Some books are easy to read, yet stay with you long after you've finished the last chapter. Nivedita Menon's Seeing Like a Feminist (Penguin/Zubaan, 2012) is a timely work that explains a complicated subject without over-simplifying it.
When one "sees" the world like a feminist, Menon writes in her introduction, it is like "activating the 'reveal formatting' function in Microsoft Word. It reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete."
Reading Seeing Like a Feminist made me think: what if we all, especially in academia, thought like feminists? What would the world look like then? To be a feminist is to understand the position of the powerless, as Menon writes, "to imagine occupying the marginal, relatively powerless position with reference to every dominant framework that swallows up the space at the centre."
Menon is a professor of political thought at Jewaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. whose previous books include Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (2004). She divides Seeing Like a Feminist into six main chapters: Family, Body, Desire, Sexual Violence, Feminists and Women, and Victims or Agents. Menon relates each of this big issues to a simple dynamic: choice.
The book is definitely aided by Menon's position as a woman who has lived with India's legal and cultural systems. As she points out, the Indian penal code criminalizes sexual activity that is "against the order of nature" (whatever that means). Menon's perspective is powerful, precisely because it is based on feminist scholarship and debates in what she calls "my part of the world." She highlights many non-Western assumptions and goes beyond other Zubaan books that have a historical focus. The book looks "directly on the gendered nature of power."
In the end, like Rainer Maria Rilke's quote on loving the questions themselves, her aim is not to provide answers, but new questions. Menon wants each to shift her or his lens. To see like a feminist is "not to stabilize, it is to destabilize. The more we understand, the more our horizons shift."
If only Seeing Like a Feminist was required reading for all college students—and professors.
Read the rest of this guest blog series on feminism in academia.