Because a lot of people still have a lot of misunderstanding about feminism, it is necessary that we explain it again and again.
Before explaining feminism I wish to remember and pay my tributes to all our feminist foremothers and fore-sisters on whose shoulders we stand tall. Whatever we have achieved as women and girls, is a result of their struggles and courage.
Some people, including some young, strong and bright women, feel feminism is no more necessary. It is a thing of the past because girls and women have equal rights now. I wish it was so. On the one hand women have broken many barriers, they have proven themselves in every area of work and life, we have pretty good laws and policies, but at the same time violence against women is not less, if not more and this is so all over the world; in India the female male ratio continues to dip. For the first time in human history, there are fewer women than men on this planet thanks mainly to gynocide (killing of women) in India and China. The employment rate of women in India in the formal sector has been going down while the GDP has been rising. Our religions, customs and traditions, our languages not just in India but everywhere, continue to be patriarchal. The media and advertisements are filled with misogynistic (woman hating) images, stories and item numbers. Therefore, for me feminism is still relevant and required.
My first point is that feminism is perhaps the most badnaam (infamous), purposely discredited, misinterpreted and misunderstood ISM. There are all kinds of totally ridiculous rumors about feminism. For decades corporate media have spread falsehoods about feminism. I find it totally amazing that most middle class men have heard about bra burning feminists, while they seem to have missed hearing about the relentless struggles of feminists in South Asia against dowry, deaths, female feticide or rape. Despite this, I am happy to call myself a feminist. I was delighted when HH the Dalai Lama said recently that “if speaking for the rights of women is being a feminist, then I think I am a feminist”.
The word feminism is derived from the French word Femme, which means woman. Feminism looks at the world through women’s eyes. Why do we this? We look at the world through women’s eyes because for the last couple of thousand years the world has been looked at and spoken about through men’s eyes. Almost all religious texts have been written by men; mainly men have formulated laws in most Parliaments of the world; mainly men have made laws and passed judgments; men editors have interpreted and controlled news and so on. Therefore, a balanced view is desperately required and for that we need to look at the world through women’s eyes. Another reason for looking at the world through women’s eyes is the fact that women are at the bottom of all social, political and economic hierarchies. Hence when we look at the world through women’s eyes, we look at it through the eyes of the most oppressed and exploited members of our societies.
South Asian feminists have defined feminists thus, “Anyone who recognizes that women are discriminated against within families, at the place of work and in society in general, and who takes action against this discrimination is a feminist”. According to this definition, men can also be feminists.
Home makers (housewives) who demand dignity and rights for themselves, treat their sons and daughters equally, do not spoil their sons, are therefore feminists. You do not have to join an organization to be a feminist but joining groups and campaigns helps strengthen feminism and women’s movement.
You do not have to join an organization to be a feminist. Mothers who bring up their children with equal rights and opportunities and who fight for their own dignity are also feminists, according to this definition. However, being part of an organization it strengthens the feminist movement.
Black feminist bell hook defines feminism thus, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”
These clear and simple definitions make it totally clear that feminism is not anti men. It is against discrimination and sexism; it is against patriarchy. I wonder why, despite this clarity, we feminists are constantly called men haters? Personally, if a boy or man is subjected to sexism, I oppose that too.
Feminism, like most other ideologies, is a discourse, an ideology, a way of looking at the world AND it is a program of action, activism. Feminism, thus, walks on two legs of theory and action. The actions are to challenge patriarchy and unequal power relations in our families and societies. Activism is an essential part of feminism. Our ideology is to challenge the mainstream, patriarchal ideology which considers men to be superior and women to be inferior.
My next point is that just like there are different kinds of Marxists, socialists, democrats, all feminists are also not the same. There are multiple feminisms. Therefore we should speak of feminism in the plural. Different feminists emphasize different issues, depending on their location, history etc. Some feminists look at and speak only about gender relations. Others talk of caste, race, and class along with gender. After all women are not only women. We also belong to a caste, class, race, religion etc and this affects our situation and power. Many feminists speak of and analyze this inter sectionality
Because feminism is a response to patriarchy, it is both local and global; it has similarities and differences.
In my opinion, feminism often is and should be like water. Water everywhere is H2O but it takes the shape of the vessel it is in. Everywhere feminism is against patriarchy and since patriarchies are different at different places, feminist struggles are also different. In the US feminists do not fight against dowry because there is no dowry there but in South Asia and the US we fight against common problems like violence against women, women’s secondary status in politics, their lower wages etc.
