A FEW DAYS AGO, when I thought about the conflict parents face when their daughters become “too liberal”, I was really thinking from my own perspective as an educated, young, urban professional. When a commenter mentioned that liberalism does not yet extend to accepting choices such as homosexuality, I was, at first, a bit startled. This was because, frankly, I had not thought about the issues faced by people different from me. Though I do support the rights of people to their own sexual preference, I honestly hadn’t given it much thought. In a sense, I am guilty of looking at the holy grail of equal rights through a very narrow prism.
Of course, this is partly because one tends to identify with causes where one has personally experienced the problems at hand. So I have experienced harassment on the street by virtue of being a woman. I have experienced a boss telling me that lower raises shouldn’t matter so much to women, since “yours is a second income, anyway!” But even if I have not experienced other kinds of oppression, I should know that they exist, shouldn’t I?
As someone born into an upper caste family, I have never known what it means to be considered “low” because of my caste. Once, when I visited my grandmother’s village, I went to the Dalit basti, which was set apart from the rest of the village. Here, I talked to many Dalit women, some of whom were startled at my sitting down with them comfortably. Some of them even tried to prevent me. I felt good about not heeding such distinctions and I was surprised that they still had such practices. It didn’t occur to me that they were the ones who could face problems for interacting too closely with an upper-caste city girl who would leave the next day.
As someone born into a middle-class family, I have never faced challenges to my education. How do I understand the plight of a poor family, where any child is unlikely to be sent to school, and a girl child, even less likely? When I talk about challenges at the workplace, my focus is on white collar occupations. A large portion of Indian women, however, are poorly-paid labour in the unorganized sector in hazardous working conditions.
As a heterosexual woman, I had my own challenges in choosing to marry a man outside of my own caste and linguistic group. If I am honest, I must admit that when I think of the right to choose a partner, I largely think of issues where women are coerced or forced into marriages they don’t want. (And yes, emotionally blackmailing your daughter until she gives in also falls in this category). The rights of non-heterosexual people don’t figure as strongly on my mind, although I believe that Article 377 is a law that has no place in any civilized country.
Is my feminism too narrowly defined? I don’t think it is worthless; even if people like me are a relatively elite group, our concerns are not invalid. Further, changes in a small group can act as a catalyst or inspiration for others. Yet, I do believe that feminists like me need to start looking at a broader agenda. I don’t mean this as a criticism of anyone else; it is simply something that I would like to do.
For one thing, in terms of sheer numbers, this English-educated, reasonably affluent, upper caste group is a very small part of our country’s women. So unless we as writers, activists, funders — whatever role we choose to play — address the concerns of a larger group, real change will be slow to happen. It is important to recognise that women are affected in ways beyond gender alone. Remember the witch-hunting of Dalit women? This was the result of a dangerous cocktail — a casteist, hierarchical society together with gender oppression.
Another reason is that feminism as a movement is unlikely to gain support and respect, and in fact, will lose respect if it overlooks these concerns. In the last few months, there has been a huge controversy in the Western blogosphere, regarding the appropriation of material from a black feminist’s blog. One of the outcomes was many women of colour feeling that the “mainstream” feminist movement never really includes their concerns, which often are at an intersection of gender and race. So a feminist movement certainly cannot be exclusive and risk losing some of its best supporters. We have enough unreasonable critics as it is, who persist in viewing feminists as evil, men-hating, power-hungry women.
Finally, this is a moral issue as well. If we fight only the discrimination that affects us, are we not guilty of opportunism? If we believe that discrimination is wrong on principle, we need to be aware of it in all its forms and campaign against them as well.
*This may be very familiar to those feminists who have already proceeded much further on this path than me. It is more from my personal experience and my own feeling of being restricted to a narrow field of vision. For those more enlightened women (and men), who already practise this, I raise my (metaphorical) hat!