Turning Feminism Into A Spiritual Quest

The power of love, or the celebration of a future society that values spiritual oneness rather than patriarchal divisions, is the ultimate source of resistance.

A mother helps prepare her daughter for marriage in New Delhi, India
Avijit Pathak*

NEW DELHI — No feminist, irrespective of the school of thought she or he adheres to, would disagree with the fact that it is a sustained struggle against the ideologies and practices of domination, objectification and self-curtailment. And it goes without saying that patriarchy – an inherently violent system based on an asymmetrical distribution of material as well as cultural resources, and a hierarchical duality of masculine versus feminine – sustains these three evil practices.

Yes, the aggression and privilege of masculinity in a patriarchal system allow men to have almost complete control over women's life-practices. Likewise, its sexual politics is centered on the objectification of women as symbols of desire, conquest and possession. Not solely that. As a woman is transformed into a role, a "protector of virtues' (say, as Vivekananda once articulated, "all-suffering, ever-forgiving mother"), or a docile object confined to the boundaries of what Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen aptly described as the "doll's house," it leads to a high degree of alienation making self-actualization almost impossible.

Instead, women are compelled to live with self-curtailment; with the burden of socially imposed and culturally constructed identities, it becomes exceedingly difficult to realize oneself, hear the call from within. While a brutal system humiliates the victim, it dehumanizes the victor who constructs French writer Simone de Beauvoir's "second sex" with the Freudian "penis envy," or Manusmriti"s woman with "carnal passions," and impure desires' to be beaten by her husband with "a rope or a split bamboo."

Does modernity have anything to do with patriarchy?

The irony is that it makes men "powerful," yet ethically/aesthetically/spiritually dull – completely incapable of experiencing what Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung described as "anima": rediscovering the hidden femininity, seeing eternity in the eyes of the beloved and thereby getting reduced into zero, becoming like an androgynous Krishna playing with the flute for hours, and realizing art in the everyday-ness of the world.

How is patriarchy sustained? A usual answer informs us that religion-centric/traditional/feudal societies have often retained the patriarchal structure; and feminism is, therefore, seen as a promise of modernity, its libertarian quest for individuation, liberty, equality and fraternity. However, I wish to ask yet another question: Does modernity with its scientism, capitalism and consumerism have anything to do with patriarchy? In fact, these three practices of modernity have not eradicated patriarchy; instead, patriarchy has become more ornamental, sleek and deceptive.

Yes, scientism is based on the principle of domination and control; its inherent instrumentality causes the violence of dualism: mind and body, reason and feeling, subject and object, value-neutrality and self-reflexivity and science and nature. This hierarchy has further reinforced the patriarchal violence – a "masculine" ideology of techno-scientific progress (sustained by the Baconian doctrine of knowledge is power, or the Cartesian notion of abstracted pure reason, and dispirited nature as an object of perpetual masculinist intervention) devaluing what the likes of Susan Hekman would have characterized as the "feminine" spirit of care and relatedness.

Likewise, capitalism, because of its very logic, transforms us into commodities; "commodity fetishism," Marx elaborated with great insight, kills the soul and symmetry of human relationships. As capitalism and patriarchy often work together, a man-woman relationship becomes heavily distorted. Its manifestation can be seen in the cult of consumerism, which, as Erich Fromm argued brilliantly, promotes a "having" mode of existence; everything has to be possessed, consumed and used as an object of instant gratification.

The popularization of pornographic culture through new technologies of mass dissemination of symbols and coded messages, the normalization of the "beauty industry" reducing women into mere outer appearance, and the neurotic obsession with sexual imageries in the promotion of sale-able items like cars, packages of shaving cream or bottles of wine: the cultural landscape does by no means indicate the arrival of any liberating consciousness. Well, none can deny that the new economy has enabled a section of women to come out of the domestic domain of "reproduction" and "care," and enter the public domain of "work"; the possibility of economic independence has enabled them to transcend many constraints imposed by the traditional patriarchy, and realize themselves as economically independent "working women" rather than dependent "housewives."

