31 October 2011

On ‘Asking for It’

Or some speculations on attraction and assault, with other considerations


To Jasmeen Patheja
Ajooni Bhogal


“There is, of course, such a divorce between theory and activism that you can’t but be struck by it...”

“Eh? As in?”

“As in, well, as in there’s such a huge gap, such a difference between feminist theory and feminist activism. It’s sort of obvious in a way too, but then I suppose that doesn’t make it any less surprising.”

“But they’re both connected, aren’t they? What I mean to say is, activism does spring from theory and they are both part of the same nexus.”

“Yes, of course they are, but that connection is intangible and unapparent for the most. That doesn’t mean that it’s negligible, no; rather, what I wish to imply is that even though it’s stupid to think these nexuses redundant just because they aren’t too visible, it is also, by trying too much to show they’re not redundant, likely that one may and indeed does forget that there is, after all, a great divide separating the two and, perhaps, having in that divide certain factors which make that gap more or less unbridgeable.”


“Well yes, isn’t it apparent? Take my favourite case, the campus feminist. They’re such a queer mix of theory and practice. Much of their theory is basic and so, in consequence, is their practice: mostly pretty zealous, self-righteous and moral in having that rhetoric of good. They’ll argue men and women are equal and bring in all the jingo of various emancipations to their aid, dreaming these sweet dreams of equal opportunities and no discrimination and splendid bosh of that sort. They’ll display a total and complete confidence in the goodness and merit of their cause and arguments and take, more often than not, dissidence as not just a personal insult but also a slight to their efforts towards the larger, universal betterment of humanity. It’s really funny how some of these people carry on.”

“I don’t know about that, but I think much of this is necessary in many ways. What else would you do anyhow if you were a feminist and wanted to make things and relations equal?”

“Ji, you would do this and more, I’m not denying that. All I’m saying is that when you do all these things, when you advocate male-female equality in terms of emotional, mental and physical economics, you necessarily have to rely on a vocabulary which needs must be repetitive and in some ways stunted. The campus feminist as I’ve come across her is just an example of this.”

“Ha! Of stunted vocabulary?”

“Oh no, well, not really, not how you’ve made it sound old chap. See, don’t you, that when you’re an activist you necessarily have to go the rounds, meet new people continually and bring them around to the cause, make them see that the cause is as much theirs as the person who’s missionary-ing to them. Activists are marvellous people in that sense and one admires their pluck and determination. I for one would get bored, as I know I do. It’s a bit like teaching too, you know, in that sense – having to do about the same darned thing every year with a new batch of potential initiate, patiently starting from the scratch again and anon and bringing people to your point of goodness and right.”

“Hmmm...yeah, that’s true. That does seem true...”

“Well of course it is! Isn’t it obvious how as an activist one has to persevere and work in simplified idioms whereas a theoretician can take flights of fancy far beyond the levels of consciousness any activism has reached and, indeed, can hope to perhaps? Because there are so many people and so much to be done, because the way we’ve lived and even do is so fully contrary to what might be thought desirable in this case, there’s no hope of activism ever reaching those levels of consciousness which theory can.”

“But then activism is always aware of these consciousnesses as you put them, aware of them and active in realising them through the work it puts in with people as partners.”

“Of course, of course, but you can’t deny that at some levels, or beyond some levels, that awareness is of little use. One can be both, activist and theorist, and seek to fuse the two, but that fusion, given the enormity of this task of do-goodery, is but just possible. Take this thing for instance. You can talk nice and well about these ideas of self and lack and what to do about them and how to go beyond them – which, by the way, is what I liked the most about that woman, it confirms what I’ve held most important for quite some time now – but you can do as much only with a learned audience, with people who would have some idea of what you’re talking about. You can’t go to lay people and expect them to get what you’re saying if you talk of all of this, can you now? And the aims which you’d have in the academia, the more directly intellectual challenges of figuring out how to make two plus two three and a half and keep on going beyond and abstracting everything to comparative purity, you couldn’t have such hi-fi aims when trying to improve the lot of common people. It’d be all bosh and baloney to them, all of this would be, and so even if you were both, theorist and activist, as I believe many of us are, – or at least style ourselves as – you would necessary have to keep the two separated when being the activist and think of commoner goals, simpler goals, things you could explain to people as having a visibly direct bearing on their being.”

