By Ammu Joseph
Originally published in VERVE (http://www.verveonline.com/), Volume 16, Issue 6, June, 2008
“You wonder why I say I’m feminist
Don’t I know that’s out of style?
Don’t I see when people don’t challenge me
Just shake their heads and smile?
You wonder why I say I am feminist
And what it really means.
Don’t I get fed up all the time
Of having to defend my dreams?”
Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
‘Defending our Dreams,’ a fascinating collection of essays by young feminists from a dozen countries (including a man), grew out of the cross-continental friendship established by the three young women editors of the book after they met at an international conference on gender justice in South Africa in 1998.
That was, ironically, the year the US edition of Time published a provocative cover asking ‘Is Feminism Dead?’ and placing the fictional television character, Ally McBeal, next to real-life activist-icons Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Not surprisingly, both the cover and the stories inside kicked up a minor storm among American women. Commenting on the controversy, Janelle Brown then wrote in Salon, “If nothing else, the rapid responses prove that feminism isn’t dead – it’s just changing.”
The ongoing change is evident in India, too. Take, for example, Ultra Violet, a blog initiated last year by young feminists across the country wishing to express themselves on a wide range of “issues, challenges, and triumphs” relating to women today. According to them, “Ultra Violet provides a place to explore and understand the ways in which young women in India are challenging, negotiating and transforming unequal power structures. It is also a space to celebrate women’s histories, wisdom, creativity, laughter and love for life.”
The feisty young women make it very clear that theirs is a feminist blog and not “just another space for women.” “Feminism is a much misunderstood and maligned word,” they explain. “Over the years, its true meaning — the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of sexual equality — has been distorted and defiled by many. This blog is both a reclaiming of the term and a clarification of what it means to us, today.”
The fact that women coming of age in the new millennium wish to reclaim feminism and make it their own is, I think, a fairly clear sign that it is alive, kicking and, more importantly, evolving. It certainly contradicts the common assumption that young women have no time or use for feminism.
A surprisingly significant number directly and effectively challenge the popular notion that feminism is passé. Many more – including those who may not specifically identify themselves as feminist — make use of the innumerable, innovative ideas and terms introduced to the world by feminist thinkers and activists, not to mention the laws, policies and practices that have come into being thanks to over three decades of feminist activism, both within the country and across the globe. As novelist Shashi Deshpande says, it is heartening that the younger generation is working things out in practice even if the majority lack a real understanding of the movement that has made it all possible.
In their introduction to ‘Defending our Dreams’ the editors observe, “Young women today do face different realities from those faced by previous generations, while at the same time benefiting from the gains of earlier feminist struggles. In this new global order, feminism provides a critical framework, a political lens, through which to analyse and develop visions and strategies for a just world… As an ideology and a movement, feminism offers solidarity, commitment rights, understanding of power as personal and systemic, and a willingness to challenge an inequitable status quo.”
So much for the “post-feminist age” apparently inaugurated by The New York Times magazine in 1982 with a story headlined ‘Voices from the Post-Feminist Generation.’ As American communications professor Susan J. Douglas put it in a 2002 article, the perpetuation of the post-feminism myth requires the constant, consistent manufacturing of consent by a huge and highly successful industry she christened Postfeminism Inc.!
Men constitute another group assumed to be understandably opposed to feminism, especially since popular misrepresentations of feminism have traditionally cast the male of the species in stereotypical roles as villains or victims. But a growing constituency of men has obviously seen through the “battle of the sexes” hoax. It is worth noting that several men were quick to post welcoming comments on Ultra Violet.
Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), a Mumbai-based organisation, envisions a gender-just society and works towards eliminating gender-based violence against women. Of course it tends to get less media attention than several other groups across the country supposedly set up to protect men from the alleged misuse of laws meant to deal with violence against women. Last year MAVA launched a book titled ‘Breaking the Moulds: Indian men look at patriarchy looking at men,’ a pioneering attempt to understand the shaping of multiple masculinities in the Indian context. Jointly produced with Pune-based Purush Uvach (Men Speak), the publication is expected to serve as a primer for the newly emerging field of men’s studies.
Interestingly, this growing academic discipline owes its origins to feminism. According to American academic Steve Craig, “Men’s studies represents the collective work of scholars from many disciplines who have found the concepts and insights of feminist theory useful in the exploration of male gendering… Men’s studies is clearly the offspring of not only feminist theory, but also the social awareness brought on by the women’s movement. As a result, men’s studies is largely pro-feminist in its approach.”
