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  • Feminism is Not My Fight

    TAKING OFF FROM Indhu’s post about young people declaring feminism dead, I want to explore why young women, specifically, feel this way. I’ve met a lot of women who are apolitical and even have friends who don’t exactly embrace the ‘feminist’ label whole-heartedly. Don’t they know about acid attacks, about dowry deaths, rape, domestic violence? Sure, they do, but a lot of the time, it is (to borrow from Douglas Adams) “Somebody Else’s Problem”. To put it even more plainly, the question that’s really at the bottom of this, the question that they’re probably asking in their heads is: “But what’s in it for me?”

    And I can sort of see their point: Here is a label that will make me less appealing (to men and women) and an object of suspicion. Some of its members do seem a bit aggressive. Others tell you not to wear lipstick. A few even tell you that all men are evil, which I certainly do not believe. And all this for what? What’s in it for me?

    Of course, there are other factors like lack of knowledge, alienation or fear that are also at work here but I think relevance is pretty high up on the list. Many women believe that Indian feminism is relevant only to the rural, poor or uneducated. Feminist theory has not developed much in India so it’s natural that feminism is equated with feminist activism. Historically, feminist activism has often dealt with the issues of lower socio-economic groups, simply because their need was greater. So, while a lot of women agree that feminist work needs to be done for “them”, they think “women like us don’t need feminism”.

    They do not find resonance with feminists because, frankly, feminists are not speaking to them. Nor can they really identify with Western feminism because it is located in a different cultural consciousness. So to them, feminism is always and consistently about someone else. And it’s hard to get worked up over other people’s fights.

    The irony is that the women’s movement has benefited us in many ways (legal rights, social mobility, financial independence) but many don’t think about this very often. They were probably born into it. Even if they weren’t, the struggles took place in the hazy background of their existence with no engagement or effort on their part. Plus these battles are over; now what? Between climbing corporate ladders and wiping snotty noses, today’s young woman is quite busy.

    To be more relevant to her, feminism has to be more current context, more communicative, more inclusive and less judgmental. It has to get off her back about the lipstick and understand her problems. It has to ensure sexual harassment policies in offices and better maternity leave. It doesn’t have to wear spiky shoes and dance but it shouldn’t have a problem if she does. It needs to stop theorizing at her and give her proper solutions to real-life problems. And while we’re at it, some clarity about sex wouldn’t hurt.

    More seriously, these are some of the areas in which I think young, urban, educated women could do with some feministic help:

    • workplace issues — equal rights at work, maternity policies, child-rearing versus career, work-life balance
    • sex and sexuality — lack of awareness, lack of pleasure, no sex education, no HIV education
    • body issues — skin colour, weight issues, lack of awareness, menstrual taboos
    • marriage — domestic violence, abuse issues, divorce laws, marital rape, inequality in terms of housekeeping and parenting
    • sexual harassment — street sexual harassment, sexual harassment at the workplace, rape
    • reproductive rights — control over contraception, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, female foeticide

    Some women’s rights organizations address some of these problems but there aren’t enough of them. Even those that do are low-key and haven’t learned how to work the Internet well enough which, as you know, is where a lot of young, educated women hang out. For example, more young people probably know about Janaagraha than about Vimochana. A point to note is that Janaagraha’s PR efforts have been fantastic. The founder Ramesh Ramanathan writes a column for Mint and both he and his wife are frequently interviewed by the newspapers. Blank Noise Project is the only women’s collective that has reached a lot of young, urban women and got them to care. (Whether you agree with their specific methodology or principles or not, there is something to be said for that.)

    It’s not just about the amount of PR, although there is that; it’s also about effectively communicating through multiple forums why people should care. I think it is this ‘why’ that most feminists in India are still not able to address successfully. Even on this site, we find ourselves struggling with it. Is it because, as feminists, we are not able to empathise enough with those who are non-feminists? Is it because we don’t state or explain things that seem obvious to us? Is it because our language is alienating in some way? Is it because we’re too scared to talk about the (more trivial?) problems of the urban, independent woman when there are others that seem more pressing? This question demands a separate post.

