Women need more than equality. Women need upliftment and support in every space and corner.
Recently a colleague shared a talk by Josh Whedon and an interesting piece on people’s discomfort with ‘feminism’ and ‘feminists’. The piece goes on to state “being a feminist does not actually require a background in academic study and specific terminologies. All it demands is your personal desire for men and women to be treated equally in all aspects of life. That’s it. You don’t have to “become” anything—if you believe that men and women should be treated exactly the same, you already believe in feminism.” Earlier this month, I also had an intense discussion with a friend, who likes to believe that she is an ‘equalist’ (a self coined word) and not a ‘feminist’. She believes in equality for all and feels that she does not need fashionable terms such as ‘feminist’, to define her belief.
Desired as it is, ‘equality’ in the utopic sense is not a way of the world. Gender discrimination exists at every level and is layered and nuanced in its offence. Today women battle discrimination at all levels of life—existing as perennially exoticised and sexualised objects of male desire, familial relations in dire need of male protection and care, as competent professionals, not paid equal to the men at their work places or simply as young girls not allowed the luxury of elementary education or a bathroom. The problem is that because of the diversity of class, religion, culture and region, along with clear demarcated urban and rural spaces, the understanding of discrimination against women has also diversified.
What we face in India today is an example of this fact. In sections of the Indian society, women struggle to access education at every level. If they are fortunate to enter a workforce, it is to support multiple children they birthed as minors themselves and an abusive husband. Honour, virtue, chastity and virginity go hand in hand with their gendered role as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. In some traditional set ups, women are required to be covered from head-to-toes in dark garb, where their greatest offence is showing their face, while on others, they are untouchables during the period of menstruation, unable to enter a kitchen or eat with their own family.
In urban and liberal sections of the society, discrimination is of a different kind. Even in the most modern of setups, spinsterhood, divorce and single motherhood are unacceptable. The media portrays women as one of the two a species—vamps, whores, seductresses and arm candies. Or submissive, sweet natured flowers, the men obviously take fancy towards. In serious professional setups, the most qualified women have to fight and work twice as hard, to be taken seriously. The lack of women dominating the workforce along with a setup that encourages most workplaces to be more male friendly, allows for the crystallisation of the so called glass ceiling. Women, who do make it in their careers, struggle to balance life at work and home because of the lack of a robust support infrastructure at either place. In many cases, the societal pressures to settle down, conform and support only the spouse’s career along with an uncooperative family ensure women give up the hope of long-term careers, settle for odd jobs, or simply quit.
Along with this is the discrimination that finds voice in sexual harassment and assault, lewd jokes and behaviour, and inappropriate body language. The opposite of that is the creation of all men’s club and the segregation of women, where women are sidelined or put in women only compartments because dealing with them, their intricate problems and easily offendable modesty becomes an organisational or a social burden.
In the contemporary age, when people say they are not feminists, or that they do not agree with ‘feminism’, I somehow fail to understand their logic. Yes, equality in gender is what we must strive for. And that there is no apparent need to cushion this fact under the layers of feminism, feminist or gender theory, especially if you want this message to percolate down to the bottom of the societal pyramid, to the layman. Except that, this precisely is why there is a need. The tragedy of contemporary life is that ‘equality’ is not the state of nature or order. Whatever we may say, the world functions not through equals but through unequal binaries. First we need to strive towards treating women as mere human beings, before they can dream of equality with their opposite halves.
To the many, who fail to understand it, feminism was not an accidental bra-burning movement stemming from female hysteria, hormonal imbalances or post-partum depression. Feminism is a movement that has deep roots, a resonating history and political struggle at its core. Spread over continents, centuries and generations, it encapsulated ideologies, beliefs and revolutions and led to the creation of theory that has shaped and defined intellectual thought beyond just the hope for ‘equality’. Whether it was voting and political rights, sexual and reproductive rights, employment opportunities and equal pay, literacy or even the basic freedom to choose their own clothing—women have had to relentlessly rebel and fight to have the basic rights to live. Rights that men in their life, simply on the basis of their gender, have historically taken for granted.
Assuming this movement to be something esoteric, confined to the spaces of liberal arts colleges and enlightened humanities class rooms, is simply ignoring the weight and magnitude of a discourse that has defined the world for half of the world’s population. Ignoring the theory that has emerged, is assuming that it has no practical relevance in intellectual discourses or day-to-day life. It is the trivialisation of feminism as a movement and practice, that leads to individuals, otherwise claiming to be proponents of equality, to often overstep the line and justify it as paternalistic concern or an “untoward incident”. It supports the narrow-minded perceptions that investment in the study of gender and women is irrelevant and that the world revolves around what men think right.
The last few days in India have been frightening and depressing. While it is evident that discrimination of every nature is gently trickling back into the national discourse, incidents over the last few days have revolved particularly around gender. The core of power and authority at different levels has been questioned and the crux of this remains embedded in the fact that men and women are not equals. At this point in India, the need to talk about women– about the dire need to treat them as human beings above all– is what is necessary. Yes, it would be ideal to say that we want equality for both gender, but the fact remains, that women need more than equality. Women need upliftment and support in every space and corner. There has to be a term, less generic and more burdened and articulate than just ‘equality’. Therefore understanding the importance of a feminist and feminism becomes necessary. Until women and men– at homes, work places, in positions of authority and decision-making—don’t start to acknowledge or understand it and then accept and internalise it for what it is and what it stands for, there is little hope.