Michael S. Kimmel, editor of the Sage series on Men and Masculinity, also pays tribute to feminism’s contribution to current understanding of society. In a 1992 publication he wrote, “Following the pioneering research of feminist scholars over the past two decades, social scientists have come to recognise gender as one of the primary axes around which social life is organised…”
There must be something to feminism, after all, if it makes sense to such informed, thinking members of the two groups widely believed to need or want it the least. In fact, women’s quest for social, economic and political justice and equality is considered one of the most significant hallmarks of the last century — an almost unseen and silent revolution posing a strong and sustained challenge to one of the oldest and most persistent forms of discrimination: the virtually universal subordination of women under patriarchy.
The process initiated by feminist movements in different parts of the world, including India, has resulted in one of the most important transitions of modern times. Not only have women, including poor rural women, increasingly established themselves in the public sphere but their right to do so is officially recognised and supported by important, influential institutions of society, both public and private.
At the same time there is little doubt that this transition is far from complete. The situation vis a vis domestic violence, which has been an abiding concern of women movements since the 1970s, illustrates the one step forward, two steps back nature of change on the ground.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 came into being thanks to years of effort by women’s and other civil society organisations in India. A national conference was held on the first anniversary of its enactment to assess the effectiveness of the legislation. According to a document titled ‘Staying Alive’ – a pioneering effort to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the law — nearly 8000 cases were filed during the year after it came into force. But activists say this represents just the tip of the iceberg. Implementation is hampered by budgetary constraints, inadequate staff and structures, poor coordination between relevant official agencies and, of course, lack of public awareness.
Meanwhile the recently released 3rd National Family Health Survey (2005-06) revealed that well over a third (37.2%) of women have experienced spousal violence. The 2nd National Family Health Survey (1998-99) had earlier exposed the shockingly widespread social sanction for this form of gender violence, even among women: two decades after family violence was brought out of the closet by feminist groups, more than half the women surveyed (56%) thought wife-beating was justified under certain circumstances.
Perhaps this perception explains the findings of a new study conducted in Delhi, which found that victims of domestic violence endure the abuse for an average of 4.2 years before filing a police complaint against the perpetrators. Even though laws against dowry have been made stricter since the early 1980s, the enduring practice is cited as the chief trigger for physical violence by husbands and in-laws. The five-year study, involving more than 1800 women who approached the Delhi Police’s Crimes Against Women Cell for help, also revealed the disturbing fact that only 17% of abused women received support from their parents after they were thrown out of their marital homes by abusive husbands or in-laws.
These sobering realities are acknowledged by most feminists. As publisher and activist Ritu Menon says, “After more than 25 years of women’s activism, one is forced to conclude that, for the majority of women, the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Shashi Deshpande points out failures on the ideological level as well: “The word ‘feminism’ remains even more derided than before. It is not properly understood that the women’s movement is merely asking that one half of humanity should find its rightful place.” She concedes, however, that it has created awareness and brought about a different understanding of women’s place in society. “As a writer, I have seen the difference in the way women have been writing, the way in which women’s writing is regarded,” she notes.
According to journalist and activist Laxmi Murthy, “The single most significant achievement of the women’s movement in India is visibility for the fact that women occupy a secondary status and that there are structural inequalities in all spheres – economic, political, cultural, legal, etc. — that keep women down.” She also credits the movement with some success in bringing about systemic changes in all these areas.
Fellow journalist and activist Rajashri Dasgupta agrees, pointing out that, while the status of the majority of women remains dismal, nobody can deny or ignore the situation today. For example, every political party feels compelled to include a chapter on women in its manifesto, even if that amounts to nothing more than tokenism. According to her, no other social group has been as successful in pressing for new laws and amendments to old ones. The challenge now, she says, is “to push further and wider so that the benefits are shared by our poorer and more disadvantaged sisters.”
Everyone agrees that feminism has come to mean different things to different people. Even so, the ingredients of a possible common minimum platform are highlighted by scholar and activist Srilatha Batliwala in a new paper. To begin with, she says, feminists “now stand not only for gender equality, but for the transformation of all social relations of power that oppress, exploit, or marginalise any set of people, women and men, on the basis of their gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, race, religion, nationality, location, class, caste, or ethnicity. But we seek a transformation that results, above all, in gender equality in the new social order.”
 Excerpt from a poem by a young Caribbean feminist activist, performance poet and lecturer in “Defending our Dreams: Global Feminist Voices for a New Generation,” Shamillah Wilson, Anasuya Sengupta and Kristy Evans (eds.), Zed Books, 2005
 ‘Building Feminist Movements and Organisations: Clarifying our Concepts,’ S. Batliwala, unpublished monograph soon to be posted on the website of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development: www.awid.org