“Hehe! Well, I’ve always said it’s better to keep things simple and present them, artistically of course, but in a fashion that would still make all the nuances comprehensible without bringing in any unnecessary complication.”

“Oh come now, not that bit about complications! You can’t avoid so-called complicated language at times, it’s just necessary and there’s no other way about it if you do want all the nuances to get across. But then that’s the point I’m making about activism, that as an activist you don’t, can’t, get all possible nuances of this thing we call feminism across to your bakre. You needs must talk about money-matter economics, about rights and so on. You know, the whole droll language of legality and rationality, that’s what you have to deal with and in when you’re being an activist. I can’t see any other way to it.”

“But what’s bad about that?”

“Oh, nothing bad, nothing bad per se, but just that while other concerns do often are beyond the realm of legality and human law, activism necessarily has to be framed within those contexts, it has to be couched in the rational logic of law and rights to vindicate its claims. You force people to be nice by bringing regulations against being unpleasant and hope by and by they’ll come across to not needing those regulations and will be nice of their own accord.”

“Legality, yes, it does force you to be what you mightn’t want to be. It is a dilemma in that sense, being good when you’d rather not be so.”

“Precisely. Activism will believe itself to be in the right, good as the word goes, and in its claims to press for that brand of goodness in all. I’ll venture another example, though, perhaps, the time and my own associations aren’t really too permissive of such, well, confessions as it were. But then it’s just you and me and between us we may look over the matter carefully without much prejudice.”

“Ahha! A controversy! Oh-ho-ho, let’s have it, what’s this new conspiracy?”

“Hehe! Well, no conspiracy, no, and I don’t believe myself important enough for my thinking so cause for a controversy. In any case, you know how our feminist-activist friends will tell us no woman ever asks for it, asks to be harassed i.e., and how instead of putting all the blame on women we should analyse the power structures and value systems which put blame in that place and skewer responsibility from men with that charming excuse that they couldn’t help it, the female was asking for it. I have pursued this point often enough myself...”

“That women ask for it?”

“Good heavens, no, of course not! No, that, you know, it’s not excusable in men and that women have the right to be what they will – dress as they will and so on, stuff of that sort. I’ve advocated this point well enough and I would if anybody were to ask my opinion on this matter of women asking for it. But, hmmm, well, for some time now, I’ve been slowly thinking whether or not there’s some fallacy in this argument, whether or not women do ask for it...”

“Shahhh! They don’t, don’t be ridiculous!”

“Oh come now, you wouldn’t relent a point without fully examining it, would you? Think about it, what is the basis of attraction in us humans? What has been the basis of your being attracted to the women you have been?”

“Well, many things, and at one time – I did tell you once, didn’t I? – I was thinking of becoming a...”

“Yes, yes, no, leave your particular example, we’d never get anywhere if we took your example! No, well, I don’t mean to be uncharitable, but see, what I wish to imply is that thing about love at first sight for instance – what is the basis for love at first sight?”

“You fall in love with the person as soon as you see them?”

“Yes, and what could you possibly be attracted to in a person to be fully bowled over by when you haven’t talked to them, don’t know what sort of a person they are?”

“What they look like, of course.”

“Of course indeed! Indeed, yes, what they look like. That’s more or less a purely physical attraction then, isn’t it? You see a woman – oh no, not you per se, you generically – on the road and like her and think her beautiful. Do you like her intellect or what she looks like? Of course what she looks like, you haven’t had a chance to even figure whether she has any intellect or not. That’s the basis for everyday attraction then, isn’t it? It’s been and is the basis for high romance and immortality, but it’s the basis for everyday attraction and friction betwixt the sexes too. What we feel beautiful is what we like, hmmm?”

“Fair enough.”

“Yes, and given that, wouldn’t you say clothing had a part in shaping our perceptions of beauty?”

“Not necessarily, not beyond a limit.”

“Of course, I agree with you perfectly. Of course not beyond a limit, but what is that limit?”

“Well, it would be different, wouldn’t it, different for different people, quite subjective a matter really...”

“Yes and no I would say, yes and no. Yes, because of course it’s incontestably subjective and no because even as it is subjective, there is, as there is to all subjectivity, commonality to it too. You and I here are too eccentric, but I think we may safely assume notions of beauty have some degree of commonality about them within certain cultural contexts. Fair and Lovely wouldn’t work if this wasn’t so.”

