusiveness, diversity refer to an existing framework that continues to be the same, and so, what we want to do is make a racist society inclusive by including Latinx people or Black people, but it's still a racist society, and so forth and so on." Pic/istock

Rosalyn D'MelloFor those of you reading this in Mumbai, it might be hard to fathom the ecstasy of seeing and hearing the few drops that have begun to trickle down from the gradually crackling Delhi skies, considering how much rain you've witnessed over the week. But this afternoon the humidity was so intense that cooking felt like a self-inflicted form of torture. For days, we've been looking forward to any slight shift in the weather pattern, even the meekest sign of respite from the unbearable, sweltering heat. I'm listening to Etta James crooning, "I'd Rather Be Blind". I have spent the week reflecting on the past; on the screaming and wailing of prophetic female seers.

Etta concluded and I've decided I must listen to Nina Simone's "I Shall be Released". There's an eerie tonal similarity between the two songs. "I see my light come shining, from the West down to the East/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released," she chants. I feel the urgency of her words, the feeling of immanent liberation. The lyrics were penned by Bob Dylan, but as most of his songs go, like in the case of Leonard Cohen, they're often better interpreted by anyone other than him. In any case, when Nina Simone 'covers' a song, she infuses it with more semantic currency than intended. It's not that she pays homage to the original, or that she is even appropriating it, she simply transforms its core so that it now has a new heartbeat.

"I Shall be Released" is a song about hope, it's about an innocent person conscious of being trapped by a system, trying to convince the world he is not to blame — the perfect song for anyone who has known or suffered oppression, who is sure that reason and freedom will triumph over the imprisoning clutches of injustice. It's a song that not so secretly desires equality. But what is equality really? As feminists, the word lies at our semantic core. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it succinctly, "Feminist: A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes." Her definition is concise, relatable, and spot on. But what is left open-ended is the notion of equality.

This morning, in an attempt to distract myself from the humidity, I began to listen to an hour-long video on YouTube of two feminist stalwarts in conversation: Angela Davis and Judith Butler. They arrive at a point in their discussion where they're speaking about how capacious feminist ideology needs to be, and its link with the prisons.

"When we talk about intersectionality, we're trying to imagine a kind of analysis, a kind of movement where nobody gets sacrificed. We don't sacrifice race for political economy, we don't sacrifice sexuality for gender, right, we just don't do it," Butler says. Davis responds: "But it also means that the whole framework will have to be transformed." Butler replies, "I think the problem is that until now we've assumed that inclusiveness, diversity, all these watchwords, refer to an existing framework that continues to be the same, and so, what we want to do is make a racist society inclusive by including Latinx people or Black people, but it's still a racist society, or make a misogynist society inclusive by including, you know, so forth and so on. This is the dilemma that we confront when we think about punishment. This is why prison evolution is central not only with respect to the issue of re-imagining a punishment system but re-imagining society."

It was like she'd hit the nail squarely on its head. This was what lay at the heart of my discomfort with the film Article 15, that while it is well-intentioned, it is still the victim of an imaginative failure. It cannot go far enough in its ability to equally distribute agency to its protagonists. It comes across as a film for Brahmins about Brahmin privilege. And maybe that was what it was always meant to be. "I wasn't thinking of the Dalit community when I was making the film," director Anubhav Sinha told Devansh Sharma in an interview published on July 1. It's a telling admission, attesting to the fact that despite being good-willed, the film's director wasn't necessarily interested in accommodating the point of view of the oppressed. Davis would have laughed and offered a definition of how ideology is all about one's imagined relationship to equality.

This is why we who have known historical oppression must wrestle for control over our narratives, and find ways to tell them that privilege our subjectivity. Because we know what it is like to not be considered, to suffer the purgatory of alienation and exclusion. It is we who must script our emancipation, not the upper caste, and certainly not the patriarchs. For they are, at best, only interested in finding ways to accommodate us in their deeply flawed, structurally compromised world. But we must invest our energies in rebuilding the very frameworks of what we call our society. This homework must begin with radically re-examining of the meaning of equality.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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