    Of course, feminism has been maligned and misunderstood for as long as it has existed. When Susan Faludi, author of Backlash, said “fear and loathing of feminism is a sort of perpetual viral condition in our culture”, she was talking about America, but look around you and you’ll see that it’s true of us as well. Show me one feminist and I’ll show you ten men screaming about how women are evil. Which is exactly why we need to co-opt more people into the movement even as others are busy scaring them out of it.

    Comments welcome on how we can reach this group more effectively. Follow-up post on this later.

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    16 Responses

    1. I suspect part of the problem is that the terms ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ are too broad to be particularly useful. I don’t call myself a feminist for the same reason I don’t call myself a socialist – saying I’m either doesn’t really provide a clearer picture of what I actually think / what my opinions are, but it does create plenty of ground for confusion and misapprehension and means that other people end up associating me with ideas / opinions I don’t actually hold. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about women’s rights, just that the ‘feminist’ label obscures more than it clarifies. I suppose that’s the down side of inclusiveness. Then again, it might just be my discomfort with labels.

      I think you’re right about the ‘what’s in it for me’ thinking, but I think there’s also the ‘what can I do about it?’ question. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think people engage better with problems that they feel they can actively help with. With something like the environmental movement, for instance, the active steps I, as an individual, can take to help are very clear – I can recycle, I can limit my energy use / reduce my carbon footprint, I can petition my elected representative for specific legislation. Simple, everyday decisions that I can easily get behind. It’s much harder, and ultimately more frustrating, to try and engage with abstract conceptions of society, media and ideology. Take the whole violence against women thing. Okay, so I’m aware that violence against women exists and I’m strongly against it. So are all my friends. But what more can I do about it, short of quitting my day job and joining an NGO? Part of the reason the Blank Noise project has had some success, I suspect, is because it’s given people something simple and manageable to do.

      I think part of the backlash against / rejection of feminism comes from good old cognitive dissonance. It isn’t lack of awareness – on the contrary, it’s that we’re exposed to a long, guilt-tripping litany of social ills without being told what, if anything, we can do about them. With action frustrated, the only way to solve the disconnect this awareness sets up is to deny the problem. In theory, of course, people could come up with their own solutions, but that’s difficult to do because a) it’s difficult and time taking b) successful social change requires coordinated collective action – I could decide to stop buying HLL products to protest against F&L, but unless thousands of other people are doing this with me, no one’s going to notice.

      The point is that if the feminist movement is going to gain more traction, especially among people who don’t consider themselves feminists, it needs to translate big picture ideologies into small, everyday initiatives that people can participate in – not just opinions they can hold, but actions they can undertake. The discussion needs to shift from ‘what’s wrong with society’ to ‘what can we – meaning individuals, not ‘society’ – do about it.’

      (This, of course, is the point where someone will say ‘but why should the onus of solving these problems lie on women / feminists – they’re not the ones creating the problem’. A shockingly childish but even more shockingly common attitude. Injustices aren’t fixed by those who perpetuate them / benefit from them. They should be, but they’re not. They’re fixed by those who stand to benefit from their being solved.)

    2. The current trend seems to be that even spaces that had potential to politicise young people like campuses are increasingly becoming de politicised. it is a larger trend in urban centres. feminism and the women’s movement also have had their share of not being able to build a larger ‘constituency’ or to put it simply- a larger fan following. I don’t agree with anindita’s view that the problems of urban educated woman has not been articulated or addressed. in fact the women’s movement has very much addressed issues of the middle class and urban women in the campaigns against dowry and domestic violence. A major criticism of the movement has been that it has excluded and not reflected concerns of many women such as dalit and muslim women.
      coming to the issue of feminists not ‘speaking to urban women’ reflected in anindita’s post and in falstaff’s comment- it seems to imply that urban women are a homogenous privileged group who cannot and will not connect to feminsm. And the sole responsibility of converting them is vested on feminists. am sure their lives are riddled with issues of gender and power inequalities. what stops them from asking relevant questions and connecting to feminsm.what happens then to their self criticality?
      In fact i feel the greatest contribution of feminism is that it has given us(thousands of women) an empowering language to talk about ourselves, our bodies, sexualities, violations and much more. I don’t agree that feminism has an alienating language.

