The year was 2014, I was attending a vocational training camp in Kochi, Kerala, India. The trainer, a man in his late thirties, asked the class if anyone was a feminist. The class remained immobile and silent. From the second last row in which I was seated, I half raised my hand. He glanced in my direction and chose to ignore me.
The year is 2017, I was attending a house party in London, United Kingdom. A female friend of mine and I, were shaking our heads hopelessly after failing to convince two of our male friends what feminism was. The two Indian boys we were talking to, one, an NIT and IIM graduate and another, a batchmate of mine from UCL hi-fived each other and retorted our bit on feminism by saying, “These feminist girls, Deepika Padukone and my choice!”
Feminism is a bad word in India. I speak especially of India for I was born and raised here. This is where I have my roots and therefore, this, my home, is what I can talk about best. As a literature major, I have faith in the power of words. Semantics or the association of words and meanings is of special importance in today’s world where words are used to isolate and target minority communities, to defend principles and where words can start and end wars.
So here is my humble attempt to define and elucidate some basic feminist ideologies, terms, and misconceptions in the simplest of terms (sans hardcore academic feminism).
Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start… (Sound of Music reference?)
Feminism: Feminism is an umbrella term for all movements that attempt to work towards the achievement of equal political, social, cultural, economic rights of all sexes. In a way, the term feminism is organic such that it can involve equal rights in any spheres.
Feminist: Anyone who believes and works towards equal rights of all sexes is a feminist. So, the good news (or bad news for some) is that you might be a feminist whether you recognise yourself as one or not. To put it simply, human beings by scientific nomenclature are Homo sapiens. Whether we agree or disagree to voluntarily call ourselves that does not exactly distort the fact that we do belong to the said category.
Sexist: While a feminist is NOT a bad person, a sexist is one. There, I’ve said it. A sexist person, comment, or depiction involves the belittling of one sex over another. Sexist behaviour is often considered prejudiced and discriminatory. It usually involves the reinforcing of stereotypes to establish a point. For real and daily life examples of sexism, refer to The Everyday Sexism Project.
Sex: Sex is a biological construct. Depending upon one’s sex or reproductive organs, an individual is generally categorized as male or female at birth. A further different sexual anatomy from the norm is identified as the inter-sex category. Fausto-Sterling’s The Five Sexes offers a more comprehensive overview on this anatomy based sexual categorisation.
Gender: Gender is a social construct and is highly problematic. It lays the foundation for many of the stereotypes and prejudices that become associated with sex. While sex is biological, gender focuses on what society considers should be the normalised behaviour of each sex. Males are expected to exhibit masculine behaviour and females are associated with the feminine. Masculinity and femininity are gender attributes. Masculinity expects men to be aggressive and active while women are expected to be passive. Gender expectations are what gives rise to classic phrases like “boys don’t cry”, “walk, talk, sit, stand like a girl”.
Male privilege: Male privilege refers to the advantages that men have socially, culturally, economically, politically et al just on the account of being men. It refers to the taken for granted privilege of a group solely on the basis of being born as a socially considered superior sex. From sex-preference that some societies have towards the birth of sons to the superiority associated to men and language in terms of lexicon – man, hu‘man’, ‘his’tory, chair ‘man’ to mention a few. Though critics argue that men suffer as well in social situations, it is imperative to identify the fact that while some men might suffer and be discriminated on account of belonging to a minority community, an economically backward background, being physically different from the norm or for a deviant sexual orientation, women are discriminated against solely for being born a woman.
Women have it easy: I recently heard someone talk about female privilege. According to this person, women have it easy. Women cry and get out of situations, can smile and get what they want and have good tax incentives. Yes, women have it easy. Imagine having to unconsciously and consciously attune your daily activities to protect oneself from getting raped. Having to think with clarity on what to wear, when, and in what environment, because a short skirt means violating your body becomes a predator’s prerogative. To avoid certain streets during the night and sometimes during the day. To hold oneself steady in a public transport when the man behind you is constantly ‘losing his balance and holding on to you’. To be belittled because you gave birth to a daughter. To be an accomplice to foeticide or infanticide because there is no place for that daughter. To be belittled because you are a daughter. Yes, women do have it easy.
A male friend once asked me what I thought about women being allowed a fee waiver for a certain conference. The answer to that question is applicable to numerous other areas where women or minority communities are accorded special representation. When a group has been oppressed for so long, they need this added incentive as a leg up to help them be at par with their more socially superior counterparts. Once all groups are on the same social standing, there is no longer a necessity for special incentives. And the women who attend the conference will not expect or require a fee waiver.
Feminist vs Equalist: One usual method of avoiding the feminist label is to call oneself an equalist. In simple terms, an equalist would be someone who believes in equal rights for all. A feminist, by this definition would be an equalist who believes in equal rights for all - specifically for all sexes. A feminist, thereby, has a specific battle that they have chosen. To oversimplify and destroy it, an equalist will order dessert while a feminist will specifically choose trifle pudding.
Feminism is for women alone: Feminism originated as part of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It started with the quest for voting rights. So yes, the origins of feminism are women-centric. Today, feminism has evolved to accommodate all sexes and individual with no sex, to break gender stereotypes and discrimination. If the focus is more on women and other minorities, it is because these groups require the assistance. To sugar coat and emphasise that feminism is for men runs the risk of de-centring women and other minorities including the LGBTQ+ community. But having said that, feminism today is all inclusive and addresses the needs of men as well in its quest to let each individual human being be whoever they want to be.
Feminists are men haters: I am a feminist. Some of my favourite people on this planet are men. My father, my grandfather, my brothers, my male best friends, my male acquaintances are loved and respected as genuinely as all the women in my life. Feminists are not men-haters. In fact, some men themselves are feminists.
Promoting a group’s welfare does not mean the persecution of another. Feminism is not fascism. If you find feminism despotic then it’s time to reevaluate your moral principles, for the fear comes from a sense of insecurity. If the name does not instill fear in you, then you are probably a feminist yourself (whether you chose to call yourself one or not).
“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself” (Harry Potter Reference?).
And a feminist is not someone who should be feared provided you are on the right side.