Is Feminism Relevant Today? by Tara Kaushal

September 2014: My take on the evolving conversation around feminism today.

The other day, at a gathering of distant relatives, I was introduced to this older lady as a “feminist writer”. After the polite hellos, she said, “So, you’re a feminist, huh?” I nodded. “Well, I don’t think feminism is necessary nowadays… Look at all walks of life, women are now equal. At the forefront even.”

What is Feminism?

It was the first day of feminism class in our all-girls college in New Delhi. Dr Abraham walked in and asked us whether we were feminists. We all nodded yes. “What is feminism?” Three years before, I’d written an essay on the subject to get into college, and to Dr Abraham I remember answering “freedom” and “equality”. Thus began my journey of understanding this complex subject, but even now, I always reach back to my first answers about what it is. Then, simplistically, I thought it was about women being equal to men, and freedom being the ability to live life without gender constraints like men in India seemed to. Now, I see feminism as a way towards an egalitarian, utopian world for everyone—man, woman, either, neither, irrelevant—by addressing the issues faced by the gender that bears the brunt of gender discrimination.

Now, I’m not unfamiliar with the arguments against feminism. Those who advocate them fall in to two broad categories: those who believe that women are genuinely the weaker sex that deserves to be subjugated for religious or sociocultural reasons, and those who believe, like the lady from the party and many subscribers to the Women Against Feminism movement, that women are already ‘equal’.

The End is Nowhere Near

To the former type, I have nothing to say (not here, idiot). It’s the latter reason, especially coming from those living in a country like India, that actually astounds me. As a rookie many years ago, one of my interview questions to British author Helen Cross was whether she was a feminist. And she answered that people don’t really ask that in England “because they just sort-of presume that everybody is, because it’s kind-of beyond that point”; she said she was asked that a lot here because it was an “active and dynamic” conversation.

I especially don’t understand it when the women here say that.
A) How do YOU think you got here, wearing jeans, having careers, taking selfies in your bikinis, living with your boyfriends, eh?
B) Are you really ‘equal’ and ‘free’ from any sort of gender discrimination—at work, on the street, in your relationships? (Answer ‘no’ straightaway if you get a male friend to drop you home at night.)
And C) Is every single woman around you as ‘equal’ as you—is there really no family you know where the son roams wild and free while the daughter’s expected to obey, or woman who has been harassed for dowry? There, you have your answer.

This is not to say that countries where women are highly emancipated, like the UK or US, have done away with gender discrimination and no longer need feminism. While they, for the most part, may not have to contend with issues as basic ours, women continue to bear the brunt of lookism and media stereotypes, battle the glass ceiling, and deal with sexual violence. In India, we deal with the whole range of gender issues—from child marriage and dowry to ‘First World’ concerns like those listed above, judgement-free promiscuity, maiden surnames and independent choice.

Take this week, for instance. A leading movie star has taken a leading newspaper to task for a headline that calls attention to her cleavage with an open letter about choice, reel/real (an quick summary here), spawning much conversation about double standards—the newspaper’s, the film industry’s and even hers. In another India not so far away, the grave of a toddler girl, suspected to have been buried alive and rumoured to be a ‘goddess’, became an impromptu pilgrimage site for hundreds of villagers, who came to offer prayers, fruits, flowers and money.

While I have oftentimes wondered at the futility of writing about ‘evolved’ concerns when there’s so much work on the basics that is yet to be done (read what I've written about it here), I’ll end with this: Feminism is beyond the bra burning and the wild lurch from domesticity to feminazi; it’s beyond first wave and second wave; it lives in plurals and pluralities, evolving as society has, addressing a problem here, another there. It is a means to an end. And until genders are equal on all levels, the feminists’ fight is far from over.

This column appeared on 3QD in September 2014.

Pubicity by Tara Kaushal

July 2006: The Founder and Sole Official Member of the Stop Pissing in My Face Society has her say…

Okay, here’s the thing. I hate being flashed. I hate having to see men expose themselves to me. Every woman does. It violates a very basic right—the right to choose. I choose to live in India, to see the sights I see. Cows on the road and the filth on the streets I can live with: I accept what I cannot change.