    3. I don’t agree that feminism has an alienating language.

      I was wondering when somebody would say this…

    4. “I don’t agree that feminism has an alienating language.”

      Meaning what exactly? That you don’t find it alienating (which is both obvious and besides the point)? Or that people who don’t relate to / choose to associate themselves with feminism don’t find it alienating either? In which case perhaps you could tell us why you think so / what evidence you have for that assertion. And, to stick with Anindita’s question – why you think people don’t relate to feminism if it’s not that they find the language alienating?

      I can’t speak for anindita’s post, but my comments certainly do not imply that urban women are a homogenous group or that they cannot / will not relate to feminism. Simply that there are segments of the urban female population that do not relate to feminism as it stands today, because (I think) they a) don’t see it as being immediately relevant to them or b) see how they can contribute to it.

      As for “what stops them from asking relevant questions and connecting to feminsm.what happens then to their self criticality” – that’s just silly. Social movements exist to make it possible for individuals to access ideas and translate them into action, precisely because they are not able to do this on their own. The simple fact is that a large number of urban women don’t connect to feminism. We can either try to figure out why that is and what we can do to change it (the question Anindita is asking) or we can claim that feminism isn’t alienating and it’s the women’s fault for not being self-critical – which takes us exactly nowhere.

    5. P.S. Sorry, that should be “b) don’t see how they can contribute to it.”

    6. Just to clarify a few points:

      – I do not think that urban women are a homogenous group. Some of them (us) are certainly privileged in certain ways especially if one thinks about some of the other groups you talked about.
      – I think it’s human nature to want to shove problems under the carpet rather than confront them. This attitude is amply encouraged as well by socio-cultural conditioning. Look at our popular adages and advice– “think of how lucky you are”, “be grateful for what you have etc”. A lot of women look at someone in tattered clothes lifting bricks and say “at least, i’m not there. let me just shut up and be grateful.”
      – Being “political” is rarely an intellectual choice, except for a select few. People get involved with causes (which is what you mean by political I’m assuming) because they care about them for some reason. Often, some personal reason. Isn’t that the whole basis of the personal is political. In an environment where women are taught to not care about the personal, and conditioned by family, society and self to not think about their own needs and problems, how can they suddenly get up and wave flags about the political?
      – For example, a lot of urban women getting beaten keep quiet and say (and i’ve heard this) “at least he doesn’t cheat on me.” Berating such a woman for not being political or feminist is hardly useful. The last thing she needs is more pressure.
      – Why I linked this to language is: most people outside academic/feminist circles do not use language like “gender construct”, “power-play in relationships”, “patriarchy”. When someone starts talking to them in this language, they may not make the connection between something they are facing in their lives vis a vis these words. It’s the problem of connecting word to meaning. I was asking whether feminism, at some level, becomes alienating because of this kind of language.
      – And while, the movement has addressed the urban woman’s problems, my question also is what has it done to inform her of that? How many brochures / booklets on domestic violence are distributed in colleges, coffee shops, pubs and malls? How many NGOs would think of making a list of people who just visit this site and putting them on some kind of mailing list? Or enlisting their help for petitions? The sexual harassment in the workplace bill has been passed but how many offices have set up committees? Is any women’s rights org following up on this? If they are, I don’t know about it. And if I don’t, it’s likely that non-feminist women certainly don’t.
      – On what basis then should the average woman working in an IT firm or in public relations or in a BPO connect the word “feminism” with practical solutions to problems she might have? And leaving it up to her, while not wrong, is a bit dead-end. A movement needs its thinkers and its doers but it also needs its communicators to be able to reach more people. And communicators must know what language to speak in.

    7. A very relevent post. I personally find this western feminism vs other feminism an artificial divisive construct put forth by people who try to ensure the elements of patriarchy in subtle ways.One such thing is the our culture argument . Financial independence, Need for social and personal space, sexual and other rights, violence free family life. All these are universal requirements.

      I have asked several people to give me one example of a difference between what a western feminist wants that an Indian feminist does not want? That construct itself implies homogeneity.

