The Complexities of Feminism
Updated: Aug 28
My family gathered at my grandmother’s home where she made some delicious shrikhand puri. I was with my cousins in another room and a healthy discussion over a myriad of controversial topics led us to discuss Modern Feminism. Ironically, at that moment my uncle asked me to serve him and his two sons some shrikhand puri. I politely declined as I was in the middle of a conversation and asked him to do it himself. I was in another room altogether, and in the effort he took to convince me to come serve them food, he could have done it by himself, or perhaps asked his sons to help out. His only argument being -- I’m a woman.
In my home, as in many others all over India, womxn are expected to comply with traditional gender roles and not only make the food, but also expected to serve it. While I recognize even within this context, I am extremely advantaged, being benefited by my belonging to a myriad other -- more privileged -- social groups that all exist in a hierarchy (for instance, caste, class or urban-dwelling), gender roles can be just as pervasive across these protections.
For instance, in northern India. It is an age-old tradition for unmarried boys to live in a room outside of the home called the "baithak", separated particularly from the womxn of the family. The womxn have to cover their faces with a veil if they leave the house or are amongst men, their personhood and identities quite literally shrouded. The elders and the men objectify womxn, perceive them as property -- something they can control -- without agency of their own and something they must protect. The primary role of the woman is domestic -- defined by tasks of cooking, nurturing children, looking after the home, in addition to protecting their own honour -- which is seen as a community asset.
Such gender roles are based on an individual’s assigned sex at birth.
But sex and gender are different.
In the ‘70’s, these socially constructed and highly prescriptive roles were challenged by feminists. Kamla Bhasin, who was a social scientist, believes social segregation isn’t just an inequality between genders, it’s the difference between the rich and the poor. A land owner’s wife might face segregation, but the labourer and his wife who work their land have to worry about feeding themselves rather than segregation. This power play between the genders exists because of patriarchy.
Feminism isn’t complicated, but it is definitely layered, with a lot of different complexities. We cannot equate the feminist movement with gender equality as there are a lot of different issues that it is essentially rooted in. The goals of feminism are evolving as society evolves. It all began when B. R Ambedkar was mindful about womxn getting equal rights to men while drafting the constitution. Womxn have been denied education, and opresssed with social evils like female foeticide, dowry, custodial rape, sati practices.
Intersectional Feminism was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the year 1989. The overlapping or intersecting social identities relate with systems of oppression, domination or discrimination and is studied through the intersectional perspective. In India, the feminist movement against gender discrimination was intertwined with the Dalit movement against Brahmanical patriarchy with the freedom struggle as its background. Thus first wave feminism and intersectionality took a different form in India as compared to the west.
The Second Wave Feminism drew attention to marital rape, domestic violence, workplace safety, reproductive rights, challenging gender roles and intersectional feminism. This wave was pivotal in an Indian context as it brought the plight of working womxn as well as housewives into the mainstream.
Third Wave Feminism in India saw national protests against rape. The society was confronted with all the hypocrisies it garnered. With Indira Gandhi as the first female prime minister, Mayawati becoming the first Scheduled Caste Chief Minister, Sonia Gandhi being the first female Leader of the Opposition, and Pratibha Patil being the first female President of India, political representation of womxn in India improved. Feminism spread into pop culture and mainstream media and gained traction. Messages of womxn empowerment and sex positivity as well as discussions of gender, sexuality and body image made the Third Wave more inclusive for trans feminists.
Recently, Harry Potter fans may have noticed a prominent display of the TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) ideology where J.K Rowling posted a tweet implying that only true womxn menstruate. It is thus vital to mention that trans people have just as much right, space, responsibility and importance in the feminist movement as much as cis womxn.
Coming back to the Shrikhand, my question to him was, why couldn’t he do it himself? The next one, I asked myself, why did I do it? Why did I feel like I had no choice? What’s the worst that could have happened? This example may seem trivial but I realised I shouldn’t suppress myself for the small things and definitely not for the bigger, important ones. It’s not like I want to stop doing nice things for my family, or reach a point where I would think it isn’t my job to serve food. I want to go past this. Irrespective of age, which caste they belong to, sex, gender or whether they identify as cis or trans, why should anybody’s choice be suppressed by patriarchy?
The Fourth Wave of Feminism is about Choice -- workplace equity, safety and individualism in terms of freedom, sexuality, and desire. The #MeToo movement provided the much needed support for a catharsis that flooded social media, mainstream media and people’s houses.
As for the fight against patriarchy, gender roles and everyday sexism -- there’s still a long way to go. As of 2019, 20.3% of womxn were a part of India’s labour force. With the same female labour participation rate falling to 15.5% during the lock down in the April-June 2020 quarter. This only means less than a third of the womxn in India are working or are searching for a job in the first place. Apart from this, there is still a stark amount of disproportion in the amount of housework and child care womxn do as compared to men in heterosexual urban relationships irrespective of how much the woman earns. Womxn are expected to do house work for free and are undeniably poorer and dealt a tougher hand in this capitalistic world. But care work and unpaid work is still labour. Womxn's oppression and systematic removal from the paid labour market benefits men even today,
Undoubtedly, we need men to support womxn, but as allies, who can use their privilege to help dismantle oppressive structures premised in gender. Calling out and dismantling patriarchy in their circles and supporting womxn (trans as well as cis) as they do the same are some ways in which men help as allies.
To address a common misconception -- feminism isn’t against men, it is a movement to dismantle the structures that uphold the patriarchy. Gender equality under a patriarchal lens, assumes that womxn need to be empowered to be equal to men as if that’s the only standard that womxn are expected to follow -- Womxn can do whatever a man can. This is where the problem lies, where the standards set by men is the limit and not the sky. The fact that a woman should grow and flourish to attain the level of freedom a man has under the influence of patriarchy itself is against the core ideology of Feminism. There need not be a linear relationship between the genders. The entire concept of gender is becoming more fluid in today’s society. This binary comparison and standards set for womxn as per what men can do is becoming irrelevant. Womxn shouldn’t empower themselves based on an external reference. This makes the freedom of choice and creativity in today’s society all the more vital. The Gender pay gap shouldn’t just be an issue for the white collar or managerial jobs. It’s an issue for all jobs as well as all genders. Some countries truly do have a foot forward with Iceland having the most progressive attitudes with Finland, Norway, New Zealand and Sweden ranking highest on The Global Gender Gap Index. The world is making progress and so can we.
It’s time we embrace and celebrate our differences. It’s time all womxn siphon their own potential and redefine boundaries for themselves in all spheres of society, by setting our own standards irrespective of the norms set by any other gender structures. Through focused investment and collaboration in education, health, nutrition, safety, and through freedom of choice, progress can be made in a meaningful direction.
Sonia Patwardhan (she/her) is a Mental Health Advocate at Nolmë Labs. She is an artist at heart and lover of animals and period dramas. Talk to her about anything under the sun and you might just go home with unfunny rhymes and an extra pun.