The Dissenting Feminist Voice in a Globalised Market Place

Abstract: The paper examines the status of the dissenting feminist voice in a globlalised world, especially that of media and book publishing. The vicious circle of exclusion of Women’s writing on account of language, culture and gender continues. Women’s writing is a casualty of the subterranean literary crisis developed as a result of the virtual disappearance of cross-language translation and the public library system. Women who live in India and write for domestic readers often get short shrift in terms of publicity and monetary rewards. The paper highlights these issues and discusses the biggest hurdle women writers face, namely, the market, which has become monopolised by mainstream publishing houses. With the women’s movement having moved into another phase and become mainstreamed and institutionalised, the position of the marginalised voices including that of women and their efforts to find a space from where they can sound themselves merit serious reflection.

Keywords: women’s movement, women’s studies, women’s writing, cross language translation, gender inequality, mainstream publishing house, Indian English literature, social change, dalit women, feminist voice

The globalisation of media, and especially of book publishing, together with the dominance of English as a world language, makes the question of alternative voices and perspectives a particularly urgent one for us in the south. It also implies that we consider the question of the global and the local as existing simultaneously in the south as well as in the north, and that the social and economic processes that result from globalisation impact every place that it reaches. Let me take up the question of English first.

The most current figures that we have for English as a world language is that an estimated one and a half billion people worldwide speak it. Of these approximately 350 million are in South Asia. English has official or special status in at least 75 countries of the world; around 80 per cent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English and three-quarters of the world’s mailing is written in this language. Again, over two-thirds of the world’s scientists read English. In Britain the estimate is that language products are worth over 500 million pounds a year. I mention these figures because we are speaking about the economics of this activity, and of course books and related materials are very much a part of it. English is also emerging as an important world literary language, and I would like to speak about that a little because it is directly linked to the globalisation of media as well as what I earlier drew attention to, the global and the local.

In a multilingual country like India, the question of literary language cannot but be multi-dimensional. Writing in any language other than Hindi and English is instantly labelled ‘regional’ and deprived of the status of that which is assumed to be ‘national.’ This, despite the fact that more than a dozen of the so-called regional languages are spoken by large numbers of people, ranging from 10 million (Assamese) to 215 million (Bengali). In a situation where only a handful of male writers, almost exclusively from the Hindi and Bengali traditions, have so far been acknowledged by the literary establishment as ‘national’ writers, most women writers are doubly disadvantaged. Placed low in the pecking order of the literature of their own language on account of gender, they find themselves at the bottom of the heap in the context of ‘national’ literature on account of language.

The hierarchies of language are more complex and insidious than they appear to be at first glance. They lead to differences in reach, power and status between and within indigenous languages as well as between them and English (officially recognised as one of the many languages of the country). This, in turn, affects literature and writers in terms of which books are publicised and reviewed in mainstream media that provide ‘national’ or international exposure, which books are translated into which language within or outside the country, which books are picked up by national or global publishers, which are included in academic curricula here or overseas, and so on. And these realities have further repercussions — for instance, national (not to mention international) literary awards are usually restricted to translated works.

As a result, if Indian literature is reviewed in the international media and included in the curricula of educational institutions abroad (a development that naturally boosts international sales), the reading list is almost entirely made up of titles in English, which can be readily served to and easily digested by foreign audiences. With Indian English literature, commonly rooted in urban middle class life, the problem of ‘translateability’ does not usually arise; with literature in Indian languages, op the other hand, not only the language but often the culture are assumed to require ‘translation.’ As a result, only the most prominent books from ‘regional’ literatures are deemed worth the time, money and effort and few books by women writing in these languages make the grade on those terms. The vicious circle of exclusion on account of language, culture and gender continues.

Yet, there is no disputing the fact that whatever translation currently takes place is generally into English and that even national literary bodies responsible for translating works from one Indian language into others require master copies in English. This not only places a screen between indigenous languages, through which literature in each has to pass in order to reach readers of another, it also gives translators with access to English an unfair advantage, despite its obvious limitations in terms of capturing the tenor and flavour of local languages.

Many ‘regional’ languages are already feeling the heat of globalisation and the consequent ascendancy of English as the world language. With large sections of the younger generation abandoning their mother-tongues in the hope of gaining access to the so-called global village through English, there is a marked decline in the readership of literatures in several, if not all, other Indian languages. This is a serious problem confronting Indian literature, coming as it does on top of the gradual waning of the reading habit, especially among the young, induced in part by the growth of television and other sources of entertainment. These developments are, in turn, traceable to mutually reinforcing factors such as economic liberalisation’ and globalisation, the upsurge in consumerism, the advent of satellite-based, cable-linked television channels, the Internet, etc., which have come into play in India over the last decade and a half.

