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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

On Feminism and Feminism-bashing : Random Thoughts

Even as I type this I realize it might not be the smartest thing to do – especially since, as a man, I open myself up to accusations of mansplaining, or, of being patronizing towards women.  But , as if to prove true the adage “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, I am going ahead and putting my thoughts out there on a topic that’s been bothering me for a while now.

The trigger for this post is a development that I’ve been observing of late –  of a number of women suddenly going out of their way to trash feminism. I’m not the least bit surprised that men do this – but it does come as a bit of a surprise to see so many women now get into the act. Not only do they seem to consider being called a feminist a grave insult, they do not miss any opportunity to mock feminists and the entire feminist movement.

In a sense, this post is addressed to them.

I see that there’s an entire movement out there called “Women Against Feminism” . On the site by this name one can see pictures of women holding placards explaining why they do not need feminism in their lives. 

Fair enough. Each one of them has a reason not to support the feminist movement.  Either they feel it doesn’t help women, or they think men are being unnecessarily targeted, or they feel they want to fight their battles on their own.

It is of course an individual choice but I think that somewhere they are missing something fundamental to not just feminism, but to any movement.

And that is, you don’t fight only for YOURSELF, the individual – you fight for the rights of a much broader section of society. You fight against injustice to this section of society. You fight against discrimination that this section of society faces.

In the case of feminism, it is about the female gender.  You don’t have to individually have faced injustice or discrimination to know that millions of women all around the world are subject to injustice and discrimination every single day of their lives, purely due to their gender.

This isn’t made-up, it’s a fact. And  if you’re a woman and haven’t faced this, good for you. I’m happy for you. But the world is a little larger than just you – and there are, sadly, many more women out there who aren’t quite as fortunate as you.

So the very least you can do is to acknowledge this fact and not make it all about yourself. If you don’t want to participate in any effort to improve the lot of all those women, fine. Nobody is forcing you to. But by mocking the efforts of those who ARE trying to make a positive change for these women, you are, even if unintentionally, harming the cause of these, less fortunate, women.

Let’s just take stock of the situation for a moment.  

For centuries, women have been suppressed and not treated as equals in society. They’ve been relegated to doing tasks than men did not want to do. Under the pretext of being the persons “bringing home the bacon” (often conveniently appropriating for themselves the sole right to do so), men have dominated family structures, and, by extension, society at large.

Of course, there have been exceptions. But this is exactly what they have been – exceptions. To the norm of male domination.  Anything women have achieved has almost always been INSPITE of the odds being severely stacked against them.  Which is why, when you look at history, you hear of a woman here, or a woman there – when half the world’s population is female.

When this has been happening for centuries, generation after generation, small wonder that in many societies, women have got conditioned to playing second fiddle to men.  Right from their birth, they are made to feel that men are the stronger sex. And not just physically so. They are made to feel that their raison d’etre is to serve men. That they are the “natural nurturers”. That their lives are incomplete without men. That they would be lost without men in their lives. A single woman is either frowned upon, or pitied. She needs to be married off as soon as possible.

Whether we choose to use the term “patriarchy” or not, the fact is that there has been, for centuries, a power imbalance between men and women.  One of the most striking examples of this is that in one of the supposedly most progressive societies of them all, the United States of America, on a national level, women did not have voting rights till 1920!

Today things are better, no doubt. Especially in western societies, the fight for gender equality has presumably made considerable progress, although even today gender-based discrimination is prevalent. It still manifests itself in multiple ways – whether in the form of less compensation for women compared to men, or women being overlooked when it comes to breaking that glass ceiling. And women continue to face harassment and abuse of all sorts – a result of men feeling a sense of entitlement to treat women this way.

In any case, whatever has been achieved, it has not come easy. Giving up power is never easy. And rarely voluntary.  So to make men share power with women has always been a challenge.  Women have had to fight for their rights. They have had to fight to force legislative change.  They have had to fight to get themselves better education, better jobs, more financial independence.

The picture is much bleaker in societies like India where patriarchy is far deeper ingrained. Social mores and conditioning have made life in India incredibly tough for most women. In fact, even before they are born, even as a foetus, many are discriminated against and unwanted.

And then,  right through their lives, it is a struggle for most women.

