“Don’t take me to be a feminist…”

“…because I believe in equality!”

The first time that my school arranged an activity for the first level of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, I was in 8th Grade. I did not know then that my clenching of fists when I found out that knitting was the activity decided upon by the teachers for the young girls of our school, something the boys were not really supposed to do, was my first feminist reaction. The boys, and this was the worst part, got an introductory session on web programming (I fail to remember what it exactly was). But what I do remember is sitting through hours of knitting, trying to get my hands to govern threads, with the eventual result of being able to make socks I was never going to wear.

My memory is deceitful, since I may be wrong about having no options. I also remember sessions regarding Disaster management, cartography and an outdoor trekking expedition under the same programme. But for some reason, the memory manifested itself into my mind as a parasitic recollection about how my teachers expected me to want to do certain activities that I might have had no interest in pursuing. And I didn’t. In spite of my clenched fists, I reckon I did nothing about the rising anger that I suppressed for not very long after this.

In 11th grade, because of a misguided sense of ‘feminism’, I wrote out a 200 word poem about womanhood and spoke of it as much as I could. I was young and naïve, trying to convince people that a woman need not be identified by her relationships with a man. I am ashamed of digging out a poem such as that, but the truth is, the washing-machine whirl that I felt in my stomach every time someone told me to ‘relax’ was a very potent, albeit harmless, thing. When my favourite English teacher read the poem, she asked me if she could keep a copy, and to say that I was happy is an understatement. And then, she said something that has stayed with me for the past 3 years. She said, “This poem is very insightful, but I hope you do not turn out to be a feminist.”

I am pretty sure she isn’t reading this, but I suppose I could safely say that I turned out to be a disappointment to her. I identified with feminism, and even now, I can safely say that feminism is a very relevant and potent concept in certain parts of the world, especially India. Patriarchy is not what it once used to be, it is not the concept of men being superior to women, but that men and women are not equal. Whether it be the taboo against male nurses, or men as primary caretakers, or the thought that rape is the worst thing that could happen to a woman, it has always been my opinion, that feminism could be a solution. As could ‘masculinism’, if there was such semantic availability. And unfortunately for feminists, there is not.

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, recently distanced herself from being a feminist. That, combined with her insistence of having an incredibly short maternity leave and her Vogue photo shoot, fuelled the anger that a lot of feminists were waiting to spew. What feminism, ergo, has become now is a much privileged remnant of what it needs to be. A woman will not be ‘supported’ by feminism if she is too sexual (playing into the sexual showcasing that the media desires), is a home-maker, or even if she is ‘setting a set of expectations from working mothers that are too unrealistic’. It has become about only breaking the stereotype and doing nothing but that, even if it is something that the woman has wanted. The scrutiny that Mayer’s photo shoot underwent itself is proof that gender ideas are not very clearly understood world over. It is, though, a real concern that a man in her place would not have been a part of glamorisation of such sort.

I have realised over the course of a few years that when asked if someone is a feminist or not, the most common answer I have received has been negation combined with a claim to egalitarianism. It used to annoy me endlessly, when I realised I couldn’t be angry with the sense of a perception. I could, however, be angry with the origin of the idea. Media (and feminists themselves), have been trivialising and antagonizing feminism itself. That is obvious when a feminist will question a woman’s decision to forfeiting an education for other pursuits, or when Lily (from How I met Your Mother) claims that when she wanted an easy-bake oven, her feminist mother bought her a ‘boy’s toy’.

So a few weeks ago, I was on the fence about being able to identify with feminism at all. One question that always needs to be asked about any –ism is that of relevance. How relevant is feminism today? For the first-world, I would have to happily admit, there is not much relevance to a movement that sought to bring legal equality in a world where that has almost been achieved. The first world is open to women who are fond of sex, open about their sexuality, even (to a very huge extent) understands the fundamental nature of humans to discriminate. For their own good, they have been saved.

India, on the other hand, has faced severe criticism about how genders are viewed. In several parts of our country, there is a clear distinction in the number of girls and boys receiving education [1]. If the basic building block for society is flawed and biased in its service to a different gender, how are we, as a nation, supposed to further ourselves? There are several other concerns that India faces when it comes to gender issues, whether it be discrimination against men, or women. The fact that prostitution (organising prostitution) is not legal in our country poses a lot of threats to the children and adults that have been victims of sexual trafficking, and most of these adults are women.

Several countries are still even unclear about unconditional women’s suffrage [2]. Almost all nations have granted suffrage for women, but there are still nations that mandate a male guardian (whether it be a father, brother, husband or even a son) for legal proceedings. Maybe there are people in the world, even in India, who may think and rightly so, that feminism is no longer relevant to society, but this just is not true for all parts of the world. The media that the generation I belong to relates to the most, is the internet. The global framework that the internet has provided each and every one of us, makes sure of the fact that we know more about the world but less and less about our immediate surroundings. The very fact that there is doubt about the relevance of a school of thought that encourages nothing but equality, in a country that has proved how gender roles have been governing the society, is evidence of misplaced information. And as long as there is need for an apparently angry woman who just needs to stop taking everything too seriously and ‘chill’, to stand up for any kind of oppression based on inequality, there is need for feminism.

[1] http://iussp2005.princeton.edu/papers/52184

[2] http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/suffrage.htm

Other references:

  1. http://www.cgdev.org/doc/books/lewis-lockheed-eduCaseStudies/lewis-lockheed-chapter5.pdf
  2. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/11session/A.HRC.11.6.Add.3_en.pdf

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