The virtual disappearance of cross-language translation as well as the public library system, both of which flourished in many parts of the country just a few decades ago, have together made access to a variety of literature and, indeed, to books difficult even for those still interested in reading. Women’s writing is believed by many writers to be the first casualty of the subterranean literary crisis resulting from these developments.

While the tension between English and other Indian languages is a familiar problem, the existence of intra-language distinctions is less well-known. Certainly the hierarchy that operates within the seemingly charmed circle of Indian English writers, including women, is fairly well-hidden, Yet those among them who live in India and write primarily for domestic readers often get short shrift – in terms of both publicity and monetary rewards — compared to colleagues who belong to the diaspora or have access to international media and markets, or both.

In addition, with the limited reach of English within the country, the domestic readership of these writers is minuscule compared to that enjoyed by most colleagues writing in indigenous languages. With their relatively few readers scattered all over the country, English writers have little link with their diffuse readership, unlike writers in other Indian languages whose readership is more tangible and often more responsive. With virtually no translation taking place from English into any local language (partly because Indian English literature is seldom taken seriously by the literary establishments of other Indian languages), these writers have little hope of reaching out to a wider audience within the country.

The serious disadvantages experienced by a number of Indian women writing in English are rarely recognised. Instead, the legitimacy of Indian writing in English is questioned and the unfair advantage apparently enjoyed by writers in English often highlighted without distinguishing between the different categories of writers whose medium of expression happens to be English.

Asymmetry between languages in India has ancient class, caste and gender-related roots dating back to the days of Sanskrit – the language of kings – and Prakrit – the language of everyone else, including queens. Today women writers who belong to Dalit communities claim descent from the Prakrit linguistic tradition and many believe they have a distinct voice that is more strong, earthy and sensuous than that of other women writers. Dalit women often speak of the difficulties of forging a language for themselves, breaking free of the linguistic constraints imposed by both caste and gender, and finding ways to get around sexist and casteist language that reinforces unequal power relations. However, there is a minority opinion within the community that rejects the concept of Dalit literature and language, and believes that good literature is beyond caste and other identities.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle that women writers face is the market, a hydra-headed monster. After little magazines and alternative publishing houses—many run by women— began to publish women’s writing, it was clear that there was a distinct market for it. Mainstream publishing houses moved in quickly to occupy this space and consolidate the market, gradually destroying the small journals and publishing houses who found it hard to compete with their financial and marketing muscle. Once the small and radical houses are wiped out market censorship begins to rear its head. The very difference that made women’s writing attractive is no longer acceptable; rather by trivialising and vulgarising the difference they ‘expand’ their markets, and writers are then compelled to write to suit market needs. Subject matter, form, language, length are all laid down as conditions of the ‘market.’ Gradually, literature that sensationalises women’s issues begins to replace the writing that earlier attempted to explore and lay bare the patriarchal structures within which women’s lives are lived; while issues that women struggled to legitimise and bring within the parameters of the literary—rape, sexuality, housework and reproductive labour—are subject to market control. Consequently the very social change that women writers intended to usher in is defeated by material that is the creation of market forces. Notes of revolt turn into melodies of harmony, and along with the literature she produces the writer also becomes commodified. Publicity attends those writers who are glamorous, but here again, the gendering is evident, for glamour is not a precondition for a male writer. Male writers are intellectuals. The dilemma that confronts most women is whether they should change in response to the dictates of the market, reduce their outreach and limit their readership–or give up writing all together.

Publishers—especially large, multinational ones—build up markets for a certain kind of writing by, for example, deciding that certain genres are preferable to others. So, novels are rated higher than short stories which, in turn, are ‘better’ in marketing terms than poetry. Demands are made on writers , to produce a more ‘market friendly’ kind of writing, easy on the mind and on pocket. Certain issues, too, become marketable in unexpected ways: one example was a recent book, Bitter Chocolate, on child sexual abuse by Pinki Virani, published by Penguin, which gained from media hype while another on the subject, published by the RAW Collective (a group working with ivory of incest), received hardly any attention—a case of non-commercial book in English being marginalised in the commercial market.