A struggle to live their life THEIR way instead of having to fit their life to suit other people. (In India, women seem to be perennially living for other people and never for themselves).

A struggle to ward off harassment by men, who seem to have an idea that the sole purpose of existence of a woman is for their (men's) enjoyment.

A struggle to be recognized as equal in society to men (although, as one wise woman said, this is too low a target to aim for).  

A struggle to even be treated as just a person with her own identity, instead of only having an identity as somebody’s mother or sister or wife or daughter.

There’s much more that women go through, all through their lives.  And I’m talking millions of women out there.

It’s an uphill struggle – but thankfully there are people who care to bring about positive change.  They call out gender injustice and gender inequality at every opportunity, they work on improving awareness and reducing conditioning, they fight for legislative change. In general, they do whatever they can, with their limited means, to redress the power imbalance that is still very heavily stacked against women.

If they call themselves feminists it is because it has to do with women’s rights and gender equality. Nothing particularly complicated about the term.

Yes, some of them possibly do this term disservice by making this not about gender equality, but turning it into an anti-men tirade. They may have their motivations and frustrations to do so – I do not wish to speculate on these. 

I'm quite clear about one thing. Not being a woman, however much I might emphathise with women, I do NOT go through the experiences they go through in life. That is why, although I might disagree with the views of some "feminists", I do not let it cloud my view on feminism. I distinguish between feminism (the movement) and feminists (the practitioners). And just like with any movement, not all practitioners get everything right. To find fault with a movement based on the acts of a few, is unfair to the movement. If you fundamentally disagree with the movement because you believe it is completely unnecessary, that's a different thing.

Although feminism gets a lot of flak for coming across as being anti-men, I've never seen it so. To me, it's always been about gender equality. And that means women and men sharing space as equals.

Since historically the affected gender has been female, it is hardly surprising that an overwhelmingly large number of feminists are women. However, there are many men out there too who do understand the need for gender equality. And try to practise it in their own lives. These are just as qualified to be considered feminists and, in my opinion, should not be shut out purely because of their gender. Doing so would only play into the hands of those who claim that feminism is anti-men. After all, men are the cause of the problem and they need to be a big part of the solution. That is why I often wish these men would be more vocal about their views - whether they choose to call themselves feminist or not. 

Finally it doesn't really matter whether you call yourself a feminist or not. It's a tag (much like "capitalist", "socialist",  "communist", "right-wing", "left-wing"). If you don't want to be tagged, fine. What really matters is whether you agree that we need to work towards a more gender-equal society. And that we are still far from it at the moment. At least in some societies. 

If you agree, then doesn’t it make sense not to ridicule efforts of those who are working towards this end? And if you agree with the goal but not with the methods, there are constructive ways of getting that message across. Without just coming up with a blanket “I’m against feminism”  slogan.

For, when we do this, we just make the whole struggle that much harder. Already vested interests ensure that it’s  going to be an uphill struggle.  The last thing we want is for their hand to be strengthened.

I know there are those who feel that sometimes the pendulum might have swung too much to the other side. That there are also men who are disadvantaged by the women’s rights movement.

Let’s be clear about one thing. This is NOT a men vs women thingThis is about gender equality.  So if men are now having to concede ground to women, ground that gave them an unfair advantage until now, I am all for it. But if women are now having an advantage over men, while in the longer-term it might need redressal, in the shorter-term it might be the only way to ensure longer term equality. So I would be less keen to attempt a correction rightaway.

Let’s also remember that any movement has a life only as long as it has a cause. The fight for gender equality is only as long as there is gender inequality. Just as feminism came into existence because of inequality, it will cease to have a purpose to exist, once we have gender equality (although that might be still be a long way away for now, I’m afraid).

Lastly, while this entire piece has been about women, gender equality and feminism, at a higher level, this is about injustice and discrimination in society.

Discrimination can be for a whole host of reasons – religion, region, race, caste, class, sexual orientation, gender. So gender is just one basis for discrimination.

Much of what I’ve said here applies to other forms of discrimination too. One doesn’t have to be specifically discriminated against, whether as an individual or the target group, to know that discrimination exists.

So if you genuinely believe that we need to end such discrimination, even if you are not able to participate in the process, the least you can do is to not hinder the process.

