Where do I look for an early example of what a woman’s anger can do? Being Tamil, Kannagi comes to mind—angered that her husband had been unjustly executed by the king—she burns down Madurai. The epic Silappatikaram speaks of how she plucked and flung her left breast, cursing that the city be reduced to ashes. To me, this is a woman’s rage born out of her body. Her body becomes a bomb, rage becomes a quest for justice that smashes an oppressive, unjust structure.
Long before we started calling it #MeToo, women under military occupation were tapping into this collective rage to organize themselves. The mothers of Manipur marched naked to protest atrocity—with the banner ‘Indian Army Rape Us’, they are the earliest Kannagis in our midst. In cultures used to collective shaming, women becoming warriors is a historical inevitability. Tamil women of Eelam subjected to rape by Indian peacekeeping forces ended up weaponising their woes, as do Adivasi women hunted down by paramilitary in India’s infamous Red Corridor. The Western-adjacency of our societies means that we do not recognise history until she makes an appearance wrapped up in hallowed hashtags.
Rage is the aftermath of the unspoken knowledge that the speaking out started long ago. Perhaps it existed forever, but the listening came about only when it was women like us. So consumed are middle-class women in our bourgeois exceptionalism and painstakingly borrowed individualism that when we heard these voices, we followed them as human-interest stories, never turning the mirror towards ourselves. The mirror was the terror from which we learnt to hide.
Rage is also what remains after failure leaves us embittered. It’s the knowledge that our society recognises some stories, shoves others away. Rage is what remains as we are betrayed, as we watch older, Brahmin feminists rally around for “due process” when a Dalit woman, Raya Sarkar, compiles a list of sexual harassers in Indian academia.
Rage follows the scandalous shock of realising how scantily working class women’s issues are viewed—how under the rubric of the “larger” class struggle, leftists would have them subsume their bodily autonomy and their sexuality, and pretend that #MeToo is not a concern within the universe of the proletariat. Marxist comrades, any working-class woman would be outraged at how you infantilise them, rob them of their individuality and do the agenda setting on their behalf. The women are coming, marching for bread and roses, marching against the rampant sexual harassment on shop floors and factories, and inside your hallowed trade union structures too.
I rage against the left because I’m a Marxist, because I feel betrayed. The ferocious flash strike by female garment workers in Bengaluru single-handedly safeguarded the right to access employee provident funds. Protests by female retail workers in Kerala led to changes in the law that put an end to the practice of women workers not being allowed to sit while they worked. The strikes by Pembilai Orumai—the all-woman union of tea plantation workers in Munnar— happened in a landscape where trade unions were an exclusively male bastion. I’m enraged because though the biggest workplace movements in my country in recent times have been led by women, the left still hasn’t got the guts to give a feminist face to the class struggle. Continuing to sneer at #MeToo as a middle-class woman’s protest, and simultaneously ignoring working class women’s leadership at the workplace—there is a great urgency to call out the misogyny of the left and to call on it to change radically.
I rage as I write this, but it is not my condition alone, this seething awareness that the time we collectively spend in calling out the misogynists in our midst—is time that I, we, must be investing in creative practice. Every cis and transwoman and marginalized artist will agree that time spent in this crusade is time spent away from the making of art. Knowing that to keep silent is to dig our own graves, and to speak out is to pay the price of ostracisation—we need to channel our inward anger towards smashing the patriarchy and dismantling these structures of gatekeeping that demand our very flesh. Art will appear to suffer and be sacrificed, but ultimately, it is art that will emerge from our struggle. And blood-ridden like afterbirth, it will herald a new life.
Illustration by Amaaya Dasgupta