The market today is a global market, promoting a uniform culture across world. The importance of English has grown enormously in the last two des with a spurt in the number of English medium schools all over the try. The tendency to treat those who do not know English as inferior has Ark’ creased. The new generation of middle class children are ignorant of their mother-tongue and tend to devalue it; growing up without any knowledge of it vernacular literature, untouched by its flavour and colour, ignorant of the literary history of their people. Simultaneously, the market for vernacular literature is gradually disappearing—the space that women writers may have in the 1960s and ‘70s has shrunk rapidly. While English is displacing the Mother-tongue, television is destroying the habit of reading, and both together Ire homogenising culture all over the world. There is little respect for difference such a culture. Television serials today have no time for the lives of the fir, the lower castes, or tribals; yet thanks to the spread of technology these people all watch television. How can they fail to feel frustrated and dissatisfied when they see this dazzling colourful world in which there is no trace of their existence? As this monoculture spreads across the globe people’s habits, s of greeting each other, spontaneous expressions of joy and sorrow, their taste in food, music and literature are all affected, and this in turn affects the creativity of writers.

Women writers rarely have the opportunity to travel, to observe at close quarters and analyse the lives of others; this new monoculture shrinks their spaces even further. Meanwhile the privatisation of education places good education beyond the reach of ordinary people, and the new communication technologies are accessible only to a handful. Ordinary families may invest some money in the education of their sons but rarely on their daughters. As for dalits, the story is much worse because it is impossible for dalit women to buy education. How then will dalit women writers emerge? For them even when they persist, there is virtually no market.

This brings us to the question of translation, the serious lack of which deprives a large section of women the opportunity for self-expression. It is not merely that translation is difficult, but that the global market has neither interest in nor space for diverse cultures. Just as all seed production is moving into the hands of a few companies that benefit from monocultures, the better part of English-language publishing in the world is in the hands of three corporate giants. Within India, because there is a national market for English publications, most writers naturally want to be translated into English. But women writers pay a heavy price because of the politics of translation decreases and the power hierarchies that come into play. The importance of cross-language translation and competition in the English market increases, destroying any vestige of solidarity or support.

What can writers and feminist publishing houses do in such a situation? When the existence of alternative publishers and magazines is seriously threatened where does one begin?

It is almost a truism to say that, worldwide, the women’s movement has moved into another phase in its contemporary history; that, to a greater or lesser degree, it has been ‘mainstreamed’ and institutionalised. In India, for instance, despite the fact that there is some resistance to women’s studies in institutions of higher learning, general awareness on the ‘woman question’ and related issues is fairly high, and growing. Its close interaction with the women’s movement and with women and development, moreover, ensures wider currency, and considerable visibility. The success of women writers—creative, academic and activist—is due in great measure to the energy of the international women’s movement, and to the efforts of the countless editors, publishers, retailers, binders, artists, designers, reviewers, librarians and, yes, even distributors, who carried their messages far and wide; who shared a politics, forged solidarity and built networks around the word from which we have all benefited.

But then so has the mainstream. The greater part of feminist writing today—feminist defined in broad terms and encompassing theoretical and critical work; social science research; creative writing, and general interest to non-fiction—is published by academic, university and trade presses, short on ‘politics’ as we understand it in the movement, but long on marketing, financial capacity and sales. In addition they offer academics the company of a peer group, and the advantages of stability and status. Publishing on gender is a far less economically risky business today than it ever was and, in any case, commercial or scholarly publishing is able to withstand the shock of market ‘fluctuations somewhat better than the generally under-capitalised feminist presses. Moreover, despite the fact that women’s studies does not yet exist as a discipline in India and therefore lacks the prospect of guaranteed sale through course adoptions, it is nevertheless profitable enough precisely because the space for it outside the educational institutions has now been made. Publishers thus assured of sales as readership grows, slowly but steadily.

The importance of being economically viable is not lost on feminist publishers, but because their objective is primarily being true to their politics as Susan Hawthorne says, they walk a tightrope. The skill, lies in combining commercial with the political—but there’s the rub. For feminist publishing, publishing for social change, is by definition, a ‘developmental’ activity in every sense of the word. It is a long-term investment involving the surfacing or excavating of hitherto unremarked or unacknowledged work; often initiating ‘research or writing on subjects that have been ignored or discounted; working closely—and uneconomically, it might be added—over long periods with authors; above all, developing material, awareness, skills, writers and markets and, not least, developing a readership. This is more or less true, generally, but particularly in countries of the south. Not only are we unable to provide advances or other inducements to our authors, we are simultaneously engaged publishing the kind of movement related material that no commercial publisher will take up: reports, primers, handbooks, training manuals, and so on. Slow gestation, low returns and difficult marketing characterise this kind material which many may not even classify as ‘books’ or ‘monographs,’ for much of it is fragmentary and documentary in nature. Because it is unsuited to retail trade, it needs to be marketed differently—through non-governmental organisations; alternative networks; in trainings and workshops; at women’s ruses, conferences and seminars. All of this requires networking and dogged perseverance of a kind that commercial publishing is unable and—and, what’s more, unwilling—to invest in, because its interest lies in ‘movement as market,’ not movement as resistance.