However, the new patriarchy, we should not forget, has created yet another source of oppression – sexual violence in workplaces, perpetual pressure on women to look "good," "attractive," "presentable" and "glamorous," and above all, the induced notion of pleasure as freedom from boredom in fleeting relationships of "liquid modernity" that dissociate sex from love, and further promote psychic violence of what Herbert Marcuse would have regarded as "repressive desublimation" causing obstacles to the path of a life-sustaining man-woman relationship.

Feminist Question: Love of Power, or Power of Love?

Through love, the dead man becomes alive.

Through love, the king becomes a slave.

– Jalaluddin Rumi

The critical voice of feminism, we know, subverts these practices of both old and new patriarchy. It opens our eyes to see multiple paradoxes prevailing in our times – female infanticide amid the celebration of the mother goddess, domestic violence amid glamorized wedding ceremonies, inflated dowry rate amid the glitz of consumerism, disparate wages for the same job that men and women perform, and continual reproduction of the images of women as "eat-able items' through the "popular culture" of the Honey Singh variety. And yes, as a movement and life-churning critical pedagogy, it gives immense confidence to women to come out of the trap of patriarchy, and rediscover themselves as human possibilities.

From the discourse of "rights' to the act of debunking socially constituted gendered ideals, from Lata Mani's nuanced reflections on the debate on Sati in colonial India to Uma Chakravarti's inquiry into what happened to the Vedic Dasi, from Vina Mazumdar's revealing report, Towards Equality, to the recent movement centered on Nirbhaya gang rape case, from the growing demand for an inclusive public sphere to the assertion of one's right over one's body and sexuality, or, to use Shulamith Firestone's words, the victory over "kingdom of nature": feminism is playing an important role in altering the way we look at society, culture, politics, sexuality and religion.

Vina Mazumdar—Photo: Payasam Mukul Dube

However, the question remains, is there something more that ought to enrich feminism? At this juncture, I wish to make a distinction between love of power and power of love. True, in a situation that is hierarchical and oppressive a moment comes when the oppressed in the process of their struggle tend to acquire power and seek to defeat the oppressors at their own game.

It is the beginning of a breakthrough.

This, to use Frantz Fanon's words, has tremendous therapeutic significance for gaining confidence, overcoming the frigidity of silence, and healing the wound of marginalization. It is like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's much talked about story, "Sultana's Dream," that takes us to a "lady land" where men are kept away from the public sphere and women rule the society. Not surprisingly, in popular feminism, the urge to prove that "we too can do it" is very strong; and hence, "successful" women are often defined in terms of the same discourse of power: a female police officer, a female warrior, a female pilot, a female prime minister, a female boxer, a female entrepreneur. This is what I regard as the love of power. It has its role. It is the beginning of a breakthrough.

But then, a mature struggle for liberation has to go beyond it, beyond this compulsive urge to prove that "we too are powerful like you"; instead, at its highest stage it alters this discourse of power, and seeks to liberate, as Gandhi imagined, even the oppressors from the rationale of domination. And this is possible through the power of love. And herein lies the spirituality of feminism.

While the love of power retains the duality by trying to make things upside down, the power of love transcends dualities. It unites; it breaks hierarchies, the walls of patriarchy, the logic of objectification, the violence of commodification and possession. This love emanates from a deep spiritual realization of oneness amid symmetrical differences, the flowering of the indivisible soul integrating the masculine and the feminine. This love is the ultimate power – the power of reciprocity and union, the power of mutual elevation, the power of dialogue amid differences in biology and life-choices, the power of spreading the enchanting ethos of androgyny in every sphere of work, be it cooking or gardening, doing physics or acting as the prime minister.

Yes, at its highest stage, feminism becomes spiritual in this sense, and hence ecological and communitarian. It invites men to have a new beginning, and cultivate their repressed humanity. It becomes an awakening that makes us see the hollowness of hyper-masculinity, the brutality of technocratic capitalism, the futility of militaristic nationalism and war, the trivialization of Eros and the shallowness of market-induced freedom: freedom to dress like a film star, freedom to remain perpetually restless, and freedom to buy, consume, use and throw away even relationships into the dustbin. The power of love or the celebration of a future society that values spiritual oneness rather than patriarchal divisions is the ultimate source of resistance against all that is ugly, be it rape or "honor killing."

Is it utopian? I call it a feasible utopia because its time has come.

*Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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