    8. I feel that some of the issues addressed here are important and it maybe a reflection of what some urban women think. Having said that, I also do believe and know that the womens movement in India has been deeply involved and engaged with urban women. I have been working on womens rights issues for sometime now and I find that many of my peers are women who come from the same background as me – urban/middle class – infact that is something one can observe right across the country – the huge numbers of urban women who are deeply involved with the womens movement in India and who work very closely with urban women. The problem in fact to a large extent has been the opposite – that we have not been able to work effectively with rural women from lower economic strata. This too we try hard to overcome because there is the awareness of the problem.
      Looking at the list that Anindita has created which talks about where feminism could focus in urban spaces – I beg to differ here because this is a list that the womens movement has been working on for a long time. Thanks to that we have the Vishaka Guidelines which looks at sexual harassment at the workplace, we have the new Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, we have various organisation/groups/individuals working with young women (and men) on sex and sexuality issues. There is lot of work being done so it is very important to acknowledge this truth. Just taking the example of sexual harassment at the workplace – people did not even know the term sexual harassment at the workplace, before womens groups filed the public interest litigation in 1997. Even after the Guidelines were created, no one was implementing them, yet today companies have sexual harassment policies – its not because they have suddenly become sensitive to womens experiences and realities but its because there has been persistent lobbying and advocacy that has been done by womens rights groups to ensure implementation – lets be very clear on where the credit lies here. The irony has been that the big fault with the Guidelines has been that it has been unable to address rural and informal workplaces as effectively as urban/formal workplaces.
      The various freedoms and rights that are enjoyed by young urban women today in India also come from struggles that have been fought for years before. This has been a huge task but unacknowledged because how can one measure a change in attitude? The movement has been responsible for changing not only mindsets but also bringing in legal reform of various kinds (from sexual assault, to domestic violence, to sexual harassment at the workplace, to various personal laws) which have benefited urban and rural women. Off course there is a long way to go and many improvements to be made and I am certainly not trying to glorify the womens movement, but it is also important to state the immense contribution that has been made and also bring in a different side of the coin.
      Also on a more personal note – I was an urban, young, middle class woman – something drove me to engage with feminism. It was not necessarily womens activists coming to my college and doing programmes, but also a thought that evolved with time and a willingness to engage with what I today know is one of the most powerful and positive ideologies. And I certainly am not unique in that regard. In my time too ‘feminism’ was a bad word – still is – but I believe that there is also an individual responsibility to try and understand better, to engage better rather than waiting for it to happen through all the womens rights activists.

    9. “Looking at the list that Anindita has created which talks about where feminism could focus in urban spaces – I beg to differ here because this is a list that the womens movement has been working on for a long time.”

      My point was not that work is not being done. My point was that not enough work has been done probably and that more awareness and communication about that work needs to happen. To get more specific, what kind of awareness exists in this country about sex and sexuality? Do you think most women working in the IT sector or in the BPO sector even knows what the domestic violence act says?

      It’s interesting that you should take the example of sexual harassment at the workplace. I fought a sexual harassment case in my last company about a year back. I accessed information online about the Vishakha Guidelines on various NGO sites — and this was mostly from legal sites, not from women’s sites. Most women’s organisations are buried somewhere deep in cyberspace because they have no concept of how the Internet works so they think someone will miraculously find their site even if no search engine ever throws it up. I did NOT come across any organisation in Bangalore that I felt could have helped me. NOBODY in my office (a large MNC) even knew about the Vishakha Guidelines. I went to one legal NGO for advice where I got such simplistic and half-baked measures that I decided my own intelligence was probably far more reliable. I won finally — thanks to family and friends and feminists who helped me at a personal level. But at a “movement” level, no, sorry. That didn’t happen.

      When I fought the sexual harassment case, I was amazed at how many women echoed the same experiences and said they had shut up about it. They didn’t know what could be done. I don’t know what your data is regarding sexual harassment policies but barring a handful of companies, nobody in India has them in place as far as I know. Perhaps, you can provide some figures. I would be happy to be mistaken in this case.