Notwithstanding the fact that feminism’s singular contribution to the women’s movement has been in erasing the distinction between the personal and the political, there is a lingering sense in which many of us, writers and publishers, tend to think of feminist presses as publishing the more movement-oriented personal / political writing; and academic or university presses as taking on the theoretical, women’s studies, social science or research-based critical work. Yet there is no reason why this should be so; why, as the women’s movement and women’s studies began to generate the wealth of writing that we see today, women’s presses did not take up the more academic kind of publishing as well; and women writers—feminist, academic, activist, creative—did not continue to support them, to inform our practice with our politics.

The possibility of ‘co-option’ by the mainstream has placed the women’s movement in a peculiar predicament. It has been the subject of many debates and discussions, especially in the question of our collaborating with the state and agencies of the government on various programmes and activities to do with women’s empowerment. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, in a thoughtful analysis of an attempt to teach `women’s studies’ in an English department at a women’s university recounts how, almost insidiously, its very incorporation blunted its interventionary potential. Without proposing a ‘romantic ideology of opposition and resistance for women’s studies’ she nevertheless urges us to look carefully at ‘the assumptions and politics that underpin most institutional [and mainstream] spaces that ultimately direct its purposes towards ends that may actually conflict with feminist ones.’

In this context, what happens to the dissenting voice? I am speaking specifically now of women’s voices but please take this to include all marginal voices, because it is true of all marginalised voices. Where does that voice find its space? If powerful, committed alternative forums are lost, where will these voices make themselves heard?

Related to this is the question of the margins and the mainstream, of alternatives to the latter. When we are ‘mainstreamed,’ when we find some institutional space, should we be unperturbed at the loss of the radical potential of the margins because some part of our work has been done, or should we be alerted to the probability that most institutionalisation neutralises dissent? Should we celebrate the successful mainstreaming of feminist writing and thinking or be concerned about the fact that the very structures of power and privilege, of wealth and knowledge that we are dismantling and resisting through our writing, are being strengthened by the disappearance of the small independents?

Structures of wealth and power are usually dismantled by the dissenting voice—it is the arrangement of power, political, economic and social, that any movement of social change insists on altering. Structures of wealth and control in publishing, in the production of knowledge, in the creation of intellectual capital, are now part of global publishing empires and their policies are aimed at maintaining the status quo, economically—that is, keeping wealth in the hands of the few. Politically, they are conservative and exclusive; intellectually, they are hidebound or reactionary, and as far as gender relations are concerned, they are highly unequal. Now we may think that we are outside their reach simply because we are too small to be counted, but mechanisms like TRIPs and TRIMs and the regulation of intellectual property rights and of intellectual copyright do not distinguish between big and small, north and south, because the global market-place can have only one form of regulation. This is undeniable. There will only be one form of regulation. That is what the regulation of world trade is about.

Unless we see the global and the local working in tandem, unless we situate ourselves locally but are also able to contextualise ourselves in the global, there is no way in which we can actually see how these ramifications develop and work. For me, the most crucial dimension is this: how is this local in terms of production of knowledge and intellectual output—and in that I foreground, always, the marginal voice for change—how is it impacted by the globalised market-place in which intellectual output is controlled by three conglomerates in the north and west?


RITU MENON. Publisher, writer, independent scholar and activist. In 1984 co-founded Kali for women, India’s first feminist press. She is active in the women’s movements in India and South Asia, working collaboratively with many individuals and organisations in the region on a wide range of issues. Among her publications are a collection of essays on women, religion and development from India and Pakistan. She is co-author of Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, a path-breaking oral history. Unmaking the Nation: A Three Country Perspective on the Partition of India is her latest book.

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Publisher, writer, independent scholar and activist. In 1984 co-founded Kali for women, India’s first feminist press. She is active in the women’s movements in India and South Asia, working collaboratively with many individuals and organisations in the region on a wide range of issues. Among her publications are a collection of essays on women, religion and development from India and Pakistan. She is co-author of Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, a path-breaking oral history. Unmaking the Nation: A Three Country Perspective on the Partition of India is her latest book.

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