An Egyptian memoir and an Indian movie: solidarity across boundaries, and feminism

by snowden1984

Morges is a little town on lac Léman, even more tranquil on Sundays, when most establishments of commerce are closed. A walk by the lakeside on a mild winter afternoon in charming company, discussing the significance of the vain but pretty rose in de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Le petit prince’, sated by a home-cooked brunch, and with no matter of immediate urgency pressing upon my consciousness, one could well subscribe to the notion that all was well with the world.

In another elegant Swiss town, the Canadian Prime Minister, famously aware of which year he finds himself in, encouraged people to not be afraid of the word ‘feminist’. I would have ignored this snippet, one amongst hundreds churned out weekly by the media houses of our times, had I not just finished reading Laila Abou Saif’s memoirs. The work started off with a quote from a religious book, “Men are in charge of women” – this was surprising, but I persevered. She writes in a style most credible, and paints images that excite and move, as she describes her adult life in Egypt, with its political and religious turmoil, and her education in the U.S.. Her descriptions of how, for many Egyptians, being born meant poverty and hardship, resonated with me. However, in spite of the many disadvantages and injustices she faced because of her being a woman, she did not consider herself a ‘feminist’ for the longest period. I too had always disliked the term ‘feminist’, for it seemed to imply an angry person who looks with disdain at the suffering of humans in general, and focuses only on those aspects that have to do with gender. At least after her book, I now believe that feminism is a good thing – as is anger, anger at injustice, for it is proof that one is a human being. The anger can then be harnessed to change the established order of things – if the danger of ressentiment can be avoided, as Nietzsche rightfully warns. Also, every onslaught against injustice is to be lauded – and some problems are intimately linked to the ordained role of the female of our species, as also, indeed, to her genitals and physiology; those too we must solve, as we deal with the other myriad examples of oppression.

The Wikipedia article on Mr. Azmi suggests that he was an Indian lawyer who was twice arrested as a teenager, spent time at a militants’ training camp in Pakistan, and was imprisoned for seven years on terrorism charges before being acquitted by the Supreme Court of India. He then studied law, and went on to successfully defend many accused under anti-terrorism laws, before being assassinated at the age of 32; the 2013 movie Shahid recounts his story. Watching part of the film on Netflix this weekend, three scenes revealed certain aspects of contemporary Indian society. The first is only a few seconds long, and shows a mother sharing a single bedroom with three of her adult children – the notion of private space cannot exist, one is never alone. What must this do to ideas of human dignity, when one is forced to think only in terms of the mass, and never the individual? The second depicts a young man visiting a police station, where he must beg. To be compelled to beg before uniformed men carrying instruments designed to cause violent pain and death. Where one scarcely speaks a common language in which one can express the complex ideas of fraternity, security, dignity, justice and freedom? To be met with callousness and confounded by arbitrariness – and all this merely because one happens to be just a human being, and not one with wealth, or clout with the establishment. The third one is set in court, where lawyers shout at each other in a room where slowly revolving fans try to counter the oppressive heat, and the accused looks more like a rat than a man. The testimony is shocking in its naiveté and cruelty, and the two advocates haggle like onion sellers in a caricature of an Eastern marketplace – even though a man’s liberty, already curtailed for years, hangs in the balance. The prosecution unabashedly asks for a sentence more terrible than death, confirming the barbarism of older times. These three scenes reflect the fate of millions of Indians; and it is entirely conceivable that many more are condemned to an existence even duller. Cajal noted with distaste how the houses of his native village in Spain did not even pretend to decoration, to declare through the simple device of embellished front doors and windows that life was worth living. More than a century has gone by, and this is far worse.

Given this, how could any civilized, free person not understand why someone from this shabby situation would not attempt to bring about change – either by breaking the state of oppression and inequity, or by becoming one of those who dominate, or by escaping? The images mentioned above describe modern India, a nominally free, democratic society, and one not technically in a state of war, where the qualifiers ‘nominal’ and ‘technical’ are vital to accuracy. Mexico too is free, but they shot dead a newly elected mayor in her own house, presumably because she refused to accept the status quo. A state of open tyranny and war must be worse – and therefore the case of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, or, indeed, from any part of the world where human beings are not allowed to live in dignity, and to access the cultural and scientific resources of mankind, is straightforward; it is easy to understand why some flee. One may dislike the customs, languages and the unshaven, unwashed visages of the hordes seeking assistance, but one cannot dispute the validity of their reason for the exodus.

One of the dissenting arguments is that these hordes are indolent, and make the one-off adventurous journey in order to secure a lifetime of gratis food and shelter. This claim is backed by the fact that there are many Indians who live in luxury, and Arabs who dwell in palaces, that women have made it to the highest political offices in the democracies of the Third World, and that one of the five richest tycoons is a Mexican. The apparent conundrum lies in the fact that nationality, religion, ethnicity, language group, and gender are extremely broad categories. Within them, we shall easily find examples of individual human beings living along the gradient of liberty and dignity – at the extremes, the fat cats and those whom they crush underfoot.

The point is solidarity – solidarity which stretches across the boundaries of nationality, religion, ethnicity, language group, and gender, and has to do with the fates of individual human beings. In doing so, our established notions of what it means to be a woman, the behavior one may expect from an Arab, the taste of an Indian in music, and the elegance of a French-speaker, will change. This is not too bad a thing.