      While it is important to state the immense contribution that has been made so far, I thought part of the point of having a blog of “young feminists” is also to talk about what needs to be done FURTHER. Frankly, it seems pretty pointless to brand ourselves as the new generation of feminists if we are willing to rest on the laurels of the older one. Any movement has areas of lacunae — I was merely pointing out these. I am surprised at the amount of defensiveness about these. I would have thought rather than jumping up to say “but what about that and that and that”, it would have been more important to say “okay, we agree that people are saying it’s post feminism. these are possibly some reasons. what can we do?”

      The reason I wrote this post is because I expected some sort of constructive discussion around, what to me was the key question — WHY are more young, educated, urban women not getting involved? If you don’t agree with my reasons, explore what else it could be.

      Instead of which everyone got on some high horse and derailed the entire discussion by making it about how the women’s movement has done so much and ungrateful person that I am, I’m not appreciating it.

      Very disappointing.

      “Also on a more personal note – I was an urban, young, middle class woman – something drove me to engage with feminism.”

      At the risk of sounding pompous, I, also a young, urban, educated woman, created, run and edit this blog on my free time for no money and with practically no help. I don’t get tax cuts for it and it eats up time I could be using to make money or fame or with my family. So don’t preach to me about “willingness to engage”. I just have the honesty to see that everyone may not find their way to feminism through the same routes. Some come earlier, some later. Some on their own because they are such “self-critical” people (god bless them) and others after they are made aware of why they need to.

      Whether or not, the women’s movement has done enough for the rural woman was NOT the point of this discussion. As I have CLEARLY stated, it came from Indhu’s post about young, urban, educated women. I am reflecting reality as I see it — outside the academic circle, outside the hallowed portals of NGOs, outside the glass bubble of intellectualism that many of us like to sit inside. And there is such a world, you know. And when we say young, urban, educated woman, we clearly don’t mean the part of it that is in slums, villages and factories. For the majority of women out there — they don’t know what feminism has “done for them” and can do.

      “I believe that there is also an individual responsibility to try and understand better,”

      Of course. We all believe that. Let’s just continue believing it and waiting for them to develop this sense. In the meantime, let’s rant and rail about what’s wrong with them (that’ll sure win them over) and feel really good about ourselves for being superior to them because we have engaged and are self-critical and oh so intelligent. Is this the most sparklingly productive approach we can think of? Sorry, I think it’s a bloody waste of time. I have no intention of wasting my time on bitching about other people. I am only interested in A) changing people I can change B) moving on without the others.

    10. ” * workplace issues — equal rights at work, maternity policies, child-rearing versus career, work-life balance
      * sex and sexuality — lack of awareness, lack of pleasure, no sex education, no HIV education
      * body issues — skin colour, weight issues, lack of awareness, menstrual taboos
      * marriage — domestic violence, abuse issues, divorce laws, marital rape, inequality in terms of housekeeping and parenting
      * sexual harassment — street sexual harassment, sexual harassment at the workplace, rape
      * reproductive rights — control over contraception, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, female foeticide

      Some women’s rights organizations address some of these problems but there aren’t enough of them. Even those that do are low-key and haven’t learned how to work the Internet well enough which, as you know, is where a lot of young, educated women hang out.”

      This is precisely what i said about the movement’s handling of the young, urban, Indian woman’s issues. Why don’t you give me some clear examples under each of these heads. Point out websites. Link to important resources. That would be much better “proof” and far more useful than these displays of righteous indignance.

      Also — Note I said some. Note I said not enough awareness. Note I said Internet.

    11. Anindita: Well said.

      P.S. “indignance”?

    12. *indignation. my bad — getting into high dudgeon and using obsolete words :).

    13. Anindita; Absolutely true. I think most young women have gone way beyond resting on the laurels won by the previous generation(s) to a point when they no longer consider anything to be especially wrong – as you yourself pointed out with regard to the 21 Under 40 reading in Bangalore.

      When urban women do face issues, they do it as confused individuals unaware of the extent to which certain prejudices are written into the social codes they see themselves a willing part.

      Just to point out two posts that bring out different aspects of this :

      Krish Ashok

      Sonia Faleiro In Sonia’s link, the article in question isn’t online, but I’ve no doubt she’s quoting from the newspaper itself.

