OMG! You are a Feminist? by Rachel Johnson

Say you’re a feminist and you may be misunderstood as a misandrist.

Say you’re a feminist and the conversation will continue with a change in the atmosphere.

On women’s day last year, one of my teachers chose to discuss the status of women in the current Indian scenario. For reasons unknown to us, she coerced only the boys to share their opinion regarding the same.

Things took an unexpected turn when one student stated that in his opinion, women have more rights than they did initially and they have come at par with men.

The teacher stopped him and clarified his statement, asking “Are you saying that women have equal rights as men do?”

The boy nodded in response and said, “Well, it’s getting there.”

The teacher stopped the boy and announced to the classroom saying, “But I do not want equal rights!”

72 pairs of eyes looked at her, bewildered.

“I want SPECIAL rights.”

72 persons continue to look at her. Irrespective of gender, students gaped at her announcement, unsure what to respond.

“I AM A WOMAN AND I NEED SPECIAL RIGHTS…”

The class erupted in a unified response seeking her reasons for it. After 30 minutes of apparent meaningful discussion, the class dispersed, having a different perspective about the teacher altogether. For those who were never really a big fan of Feminism, this incident proved to act as fuel for their disapproval of the concept of Feminism. And for me, this incident helped me gain clarity on why people cringe or respond in just “hmm, really?” when you identify yourself as a feminist.

Before we go ahead with why feminism is of utmost relevance, it is important to state that Feminism, as an idea, is absolutely misconstrued and misunderstood, especially in the Indian context. People fail to engage with the true meaning of Feminism, why it emerged and why it is essential, not just for the female gender.

SO, WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT FEMINISM?

The term Feminism is a widespread movement or ideology that aimed at attaining and securing equal rights for women. These included political, legal, social and cultural rights.

The first wave of feminism that occurred during the nineteenth century aimed at attaining political rights and property rights for women. In America, it resulted in securing the right to vote. The second wave of feminism that occurred during the 1960s and 1980s aimed at attacking the discrimination faced by women. The third wave of feminism addressed the issue of gender roles attached to the female sex as well as other social and cultural problems faced by women. (Source: Gender.cawater )

Different countries, different societies and cultures expressed their idea of feminism in a different manner. Writers like Alice Walker and Waris Dirie spoke about slavery faced by African women and female genital mutilation in their works. Writers and poets expressed their thoughts and agitation against issues pertaining to the social context they were in.

There were different branches of the feminist thought that was influenced by philosophy and the development of literature. There were feminist movements driven by Radical, Socialist, and Marxist schools of thought as well that focused on specific issues. For example, Black Feminism focused on issues of racism and believed that sexism and racism were interconnected.

FEMINISM IS IMPORTANT… REALLY?

It is of absolute relevance because it is the expression of individuals who were restricted to four walls with a gas stove, dishes and a ladle and were deprived of rights. We are talking about basic rights that should be granted to any individual on the virtue of being born as a human being – irrespective of gender. This ideology evolved as an expression of resentment and disappointment of forcefully being a minority group. This provided a ground for women to voice their problems and their issues and fight for something that should have been granted to them from the beginning.

This was their struggle against gender stereotypes and socially constructed gender roles. In any society, women are expected to be the homemaker. History is a testament regarding the low status of women – of how they were not permitted to educate  themselves, of how they were forced to slavery and prostitution even by their own family member and of how they were compelled to be submissive. Gender roles were forced upon women just as how pink colored clothes were put on new born baby girls. Socialization driven by such gender biased thoughts played a vital role in reinforcing the submissive role of women. As time passed, women began to accept this as their fate.

Feminism developed as an instrument for women to fight for themselves. It attempted to break the shackles propagated across the eons of time.

Remember the stories of princesses waiting for their heroes to come in shining Armour and rescue them to “happily live ever after?” It is saddening to know that this fragment of imagination was seen as a reality. In India, women were taught to be dependent first on their father, brother and as she grows older – on her husband and her sons. She was never taught to be independent, only dependent. Oh and how can we forget one of the glaring monsters they forgot to mention in our fairy tales? Dowry; or better defined as Bride Price. Daughters were, almost literally, sold to men much older to them. Marriage of daughter was almost equivalent to a transfer of ownership. Thanks to this monster, when a girl was born in household, the eyes of the parents looked down with despair, a sharp contrast to the joy in their eyes when a son is born. She was expected to succumb to the parental pressures and let go of her dreams just as a child loses grip on his favorite balloon.

Today after years of struggle, women have been granted the right to educate themselves, right to work and more importantly, right to be independent. As we have heard often in recent times – “women have excelled in every field.” And this is true. Though the former mindset regarding the role of women still lingers among the older generations and isn’t completely uprooted from the society yet, it is safe to say that women have more freedom than they previously did.

As Waris Dirie rightly said, “When I was child, I said, I don’t want to be a woman. Why? Because it’s so painful. Let us try and change what that means – to be a Woman.”

Feminism is the Change.

Feminism is important when it comes to a change in roles and functions for men as well. It means encouraging men to play their part as a homemaker without the fear of “what will the society say” gnaw them. Initially men were expected to be the ones who earn the income while women stay at home and take care of the kids. However today, roles have interchanged and stay-at-home dad’s aren’t looked down upon.

SO, IS FEMINIST ONLY A WOMAN?

Of course not, a feminist is ANY person who supports feminism, the belief that both men and women should have equal rights. Sadly, not many men admit that they support feminism even when they do because the fear that “people will judge me” grips them. When a woman says she’s a feminist, the ego of her male counterpart is poked at. Add a straight face, suit, a pair of high heels and the top position of the company to it and they safely assume you to be the “man-hater.” It pricks the ego of most men if they have to report to a Boss who is a female. Some men think that it’s their innate right to be the superior one and a woman being the occupant of the top position of the hierarchy is somehow disrupting the natural course of how the world runs.

Hence, due to the wrongly formed understanding and notions of the people, individuals who believe in feminism shy away from admitting it.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wonderfully puts the idea of feminism in her TEDx Talk “We should all be Feminists”  , a feminist is any one. Feminism doesn’t focus solely on the women but also men. It aims at a change in the manner of thinking as it is the People who make the culture. She even states about how some men feel threatened by feminism, that their self-worth is diminished if they aren’t naturally in charge. In the end, Adichie puts the burden on both men and women to fix the problem with gender. “All of us, women and men, must do better.”

THEN, WHO’S A “FEMI-NAZI”?

“Don’t be a femi-nazi,” is a statement I’ve heard quite often. There’s a fundamental difference between a feminist and a femi-nazi. While the former believes in securing equal rights, the latter follows an extreme and radical style of thinking, refuses to settle for equal rights, but desires “Special (or superior)” rights.  Such femi-nazis have destroyed the true meaning of feminism and have tainted the term Feminist. These people have deviated from the basic principles of the ideology and uphold radical ideals. Thanks to these folks, most people misunderstand feminists to be femi-nazis.

In recent times, social media has provided a great platform to young people to express their ideas and opinions. They use graphic art, poetry and illustrations to put across their thinking processes. I’ve come across different Instagram accounts that openly define themselves as feminists and through their art; they address contemporary issues and also attack gender stereotypes that prevail even today.

If you’re a feminist or if you’re a person who believes in equal rights for both men and women, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. The basic idea of feminism is to fight against the problem of gender and that is a burden on all of us.

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