Feminism is the radical notion that women are people, said someone famous. That sums up feminism better than any long winded definition. Feminism aims to restore to women their full humanity, enabling us all to see women as human.
Here's the wikipedia entry and the dictionary definition of feminism. Yet time and again, I've come up against a wall of ignorance. Many simply don't know what feminism is, or have misconceptions about it. And so often it takes up a lot of feminists' time, effort and energy in explaining what it means. Here's my attempt at a sort of ready reckoner and myth buster.
To quote Bell Hooks, "Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression."
I will elaborate this in the Indian context- mostly the mainstream, north Indian one, which is most familiar to me. The parts that comprise the largest struggles of feminism in India are the patriarchy and the caste system, which combine and reinforce each other to make women's lives miserable.
Feminism aims at the restoration of basic human rights to women and to all genders. This can only be achieved by dismantling the patriarchy, the system for and by men which keeps them in power through domination and violence.
Let's talk about patriarchy.
The head of the family is the patriarch or father. He is usually the oldest male member, in whom rests maximum power and who makes all decisions for the family. This power structure is replicated at all levels of society. The Indian state, too, is steeped in patriarchal attitudes, and through its various organs, sets out to decide for its citizens what is best for them.
Patriarchy enforces strict gender roles for males and females.
These roles are reinforced in a circular fashion.
It keeps men and women bound in certain roles, and as we perform these roles, we adapt to them. These performances of femininity and masculinity are closely monitored. There is praise on performing well and fierce retribution is meted out for missteps.Those who don't follow the norms face violent consequences and the cycle is perpetuated.
Women's performance of femininity are controlled through violence. And this cycle of violence perpetrated over centuries has become so ingrained in our social fabric, that we take it for granted.
Violence need not always be inflicted by a tear to the skin or a breaking of bones. A harsh word which hurts and may leave a lasting impact, or just the fear that something awful may happen to one is also violence. So often, just the threat of it is enough to keep women in control.
Moreover, women have so internalised the concepts of patriarchy and sexism that most of the time we don't recognise sexism when we see it. Misogyny isn't specific to men; women practise it freely too! Following the dictates of patriarchy can be rewarding to a certain extent. Women who toe the line are assured of a certain safety, specially if they belong to the upper caste or class- both usually reinforce each other in the Indian context.
One of the norms enforced by patriarchy are the labour roles designated by gender. Women are expected to stay at home, produce babies and look after the household chores such as cooking, cleaning, laundry and care of the old and infirm. Women are assumed to have a temperament which is best suited to such work. They are typecast into the roles of "natural born nurturers".
The flip side of this popular myth associated with gender roles is that men are best suited to the aggressive hustle and bustle of life outside the home and perform hard labour. Of course, these norms don't always stand up to scrutiny. But we are so conditioned to these norms, we accept them as they are, without question.
One only have to venture into the rural heartlands to see that in India today, the majority of the back breaking hard labour in agriculture is done by women: the majority of Indian farmers are women. But they are not termed farmers because the land they toil away on, either isn't to their names, or they work on others' fields and are thus not counted as labourers, not farmers.
The movement of feminism is more about erasing outdated gender roles rather than pitting two clearly demarcated groups against each others. Feminism aims to abolish these gender binaries and blur the lines.
Let's talk about the caste system.
As it stands today, caste is a system that confers on each person born into a Hindu family, an unalterable social status. There are four main castes but there are also those who are outside the fold, the "outcastes" or Dalits or untouchables.
Caste works as a carefully graded system of inequality arranged according to "an ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt".
Caste can be more dehumanising than class as it deprives the disadvantaged of not only access to capital but also of dignity and personhood. Imagine a centuries old structure which simply doesn't recognise you; you're invisible to it.
Marriage is one of the key areas of life dominated by caste, and the endogamous marriage (within the same caste) is key to maintaining separations between castes. Maintaining the purity of the bloodline can only be achieved through keeping a tight control on women's bodies and their sexuality, which is also what patriarchy aims at: to keep women's sexuality in check.
The Caste System also helps uphold the Patriarchy.
The two systems of patriarchy and caste merge seamlessly and reinforce each other in exploiting the bodies of the marginalised and controlling the bodies of women.
Inequality operates at many levels in our society. Patriarchy also upholds the caste system and vice versa. The two systems in conjunction with each other keep many groups of people oppressed. Some of these groups like the people of all minority religions such as Muslims or indigenous tribes or adivasis are all marginalised, some of whom are at a double disadvantage.
The status of women belonging to these groups is even more inferrer to that of their menfolk. In the Indian context, feminism must look to include all such groups of the disenfranchised and provide them a platform. Feminism which doesn't include these groups is quite futile.
At the same time, in the broader context, women's postion in Indian society is much worse compared to men. Of course it's a matter of degrees: the lot of Indian upper class women -who are almost always also upper caste - is better than that of men of lower socio economic strata, who in turn are in a better position than that of their women folk, only if marginally so. Suffice it to say that though things may be getting better for women, we have a long struggle ahead in dismantling the patriarchy.
A look at some of the common myths around Feminism.
1. Feminism is a foreign import.
Feminism is very much an Indian product and has roots in India. In the modern context, men and women have been working for the emancipation of women from their unequal status since the nineteenth century.
One of the first to set up an all girls school and pave the way for women's education was Savitribai Phule, trailblazer in her own right.
2. Feminism seeks to make women equal to men. We aren't looking for equality, we are looking to dismantle the patriarchy (and the caste system must be annihilated along with it.)
Both these systems privilege some people by the accident of birth and condemns millions others to unforgivable and illegal forms of survival like manual scavenging, from which they have no respite. This is compounded by the fact that this system of injustice has been in place for centuries.Feminism seeks the liberation and freedom of all individuals, not just women.
3. Feminism is anti-men.
Feminism is anti-patriarchy and the system of violent coercion with which it works to enforce gender roles. Patriarchy and the caste system which it supports and underpins were built over centuries to put savarna or high caste men in privileged positions of power. These system were built by exploiting the bodies of women and men of lower castes.
Feminism doesn't advocate hatred of men. It aims at dismantling the system which is held up by men, mostly unwittingly and unthinkingly. Yes, the default beneficiary is men so it's no wonder it seems we are attacking men.
My suggestion for men: take a step back, don't make it personal. Don't assume you represent all men. And whether you like it or not, you are privileged; work to understand it. (hey, you're reading this piece, you're doing great! Yay!)
4. Feminism isn't needed anymore because women are already equal to men.
If you think women are equal now, and there is no need for feminism, you need to read some statistics. Girls are killed before birth and women are burnt for dowry. Women continue to be paid less on average than men, many jobs are not friendly to mothers, and women continue to be responsible for the majority of household work.
5. Women choose to doll up and be feminine, why do they need feminism?
Femininity is a performance women are forced into, yet they go gaga over spa treatments and hair colour? Yes, those acts may not be feminist acts in themselves but if wearing nail paint makes a woman happy, why shouldn't she? Also, we have to pick our battles till the day we all start dressing in a gender neutral, androgynous fashion. Till then, let's keep our bras and our toe rings.
6.Feminism only liberates women at the expense of men.
Feminism doesn't just liberate women; it also liberates men by breaking down the standards which society has put in place for both women and men. Men are taught in this society to be macho, emotionless leaders, and to never show weakness. "Big boys don't cry" is yet another stick to beat men into submission, by the patriarchy. Feminism says that it's okay for men to show weakness, be followers, and to show their emotions.
Feminism will set women and men free; free to achieve our full potentials as caring, loving, nurturing human beings. Because nothing less will do.