    14. Having no desire to participate in this verbal diarrhoea and extensions (read author’s replies to readers responses) of the confused and unenlightened post by Anindita, I dug out some links for ‘awareness’ of the ‘urban educated woman’ (read the author) for a deeper understanding of what feminism is and how to understand women’s issues ….

      The list subscribes to the issues highlighted in your post-


      Read this Bill (yet to be made law, hope you are ‘aware’ that a law is in the making!) on sexual harassment at workplace drafted by National Commission for Women) and to which the responses by many feminists and organisations exist…find it on the net, not much of a job!

      Read this site- http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/may/15renuka.htm
      Somewhere it states-

      “The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill 2007 was posted on the website of the WCD Ministry inviting comments on March 31, 2007 and it was also advertised in newspapers”. Hence, info exists and is available, one has to just look..

      http://www.tarshi.net/index.php?module=linkman&LMN_op=userMenuAction&MMN_position=14:14 (this is specifically on sex, sexuality, women, violence, LGBTI, men, reproductive rights -Indian and international context)

      While you are at it, also visit this site-

      (get on this to know more about the implementation ( actually non-implementation) of the Indian Domestic violence Act-anyone can see it and read it and be a part of it, including urban educated woman)

      (View this for for info on sexuality related work in China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, The Philippines, and Vietnam. A regional Advisory Committee provides inputs on country specific needs)

      If you want to know more and really have a deep desire for education and awareness on women’s issues and FEMINISM, join (one net) the “The South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality” run by TARSHI, Indian NGO based in Delhi. If you get on there you will be enlightened about the other exisiting easy-to-find resources on ‘INTERNET’.

      This is the most I could do on a Sunday afternoon and my last words on the entire discussion-Feminists are people like you and me…the difference lies in our understanding of it..i have been there and done that, I am happy and continue to engage but my engagements are now more with the state-I believe in state accountability, state living up to its responsibility, feminists cannot do the state’s job, it can only tell and make them allies to deliver…this is what we do and there is def enough room for everyone to engage and not whine and cry about feminists not doing enough..After all, people like you and me are not just answerable to ourselves but also wish (atleast me) to do justice to the the deeper and finer ideology and understanding of feminism…

      I am trying to reach out …hope it helps clear the confusion!

    15. Payal: Thank you for posting the links. I was aware of most of them but not all. Most helpful. And uh…considering I fought a sexual harassment case internally in a global MNC and won would kind of mean that I’d know about the bill and its status. Don’t you think?

      I would urge you to remember that I was exploring the possible reasons that some young urban educated women were not as engaged as we would like them to be. I assumed it was fairly obvious that I was not counting myself in this number.

      My point remains, if people are not aware or sensitive, it is up to us to work harder at creating awareness and sensitising people. Secondly, I was not debating the fact that there are internet sites available, more pointing out that they are not necessarily easily accessible to a lot of women. Possibly, there was lack of clarity about what i meant. For example, I think using blogs or social networking forums to spread the word about these sites is a good idea. A lot of young people hang out at such places and may pick up information easily. To give you an example, Fulcrum magazine uses Facebook rather well to publicize itself. I think it’s fabulous that its founder combines artistic skill with PR savvy as opposed to sitting around and complaining that nobody’s interested in poetry.

      This is just one possibility.

      Your tone leaves a lot to be desired. But hey, it being christmas season and all, i’m in no mood to be snappish back. So instead, season’s greetings.

    16. I am in complete agreement with Anindita’s post. Despite having worked with domestic violence victims and in mental health, I continue to identify myself as a ‘layperson feminist’, certainly no gender expert. In my everyday, non-academic experience, there does exist a large population of urban women who believe feminism is not for them, they have no need for it and absolutely no idea about how they can support the cause… or even whether they should, given that there’s nothing in it for them.
      The women’s movement may have attempted to engage the urban woman but take your average urban female… look next door, turn to your co-traveler in the local train, the girl you went to college with… and ask them what feminism means to them, if anything at all. You may well be surprised by the outcome. It is one thing to live your beliefs and believe in what you live by, but there is large world outside who doesn’t subscribe to what we think just because we think they should.
      Kudos, Anindita, for showing us the other side of reality.

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