I don’t remember when I got over my hesitation and started calling myself a feminist without reservations. But I do remember that in my younger days I was hesitant.
I see the same hesitance in many other women. Do you believe in the equality of the sexes? Yes. Are you a feminist? Not really.
What does that even mean?
So, I was forced to think back to the days when I had the same hesitation. Why did I feel the need to disown feminism? It took some time but I managed to solve the puzzle of my own making.
How does the express idea of the need for gender equality enter your head? In most cases, it happens because you see that certain things are considered belonging to the boys’ domain and certain others to the girls’. Girls do the household chores, while boys get time to study and attend tuitions. Girls are expected to cook, clean and take care of their families when they grow up; boys are expected to go out, do well professionally and earn. But it isn’t just the differences in the expectation from the two sexes that pique you. It is also the status differential that comes along with it. The distinction implies not just that girls and boys are different, but also that girls are inferior. So the idea of gender equality translates into your head as ‘girls are as good as (or better than) boys’.
What is the best way to contribute to the fight for gender equality then? It is to prove that girls are as good as boys. It is to prove that you are as good as boys.
When you are in a slightly emancipated situation, like when you are attending a good college or you are employed at a modern workplace, the gender distinction and the assumption of female inferiority may not be that blatant but it is always lurking around. In the form of rules (protect the girls in the hostels and control their dresses), jokes (do I even need to enumerate every day sexist jokes?), salary differential and systematic biases. And once again what is the best way you know of contributing to the cause of equality? It is to prove that you are as good as the boys. Your focus is on your achievements. The best way to go about it is to pretend that jokes are just jokes and that anything else potentially debilitating is either non-existent or immaterial. For you anyway. You are out to prove yourself, not to whine and crib about the problems in your life. Because if you do that, people get another opportunity to say that girls are weak and not as good as boys.
Enter the feminists. They talk about systematic biases, they object to sexist jokes, they demand equality. When you mouth their lines, it feels like you are making excuses for yourself. As if you are saying that if you failed it isn’t your problem, but society’s. That doesn’t make sense. That isn’t a great way to prove or achieve equality. So, you don’t mouth their lines. You don’t even like them mouthing those lines, because it feels like they are making excuses on your behalf. Excuses that you don’t need. Excuses that you don’t want. You can prove yourself, and you are doing that. Why are these so-called champions of women and gender equality spoiling it for you?
So nope! Feminism is not for you. It isn’t the right thing to do.
That’s where I was. So, what changed? Why am I an unabashed and unapologetic feminist now?
What changed for me has nothing to do with my being a woman or the issues of feminism and gender equality. What changed was that, as a person, I stopped feeling the need to prove myself to others. And then it became possible to see beyond what I can or cannot do.
I realized, over time, that in individual cases, some other advantages may trump sexism and patriarchy. The nation didn’t really boycott Indira Gandhi for her estrangement from her husband, as it would have done to a middle-class woman in those days. Power can make patriarchy immaterial. In other cases, privilege and money can. In my case, the fact that I managed to get into an IIT helped me transcend a lot of societal restrictions. Achievement surpassed patriarchy. But that isn’t the solution to the basic problem of gender inequality. It isn’t me. It isn’t the specific individuals who managed not to be affected by the systematic gender biases. It is what we are as a society. It isn’t enough that a woman educated in an IIT doesn’t feel weighed down just because she is a woman (many do, but let’s keep that for another day). What is essential is that an ordinary woman from an ordinary background wanting to live an ordinary life happily should not be discriminated against because of her sex either. Not even if she is illiterate and poor. What is also essential is that a woman from a privileged background should not feel silenced. Just because she has money and material comfort, it doesn’t mean she should not seek her political voice or financial independence or the right over her body or equality in every sense of the word. What I also realized is that it isn’t only about women. It isn’t only about women taking some power from men. It isn’t only about women breaking the stereotypical mold of femininity. It is also about letting men break free of the unfair ideals of masculinity. To use a poetic (and by now clichéd) expression, it is about it being okay for men to cry. It is about them not feeling ashamed or threatened if their wives earned more than them. It is about letting them be stay-at-home dads. And even with men, it is about changes spreading across the boundaries of class. I remember seeing a television program with some proud stay-at-home dads as panelists – all equivocally claiming that they didn’t face a problem in being one. They were all from privileged, urban backgrounds. Confident men who had achieved something in life and wouldn’t be bothered by societal pressure. But feminism is about providing this choice even to men from that fabled middle-class – the most potent upholder of all things patriarchal. Feminism is about providing this choice to everyone.
So yes – that’s how it changed for me. It changed when I accepted that it isn’t about me, my achievements or my weaknesses. It is about a system, which affects everyone. Besides, every feminist may not be cut out to be an activist. Every feminist may not even like being an activist. But everyone can be a feminist.
Not everyone needs to reach this point the way I reached at it. But irrespective of where you are in your life, whether or not you are trying to prove yourself, if you are ‘not a feminist’, please stop for a moment and think if your reasons are similar to mine. If they are, please review them.