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.