My next point is that unlike in Marxism, Gandhism, there is no big Mama of feminism. Feminism has not been created or defined by one or two women. Thousands of women have defined feminism and feminist struggles in the context of their lives and their societies. Thousand feminist flowers have bloomed and continue to bloom.
Because patriarchy is everywhere, in the families, in Parliaments, trade unions, religions; in the arts, in science, therefore we feminists have to be and are everywhere to challenge patriarchal mindsets. This is why there have been and are feminist artists, film makers, poets, politicians, scientists, theologians etc.
Feminism has created an important slogan- Personal is the Political. There are several interpretations of this slogan. We reject the divide patriarchy has created between the domestic and public arenas. Patriarchy insists a woman’s place is only in the private or domestic arena and that of men is in the public arena. There are different rules for the two arenas. Feminists reject this binary by saying personal is the political.
Another interpretation of this feminist slogan is that there is nothing purely private or public. Every personal act of ours affects society. For example, if I give dowry to my daughter it will affect society. People who know me will think, if Kamla is giving dowry then we will definitely have to give dowry. Similarly, if a woman accepts domestic violence it gives a message to the children, husband, neighbors etc. that violence is part of life for women and men have the right to be violent. If I resist and challenge violence, the exact opposite message will go out. Therefore many feminists feel we have to be very mindful of our personal decisions, actions, choices and behavior.
The third interpretation of this slogan is that changes in society must begin with me. My personal acts and choices will lead to political changes.
I feel, because of this slogan feminism is the most challenging or perhaps the most dangerous ISM. This is the only ISM which enters our homes and the most personal of relationships. It forces women and men to look at all their relationships, thoughts and actions. Feminism forces me to look critically at myself. How do I behave, relate to others, dress etc.? Therefore feminists are often found to be boring. They are not able to appreciate most films or laugh at sexist jokes or appreciate most magazines and advertisements because they are often anti women.
Feminists are unhappy with religions because all of them are patriarchal, if not in theory at least in practice. None of the present day religions accept a woman as its head; all of them use the masculine gender for God, all religions are defined and interpreted by men and all of them consider man to be the head of the household. If God is man, then man is God. I feel, it is necessary to analyze and challenge religious and cultural beliefs which are patriarchal. We have created very good, equality and rights based national Constitutions, but because our religious and cultural beliefs and practices have not changed much, our Constitutions and laws are not implemented.
Many feminists have major problems with capitalism and capitalist patriarchy. In capitalism
Pornography and cosmetics are billion dollar industries and both reduce women to bodies and commodify them. Guns and other violent toys and games for boys and Barbie dolls for girls spread stereotypes and harm both girls and boys. For profit doctors and medical laboratories are partners in killing millions of female fetuses in India and other countries.
It is important to look at some myths and rumors about feminism which make even women reject or be afraid of feminism. These myths are constantly spread by mainstream media because feminism challenges so many institutions, systems and structures.
Myth number one is that feminists are anti men. This is totally unfounded. Feminists are against patriarchy and we oppose both men and women who promote patriarchal mindsets and practices. Throughout history there have been men who have struggled for gender equality and supported the feminist cause. Even today myriads of men are part of and supportive of the women’s movement.
Another myth is that feminists break peaceful families. First of all, where are the peaceful families which we can break! Feminists break the silence about conflict ridden families and thus work towards creating genuinely peaceful, equal, democratic families. Those people, who hide the faults of families in the name of parivaar kee izzat or family honor, are the ones who are breaking families.
The third myth is that feminists are against religions and local cultures. Well, if our religions and cultures are patriarchal, if they oppress dalits, if they are outdated, we do criticize them. Once again, the motivation is to make religions and culture more egalitarian and just; the same motivation which Buddha, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammad and Guru Nanak had; the same motivation which Jyotiba Phule and Baba Sahib Ambedkar had. We are for equality, human rights for all and justice and therefore we oppose elements in our religious and cultural practices which perpetuate inequalities of gender, caste, race and class.
Another myth perpetuated all the time is that feminism is Western. Feminism is indeed not Western. It is totally local. According to a feminist, feminism must have been born the day patriarchy was created. This is why there are incidents of gender equality debates in the life of Buddha, Prophet Mohammad, Meera Bai, Mahadevi akka, Raabia of Basra. Where was Western feminism then? However, even if feminism WAS Western, if it made sense we would have accepted it, just as we have accepted Islam from our West, Marxism and millions of other things from the West.
My last message is – Do not be afraid of Feminism, join it!!
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