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The Ugly Truth About Feminism In India

21/12/2016 5:53 PM IST | Updated 23/12/2016 3:50 PM IST
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The ugly truth is we have all, at some point, been complicit in the oppression of another person. We have all innocently, accidentally oppressed. I know because I've done it too.

If we are not advocating for the women whose realities do not look or feel like our own, then we are unequivocally a part of the problem.

Social Activist Kiese Laymon illustrates this truth through a series of gripping and revealing essays in his book, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. His work showed me that when we are ignorant of systems of oppression, we are complicit in perpetuating those systems. He writes, "Lots of times, we've taken turns killing ourselves slowly, before trying to bring each other back to life." Systems of oppression kill opportunity, spirit and resilience. When we, as a society, allow repressive systems to exist unchallenged we are each partially responsible for killing those affected. It is up to us, how we bring each other back to life.

Intersectional feminism

Feminism is one way I try to revive myself and others. At its most fundamental level Feminism (n): is the advocacy of women's rights based on the inherent equality of the sexes. However, because the must of feminism is so deeply misunderstood by men and women alike, a critical part of the conversation is missing. Indian feminism and feminist issues as they stand, most often, are not fully inclusive of all women or experiences. This article correctly notes:

"Indian feminism has tended to represent the interests and concerns of upper-caste women rather than reflect the experiences of Indian women en masse. By recognising this fact, Indian feminism can more effectively challenge historically entrenched and varied [systems of oppression]."

As Indian psychologist Taraasha Chopra explains,

"The more education I received, the more aware I became, the conversation on feminism changed. The problems of underprivileged women became nothing more than just facts and figures on a paper. The feminist discourse became more nuanced and we moved on to talking about issues such as socialization, subtle messages of discrimination, rape culture, glass ceilings etc. So the focus of my feminism was more oriented towards the privileged, urban, educated women who were stuck in traditionalist roles while having modern mindsets."

Chopra's observations probably sound familiar; at least they did to me. I too have felt, lived and contributed to this focus of feminism—especially during my time in India. This isn't meant as an accusation, but rather a call to action; because our feminism has to be intersectional or it is indeed bullshit.

Intentional or not, complicity in the face of oppressive systems is choosing the side of the oppressor. That is wholly un-feminist.

Intersectionality (n): is the study of intersecting social identities and the related systems of oppression. First coined within the context of feminism, it examines social hierarchies that privilege and oppress people based on overlapping aspects of their identity such as: race, gender, class, caste, sexual orientation, (dis)ability and so on. For example, two well-known hierarchal systems in India include the patriarchy, based on gender, and the historical caste system. And though the latter no longer formally exists, its norms and repercussions are still very real within Indian communities. When we examine those who are the most vulnerable to each of these systems, women and Dalits, we see the resulting disadvantage is compounded. A severe iteration of oppression specific to these overlapping identities is in the form of sexual violence. Studies show that Dalit women are disproportionately exposed to violence. Beyond this, the conviction rate for rape cases against all women in India is a mere 25%, but when specifically looking at Dalit women the conviction rate drops to an abysmal 2%. Intersectionality goes to understand that when identities intersect the related discrimination can result in an "experience that is more than the sum of its parts."

As I grow in my understanding of the power dynamics in our society, I realise my fight as a feminist isn't just against the patriarchy; it's against all systems of oppression and even my own privilege. It's about dismantling the Kyriarchy (n): the social system that keeps all intersecting oppressions in place. Because if we are not advocating for the women whose realities do not look or feel like our own, then we are unequivocally a part of the problem. Intentional or not, complicity in the face of oppressive systems is choosing the side of the oppressor. That is wholly un-feminist.

Let us think critically about the systems we rely on as a society, and realise the full spectrum of womanhood in its various hues.

Herein lies my call to action. Let us think critically about the systems we rely on as a society, and realise the full spectrum of womanhood in its various hues. Let us understand "that different kinds of oppression are interlinked, and that one can't liberate only one group without the others. It means acknowledging kyriarchy and intersectionality—the fact that along different axes, we're all both oppressed and oppressors, privileged and disprivileged."

The key to our liberation is ensuring everyone has an equal chance at success and happiness. It's consciously choosing to be open-minded and inclusive. It's about starting conversations that make us uncomfortable. It's about minimising our role as oppressors, about recusing apathy, as that inevitably hurts us too. It's about viscerally understanding this simple truth, "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even if her shackles are very different than my own."

This article is the second installment of a three-part series which was originally written for and published on Shenomics.comby Bithika Misha Rahman. Read part 1 here.

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