I hate being flashed. I do not want to accept it. Unfortunately, I get flashed everyday. You, as men, get flashed everyday. You don’t see it that way, I know. But isn’t it true? You see penises in public all the time. It’s what we’ve learnt to see and accept as pissing. It’s bad enough when men flash as an actual active act of aggression. When it’s seen as routine and harmless—I don’t know whether it’s worse!

Unfortunately, the average Indian man thinks nothing of whipping his thingie out in the middle of the day and street and laying claim to the closest wall/shrub/tree/drain/breeze. Put that thing damn thing away and find a loo! Standing, squatting, whatever their personal preferences, while some men seem aware of the wrongness of their actions, and make a pretence of embarrassment about their public ablutions, most seem absolutely nonchalant, and even find time to hold conversations with others while they relieve themselves in public. Why? Is there no shame in making our not-so-beautiful country smelly too? Much like women Down South who paint their faces with turmeric paste (yellow is a not-too-healthy human colour, but anything’s better than black, you see), Mother India is painted urine-yellow and has really bad body odour.

Why do we live in the biggest toilet in the world? There are better ways in which we can contribute to the smells and sights of our country.

What is it about Indian men that makes it okay for them to relieve themselves wherever they choose to? Why is it acceptable? It started as a necessity—we were a poor nation and were backward, and had no toilets. Now, we are wealthy and progressive. Yes, there are people who live in the slums, who do not have access to toilets. As much as it’s unfortunate, it’s acceptable. But what about those men who step out from their spanking Mercedes, spotless shoes and all, who have ready access to urinals, or at least know enough to be aware that in all probability there’s one around close enough and it won’t kill them to wait. And those cyclists, peons in offices, who know they’ll get there eventually, if not soon. What about them?

Also, while we’re at it, why men and not women? Apart from the obvious of course. It’s not acceptable. Or safe. For a poor little woman to relieve her bursting bladder on the street would mean curiosity, if not rape. So then, we come back to the inequality of the sexes. I think, being allowed to piss anywhere, at will and leisure, is the first sociological step to making Indian men the patriarchal MCPs that they tend to be. After all, little boys are taught that they never need have any control, never need have any respect for general and personal space. And that they are entitled to impose their bodily fluids and penises on the world at large. And that little girls are not allowed to do any of that.

As a mother or a father, I hope you don’t pull your son’s pants down and allow him to piss on the street. I hope you don’t teach him that this is okay and acceptable. Because it’s not.

I must admit, I rather enjoy my role of Founder and Sole Official Member of the Stop Pissing in My Face Society. Though in its infancy, this society has had several achievements. So far, there are four little boys in and around Colaba, and one in Bandra, who, I am sure, will never piss again. Never. Not on a wall, not in public, never. And there is one middle-class mother who has been told that, since she believes that her son is ‘only a baccha’ and that his urine is really harmless, should dr*nk it. And then there’s the Flick-Lungi-Up-Piss South Indian man who will always remember the time he couldn’t aim away from his feet because his willy was tucked away between his legs in shame. I hope you join my little society here and help make the country a slightly paler shade of yellow. Yell at/mock/shame/embarrass the next man you see who just couldn’t hold it.

We see signs telling us not to spit in public everywhere. Are we too embarrassed to address this way more offensive and in-your-face social custom? The police, that is so active in its drive against couples and their ‘public indecency/obscenity’—doesn’t it think that the Public Display of Penises is obscene?

The general public has come up with some rather ingenious ways to deal with the smell and the nuisance. From the subtle god-tiles on boundary walls (no one will piss on those!), to the direct ‘Yahan mootna mana hai’, to the classic ‘Dekho, dekho ghaddha moot raha hai’, there are things that work! These measures are just not enough though.

Really, there is a reason the penis is part of the pubic region, and not the pub-l-ic region. I wish more men would learn to keep it that way.

An edited version of this article appeared in Man’s World in July 2006.

I’m a little less militant (more empathetic?) now, and have mixed feelings about The Pissing Tanker that made its way around Mumbai in 2014.