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.