“Hehe, yes, true.”

“Obviously, for that being so, and ours being a globalising, post-enlightenment, consumeristic world, we can’t but have cross-cultural contexts and, in that sense, some universal notions of beauty.”

“Well, well, as you say, but that has nothing to do with women asking for it!”

“Calm down, calm down, nobody’s saying that – not yet at least. Why don’t you consider this, that notions of beauty being both subjective and objective, being both personal and communal, notions of decency and body shame too will be like that. Beauty, and more so attraction, is closely linked with body shame, with what is too indecent to be shown, with what can be risked to be shown now and then and with what’s perfectly decent to show. These notions are linked with perceptions of beauty and even as they are common within contexts, they have changed across contexts, especially across contexts of space and time. You will grant that perceptions of body shame must’ve been different amongst, say, so-called tribals – the jhingalala blokes of that Achebe’s Nigeria for instance?”


“Ohho, I don’t mean them any harm by that! Think of the point, that notions of body shame, and beauty by extension, must’ve been different in a context wherein both the sexes had little conception of clothing as we do now?”

“Hmmm, yes, that seems plausible.”

“And if plausible that is then so is the idea that with our current, commonly understood if not universally accepted notions of body shame, beauty, or attraction, will have to do with how much a female makes apparent of her body?”


“Note, I say makes apparent, not exposes. The two are linked and though the latter has more bearing on this matter than the former, it’s important to think in terms of makes apparent and not exposes right now. You can make apparent you have a figure you find beautiful, that you have, as they’re called, assets which are desirable, and you can then also, and I wince myself at the sheer vulgarity of this word as I put it here, expose. Wouldn’t these form a basis for attraction...”

“Yes, but don’t forget things happen regardless of whether you make apparent or expose. A burqa can be a tent and people have been done in in even them!”

“Yes, yes, I’m not denying that. Not more a moment am I denying that the impulse is the harasser’s. What I am proposing is that even as the impulse is the harasser’s, it’s not his wholly so.”

“Oh, don’t be disgusting!”

“Really now, my not saying it wouldn’t negate its possibility! I’m advocating the old pass-the-buck tactic in a different lingo, no I’m not. I’m more concerned, as somebody with pretensions to this so-called cause, with the validity of our assumptions. When we say women never ask for it, are we fully justified?”

“I think we are.”

“Oh goodness, do try being a bit less obtuse! You don’t have to stick to it just because it’s a nice point and keeps one comfortable! You’re bound, I say, to see what it’d mean from all possible angles and not just rest secure in your confounded complacency of being right! There can’t be just one simple right, you know! Think of yourself, you’re a man: if you weren’t really, desperately horny and sex-charged and had a selection of females of the type you like physically, whom would you be attracted to more, one in a bikini or in a salwar-kameez and dupattaoed to boot?”


“Oh shuck modesty, you’d of course see more and wish to see more of the bikini female for the first few moments, no matter how ugly you would later think her if the other woman’s face and features were more to your liking. Everybody would, I say, everybody would – notions of body shame and the basis of attraction being what they are, everybody would! Now, don’t you think I mean their thinking so, our thinking so, would justify an assault. It might provide the basis for such intentions, but we have the law and rationality to inhibit that sort of behaviour – or at least make it reprehensible and dangerous. I just say that meboy, just that and nothing else, that the basis of sexual attraction being what they are, when women do dress in certain, contextually determined ways which renders them attractive and beautiful just on the evidence of their bodies, they do ask for it in a way – ask not to be assaulted, perhaps, at least consciously, not even for attention, but they do provide the basis for attraction and the intentionality which springs from attraction. To be in possession of beauty, and not just feminine and sexual beauty, is a very strong drive in most of us and even though violating in order to possess is undesirable to an overwhelming degree, the intention is understandable in a way. One doesn’t condone the act, one wouldn’t, but one cannot but see where and how the idea comes from and that it does make some sense.”

“Well! Well, at least just on that plain, as an idea...”

“Of course, totally, totally, just that, just as an idea. It would dissolve our social order to admit it otherwise, to believe women do ask for it. They do and they don’t, but happily, even as there is the do, the don’t is always much the stronger dynamic.”

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