Thank you.


Ava Suri said...

I believe in equal rights for all living things, flora and fauna. I am presuming humans are included in fauna. I dislike disparity of any sort, whether it pertains to caste, creed, or wealth.

Anyhow, these are sweeping statements of a person who wants to live in a utopia.

On a more practical level, it helps if there is activism about various disparities in society such as gender inequality, class discrimination, caste discrimination, cruelty against animals, etc..

If some men or women are unhappy about feminism, I am sure they have their reasons. All activism has its detractors, and one has to soldier on.

All 'isms' have their pros and cons, and one has to look at the benefits.

Vidyut - NOT a feminist said...

It is possible to believe in women's empowerment and to not believe in feminism BECAUSE you want women's empowerment. I would not go as far and wide as feminism worldwide, or the movement, etc but what is visible of feminism today is very discouraging for women's rights.

It addresses mostly the issues of elite women. For example, when did feminism take up the task of farmer suicides when one of the biggest employers of women in India is farming, and women are worst hit by suicides as those left living and responsible for ADDITIONAL responsibilities after the man checks out?

Domestic work is the second largest profession employing women in India. When is the last time feminists took up their issues - ranging from workplace harassment to abuse, denial of due payment and more?

On the contrary, elite women are protected to the extent where we are at an absurd place where a woman left alone with a man could claim to be penetrated by him to not only send him to jail for 10 years (the minimum for rape now) but also unable to question the evidence that speaks to the contrary because "victim blaming".

When is the last time feminists came out on the streets over marital rape?

You rightly said causes are not just about fighting for wrongs faced by self, but broader. Unfortunately, if those trashing feminists are privileged to not face discrimination (if such a utopia exists), feminists themselves are guilty of taking up causes approved by men that address problems faced by them.

Domestic violence is a far bigger threat in India than sexual harassment/abuse. So where is the last time you saw a protest against it?

Oh they object to these things on principle but their time is too precious to land up on the street for anything other than sexual harassment. This is the privilege of living in a home where no one prevents you from reaching potential. The privilege of working without seeing an unfair salary or working conditions or plain old exploitation. This is the privilege of never having to balance needs with deals with the devil to sustain self. The one problem they do face - sexual harassment - they object to. Which is good, but hardly relevant to the real problems of a vast majority of India.

I believe in women's empowerment and believe in prioritizing goals by gravity. Feminism is bullshit for me - at least what I see happening.

Raja Swaminathan said...

Vidyut, thanks for your elaborate comment.

I actually agree with what you say. The feminism movement, especially in India where the challenges are of a different scale altogether, has been very limited in its reach and, therefore, effectiveness. And you are right - the burning issues in India, like VAW of all forms, are still burning strongly every day. This naturally invites scepticism from many (including you).

Having said that, I still see this as questioning the methods and the scope, and not the concept of feminism itself. If anything, it means the movement needs much more impetus, needs to expand its scope beyond its current limited confines, needs much more support to get any traction at all.

So the problem is with the practice, not the concept.

So let's bash feminism for what it is doing wrong. Instead of bashing the concept itself.

And yes, whether you call yourself a feminist or not, doesn't really matter. :-)

I am totally with you also on the women's empowerment thing. It fits into the concept of gender equality anyway - one of the key reasons for inequality is lack of empowerment.

Once again, thanks for sharing your views.

Raja Swaminathan said...

Ava, thanks for your comment. Like you say, all activism has its detractors. Part of it has to do with how the activism it itself happening.

Probably feminists have to take a hard look at themselves and see why so many women themselves are opposing them nowadays. If you see Vidyut's comment, you get an Indian perspective.

I still feel it has to do with the practice and not the concept.

Raja Swaminathan said...

While expressing our frustration at what Indian feminists are NOT doing, we need to also appreciate the scale of the challenges they face. It is just MASSIVE - and with the limited resources they have, whatever they do, there will always be a LOT more that will remain to be done.

We can either choose to support them and work with them to do more. Or choose to point out what has NOT been done and call them out for it.

Personally I'd prefer the former. I'd rather be part of the solution than rant about the problem. For whatever that support is worth. The challenge is humongous enough as it is, and the last thing Indian feminists need is even more resistance and opposition.