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5 Uninformed Ideas That Make Feminism A Bad Word In India

15/12/2016 3:05 PM IST | Updated 18/12/2016 9:33 AM IST
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India both loves and hates the female form. A country of exceptional diversity, it is filled with nuance and contradictions—especially when it comes to women and gender. India is the amalgamation of thousands upon thousands of years of civilization. Today it is a State with over 122 major languages, more than 2000 ethnic groups, and every imaginable religion, geography, income, and education level. All this to say, there is no single India or Indian. Thus, when it comes to understanding something as misunderstood as feminism in a place as complex as India, there are rarely absolute truths and invariably many exceptions.

I don't think anyone, with any degree of intellectual honesty, can say women hold equal status to men in India. And yet, the need for feminism is strongly contested...

India's diversity explains a wide range of cultural paradoxes: the worship of goddesses and the barring of women from temples; reverence for Indira but disdain for working women; a woman's virtue valued above all else amidst a rampant rape culture. These contradictions exist not just in the same nation, but at times within the same person, regardless of education, status or even gender. And while there are many gendered inequities that persist, there are also many women who thrive in every facet of their life despite them. As there is no single "Indian", there is no single brush with which to paint the situation or status of women. That's what makes feminism in India so complicated.

I don't think anyone, with any degree of intellectual honesty, can say women hold equal status to men in India. And yet, the need for feminism is strongly contested by men and women alike. The main arguments I've come across are as follows:

"Feminism is about hating men"

At best, this sentiment is rooted in a deep misunderstanding of what feminism was historically and why the women warriors of our past fought for their rights the way they did. As a woman who has immensely benefited from the tireless and thankless work of those who came before me, I will not ever criticize the how of it. But more often than not, this criticism is based on the intentional misrepresentation of what feminism is. This article does a good job of breaking down where these misconceptions came from and why they exist.

"Feminism is a woman supremacist movement"

Feminism unequivocally is not woman supremacist movement, but "when you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." Most feminists don't hate men, and we don't consider ourselves superior to men. We most certainly do, however, consider ourselves equal. Nothing less than equal.

As a reaction to feminism there is a growing men's rights movement in India. MRAs (men's rights activists) fall on a spectrum, just like feminists. I won't dismiss the entire movement or all MRAs out of hand; this paragraph isn't for those who want to have a real dialogue about improving society. This is for the MRAs who are focused on discrediting all feminist work and preserving toxic patriarchy. Below is the short list for what does and does not qualify as men's issues:

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What I will say to any MRAs reading this article, this is not the place for the above discussions. Please do not try to silence women's issues with your own. That is a separate conversation.

"Feminism spits in the face of our traditions and way of life."

To this I have two simple responses. First, the oppression of women is not the only history of India.

Second, tradition is never a good enough reason to continue to do something. Tradition alone will never be enough.

"Feminism is obsolete. Today women are equal."

Feminism isn't about theoretical equality; it's about the reality in which we all live. And the reality is, most women don't have equal access to resources or opportunity. This is true even in the best of circumstances.

There are many women who have received every single advantage. They have come from good families, have gone to the top schools, work for the best companies, and live utterly comfortable lives. Statistically speaking, however, these women still struggle with inequality often. As a rule, these women are not equal to their male counterparts in terms of pay or rank. But this is a comfortable oppression; it's one that is framed in cultural complexities and implicit biases. The problems of the bourgeoisie.

Privileged women choose not to speak out because they feel guilty about all that they do have, the "it could be much worse" mentality.

The catch 22 of modern feminism becomes one of two things:

Privileged women choose not to speak out because they feel guilty about all that they do have, the "it could be much worse" mentality.

Or when women do speak out, we are seen as victimising ourselves. It's easy to undermine these feminist issues as cribbing, but they are vital. Because even if men and women are theoretically equal, it doesn't mean a thing if we don't hold equal status or influence in society, which we don't.

And the women who aren't lucky enough to have every advantage? Their reality is starkly different, which brings me to the next, related, point.

"There are bigger problems than modern feminist issues."

Finally, circling back to the [un]comfortable oppression of the bourgeoisie, many try to silence women by using other issues, such as extreme poverty, to provide a false perspective (also known as the strawman fallacy). This attempts to distract and invalidate important conversations that need to be had. As organisms with the ability to think critically, we can reconcile co-existing but dramatically different issues. It never has to be one or the other; we can and should care about both.

And though breaking glass ceilings, closing the gender gap in leadership roles, and examining socialisation are important—vital in fact— these are only a small facet of the feminist gamut. The must of feminism is undeniable, but it is not enough. Modern Indian feminists and organisations have to do more, and be better. In a country as large and diverse as India it's especially important to understand social structures and the varying experiences of womanhood. We must be intersectional in our discourse and united in our actions.

This article is the first installment of a three-part series which was originally written for and published on Shenomics.com by Bithika Misha Rahman.

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