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Catharine MacKinnon: Women’s refusal to be subordinate is beautiful

Radical feminist and lawyer Catharine MacKinnon speaks about sexual harassment and the indomitability of women's self-respect

Catharine MacKinnon. Photo: Getty Images
Catharine MacKinnon. Photo: Getty Images

Literature intersects with current affairs, philosophy, cricket, cinema, economics and theatre at the ongoing Tata Literature Live! LitFest in Mumbai. The four-day festival, which is discussing a range of burning issues, looks at the world through the lenses of Nobel laureates, writers, economists and intellectuals. This year’s edition features names such as Thomas Friedman, A.C. Grayling, Nayantara Sahgal, Margaret Drabble, P. Chidambaram and Muhammad Yunus, discussing a gamut of subjects from the politics of nationalism to the politics of satire, from the continuing relevance of George Orwell’s dystopian vision in 1984 to the challenges of living in a post-truth world, and from grass-roots development to the books that inspired writers to take up the craft.

Lounge caught up on email with Catharine A. MacKinnon, one of the US’ leading feminist scholars, a lawyer and an academic. She will be at the festival for a panel discussion on sexual harassment, titled “No Means No", on Sunday. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You were talking about sexual harassment way before the domino effect of the Harvey Weinstein scandal focused global attention on the subject. The fact is that sexual violence is something women experience irrespective of caste, culture or creed and struggle against on a day-to-day basis. How does one go forward from this point?

Many women, and men who oppose sexual harassment, are engaging the conversation on the best way forward at this juncture of change. The fact that sexual harassment affects all women does not mean that it affects all women in the same ways, or that all women are equally vulnerable to it. But it is true that women are subjected to pressures to deliver sexually in order to survive or advance economically, educationally, and in their work generally.

The challenge is to capture the consciousness that challenges this abuse in any and all of its forms, in institutional forms, in changes that cannot be taken away when individuals are picked off or the illusion that the problem has been solved makes some spectators once again more comfortable. My own view is that the most effective approaches, given that much of this abuse is already illegal, are specific to the norms and institutional forms of specific sectors. However, it needs to be recognized that underlying all of it is the normalization of prostitution—the notion that it is acceptable that women are used for sex in any form in exchange for benefits they should receive without having to provide sexual consideration.

Is there a way for writing to be truly ungendered, and do you think literature can help further the cause of women’s rights?

Of course literature can help further women’s rights; it has. However, it is not considered a potential value for any social characteristic other than gender to be absent from writing. Men are not generally told to write in a less masculine fashion. There may be pressures to write without ethnic experience, but in white supremacist and formerly colonized places, that amounts to writing to a dominant standard set by dominant groups. Are writers told not to write so black, and if so, is this regarded as advancing African American rights? The question seems to consider “truly ungendered" writing as furthering the cause of women’s rights. It can as well obscure the realities of subordination based on gender by reaching towards an illusory neutrality.

Do you think we also need to start having conversations beyond the heteronormative discourse on sexual harassment?

The conversation on sexual abuse and sexual harassment has long extended beyond heteronormative discourse. Even on the legal level, which is often the last to catch up, it has been established decades ago that a man sexually abused by men at work has a claim for sexual harassment based on gender. There have long been cases brought against gaybaiting and homophobic attacks at work as gender-based, a few successfully, although there should be more of them. The question has been where the organized movement for gay and lesbian rights would stand on these issues. The answer has increasingly been that they stand against the abuse, and realize that it is based on gender. This argument contends that discrimination against gay men and lesbian women is already prohibited as discrimination based on sex, wherever sex discrimination is prohibited.

Women’s inequality has been a problem you have tried to address through your work and your book, ‘Are Women Human’? You answered this question in the negative, citing examples across geographies and over time. Is there anything at all that we can celebrate as women?

Anytime women stand up against inequality, especially sexual inequality, is cause for celebration. Women’s refusal to be silent and subordinate, and their insistence on standing with each other, is beautiful. The indomitability of women’s self-respect and refusal to be controlled by fear is inspirational. The critique of gender generally as a rigid straightjacket and unnecessary system for distributing power and worth, is spreading. The fact that more and more men stand beside us every day, and are articulate about why, refusing toxic masculinity, repudiating it with revulsion, is another revelation.

An exception to the Indian Penal Code decriminalizes marital rape, especially if the wife is not a minor. And while several women’s rights groups have filed petitions to amend this exception, the road ahead seems quite rocky. What, according to you, can one do to facilitate a change in law and attitudes?

The attitude that women’s sexuality is owned in marriage by her husband, so that no amount of force and no lack of desire for sex makes a sexual incursion against her be legally seen as a sexual assault, is a bulwark of male supremacy. Although the ideology that women are possessed in marriage for use is widespread across cultures, the specific form it often takes in law followed the British empire. It is unequal, a blatant and violent discrimination against women based on their sex. Legalizing sexual assault is shameful. No country that has ratified Cedaw (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women), far less a country with sex equality guarantees in its constitution, should permit, or be permitted, a marital rape exemption, in which the degree of intimacy is the degree of impunity.

What purpose do you think the #MeToo campaign serves and do its repercussions go beyond the regular social media confessions or slacktivism?

The #MeToo explosion reveals the extent, abusiveness, and trauma of sexual violation. It exposes in public what had been suppressed.

Tata Literature Live!—The Mumbai LitFest is on till 19 November at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai. Catharine MacKinnon will speak on 19 November, 3.30pm, at NCPA. For the full schedule, visit here

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