It was around 5 in the morning and I was coming home after a night out with some friends in Zurich, Switzerland. Plenty of things were unfamiliar to me about this situation:
- It was 5 in the morning and I wasn’t worried about my safety.
- I hadn’t been stared at/groped on public transport.
- We were a group of 3 women and 4 men and no one cared.
I began to tell my friends about how strange this situation was for me. It was not normal for me to feel safe at this time at night. It was strange that everyone minded their own business. It was strange that I had spent the whole time without a single care in the world.
Suddenly, one of my friends, who happened to be Indian and male, said: “Why are you talking about safety and women’s rights? You’re a big city girl. What do you even understand about women’s problems? What right do you have to talk about this?”
Stunned, I sat quietly, unable to retort. Was he right? Did I have no right to talk about women’s issues? Was I victimising myself even though I had lived a (relatively) comfortable and safe life? Was I just whining? Was I, sitting from my platform of privilege, making my situation look worse than it was? Was I a bad feminist for focusing on these issues? And most importantly, were my problems as a privileged woman less relevant than the problems that underprivileged women face?
As a confused 21-year-old, I began to grapple with the question of privilege and what that meant to me as a feminist. Did I truly have the right to talk about how difficult my life was from the plush seat of a Swiss train when women in India were fighting much harder battles? Could I truly talk about women’s issues if I hadn’t actually experienced the worst of the worst?
It took me a while, but I found the answer. Yes.
Privilege, conceptually is not difficult to grasp. It is simply the advantages that you enjoy by being a part of a social group. As an upper-caste, upper-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman, I enjoy more privileges than most women in my country. What this does for me is that it makes my life significantly easier. However, that does not mean that I face no problems at all.
I could talk about women’s rights because I was not denying underprivileged women of their problems. While I was explaining to my Swiss friends that it felt good not to be groped, I was not saying that this was the only problem that women in the world face. I was not saying that this was the biggest problem. I was just saying that it was a problem.
Any woman who has been sexually harassed, or been oppressed in any manner knows the feeling of complete helplessness that washes over you. It is the fact that every woman has faced this at some point in her life that makes people fight against societal norms, laws and rules, demanding equality. Ultimately, I was a feminist because I believed in equity – in caste, class, gender and sexual orientation. A privileged man telling me I had “no right” to talk about women’s issues was precisely what I was fighting against.
I understood that I was in an enclosed bubble of privilege that kept me from being harmed in the many, many ways that women can be harmed, but that did not mean that I was excluding the underprivileged women from my version of feminism. I didn’t exclude them, and they didn’t exclude me. I could rage at the many injustices inflicted on women solely based on caste, class, gender and sexuality, but that did not mean that I should not rage when I was groped on a bus. Talking about the issues of mass molestation in cities or unequal pay does not mean that acid attacks and honour killings take a back seat or vice versa. Feminism does not make you choose one or the other. We’re all on the same team.
So while I constantly fight the men on the road who think my body is up for grabs, or the numerous stares that I get for being who I am, I continue to constantly learn and talk about the intersectional problems of my country. It is my acknowledgement of my privilege, and my willingness to learn, listen and help anyone who faces oppression that makes me a feminist and gives me the right to speak up, and out loud.
I finally left Switzerland a stronger feminist than I had begun. I had every right, as a woman, to talk about issues that were mine, that I experienced and wanted to make sure that no other woman ever faced. I had every right to talk about issues that I was trying to (and continue to) understand, that I don’t want any woman to experience. “What rights do you have to talk about this?” asked the Indian, upper-caste, upper-class, male seated in the soft train seat in Switerland: “The same rights that I’m fighting for,” I should have replied.
Featured Image Credit: Custom Cuts