The resignation letter of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) member Vidhu Vincent was made public on Monday by the director on her Facebook page. In the letter, Vidhu has explained her dissatisfaction with the functioning of the organisation, which, she feels, is exclusionary and does not protect the interests of all members. Following this, costume designer Stephy Xavior, who is not a WCC member, has also levelled allegations that a filmmaker who belongs to the organisation had dropped her from a film for demanding payment.
Taking the accounts of both women in good faith, one can conclude that the WCC needs to introspect and examine the allegations as objectively as possible. Such periodic analyses, checks and corrections are necessary for any movement to grow, especially in a hostile environment where people are waiting for it to fail. If the accounts are false, then WCC as a collective and its individual members can choose to fight it or not.
However, what also needs to be understood is that such infighting and disagreements are not at all unusual within progressive movements, not in the least feminist movements. In fact, as anyone who has studied feminist history would know, there are feminisms and not just a single school of thought where all the feminists sit around, drink tea and sweetly agree with each other.
While all feminists would concur on the equality of genders and identify patriarchy as oppressive, there are several feminist discourses (Marxist, Socialist, Radical, Liberal, Ecofeminist, Lesbian, Psychoanalytic, Cultural etc) on how patriarchy can be dismantled and equality can be brought in. There are many issues on which feminists disagree and oppose each other too — pornography, legalisation of sex work, surrogacy, ban on veiling, menstrual leave — to name a few. Importantly, feminists belonging to historically oppressed communities have started their own movements and collectives, believing that their rights are not being adequately represented by the more privileged feminists. Black, brown, Muslim, trans, queer, dalit — there are many, many kinds of feminist movements.
And this is inevitable because women, who form about half the world's population, are not a homogeneous group. Their concerns, circumstances, beliefs, cultures, privileges and biases cannot be one and the same. Such dissent, upheavals, breakaways and offshoots are considered essential by feminists for movements to accommodate the lived realities of women from around the world.
However, this understanding is sadly missing in the conversation around dissent within the WCC. On social media, the posts by Vidhu and Stephy are being bandied about to discredit the WCC and project the organisation as a group of petty hypocrites and "fake feminists" who must be boycotted. This comes days after the WCC hosted a webinar on the state of women in cinema, including workplace sexual harassment, and launched their own website too.
Such attacks are not new to the WCC. Ever since the organisation was formed in 2017, following the abduction and sexual assault of a prominent woman actor, the members have been accused of elitism and even wanting to destroy cinema. The WCC and its allies were the only people from within the industry who publicly stood by the survivor and consistently asked uncomfortable questions about film organisations continuing to extend their patronage to actor Dileep, the main accused in the case. Their actions cost them work opportunities but they found themselves placed under even greater scrutiny than the accused and his supporters. Any slip-up was immediately turned into an opportunity to "prove" how these women were just a pack of silly "parishkaaris" who didn't know what they were doing.
WCC's press meet in 2018 questioning AMMA's decision to reinstate Dileep:
While a large part of the Malayalam film industry is busy pretending that there is no gender inequality at all, there is another section that says there are issues, but the WCC is too "elitist" to resolve them. What then is preventing these members from forming their own group and fighting for equality in the industry? In 2018, the Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) did set up a women's group under it, but there has been no news since then about what the group stands for, what its demands are, or what its views regarding the various issues that concern women and cinema are. Could it be that there is a price for speaking up and that those who are ready to point fingers are not willing to pay it?
The targeting isn't unique to the WCC's experience. Feminist groups challenge some very fundamental ideas upon which our social order is built, and the hate they get is only to be expected. Even among progressive circles, an individual feminist's failing to live up to the ideals she preaches is immediately coloured as a failure of the ideology and movement itself. Intellectuals who conform to other ideologies, particularly men, get a much longer rope for their individual lapses; the ideology they subscribe to isn't dismissed only because they failed to live up to it.
This isn't limited to our time or culture either. The TV series Mrs America, now streaming on Disney+Hotstar, is an excellent account of how feminist movements begin, evolve and reinvent themselves. Set in 1970s America, the series captures the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, detailing the many battles within the feminist movement even as they try and build solidarity over their differences. In the shaking and quaking that goes on, old icons fall, new leaders rise, friendships break, grudging alliances form and a patchwork sisterhood emerges — imperfect but tangible, clumsy but alive.
Those who are quick to judge feminists must remember that these women function in a patriarchal world where the odds are heavily stacked against them. To commit to the cause always might require personal sacrifices that are sometimes too much to bear. There will be mistakes and there will, hopefully, be learning. The WCC is not above criticism. Certainly not. But the patchwork sisterhood they are trying to knit together is nothing to scoff at, especially when the stakes are so high. They're here and they're speaking. In circumstances where most of us would have chosen silence. Let us remember that.