Posted By Mahevash Shaikh
In June 2018, a global Thomas Reuters survey declared India as the most unsafe country for women. While this may have been news to the rest of the world, if you happen to be a woman living in India, it came as no surprise, did it? This survey was never actually needed, for deep down, this was something we already knew. After all, we hear of, witness, or are subjected to deep-rooted gender inequality and violence nearly every day of our lives. And the incidents are only multiplying over time.
With the growing violence against Indian women (there’s even a Wikipedia page on it), one would expect us Indian women to rally for feminism. However, instead of fighting for our rights, many of us are up in arms about the very word. Sexism under the guise of the men’s rights movement is sprouting up instead—and Indian women are actively participating too. Even at the peak of the #MeToo movement in India, many Indian women in positions of power continued to defend and enable the men who sexually exploited, harassed, or assaulted other women.
Why? Are we so entrenched in patriarchy that we cannot envision life beyond it? Well, it isn’t as simple as that. In a land of diverse cultures, the reasons for Indian women not calling themselves feminists are just as varied.
Sexism under the guise of the men’s rights movement is sprouting up instead—and women are actively participating too. Even at the peak of the #MeToo movement in India, many women in positions of power continued to defend and enable the men who sexually exploited, harassed, or assaulted other women.
Feminism is Widely Perceived as an Ill Effect of Western Culture
Many people think that Indian women got this idea of empowerment and equality in their heads because of western culture. This is a baseless allegation because feminism has been around years before Westerners invaded the land of the golden sparrow. People simply love to blame the West for this “problem” and then they reject it with the infamous xenophobic stock phrase “this is against our culture.”
Wake up and smell the coffee, ladies. From Savitribai Phule to Ishmat Chugtai, outspoken feminists have been living in India for ages. And for men who are against equal rights, here’s a little nugget of knowledge for you: the feminist movement in India was first brought to life by men. So not only is feminism an intrinsic part of Indian culture, it is the reason why social evils like Sati were abolished, and why we can now focus on global issues like the gender pay gap instead. While feminism in India was and is certainly influenced by the West, it definitely did not originate in the West.
Thanks to Bollywood stars, Feminism is often Looked Down upon as a Means to Assert Misandry and Female Superiority
Feminism is widely thought to be anti-men. Worse, this gross misconception is well and alive in the educated masses as well. And Bollywood A-listers, who could use their reach to educate their fans, actually make things worse. One would think they might want to make up for their misguided attempts at playing feminist. On the contrary, popular actresses like Kareena Kapoor emphatically state that they are not feminists, they only believe in equality! If only she knew that’s exactly what feminism stands for!
Sadly, she is just one of many female celebrities who are completely clueless. And of course, others choose to not speak about the F-word at all. Because in their minds, being a feminist is all about women asserting power over men, and in a patriarchal society like India, that would not go down well with their fans.
In a country that basically worships its stars, this public misinformation and silence is a huge setback to the feminist movement. It makes it seem even more undesirable, uncool, wrong or sexist. Let’s not forget that like in the West, here too a feminist (both on and off screen) is caricatured as a promiscuous woman who smokes, cusses and drinks heavily, doesn’t believe in marriage or kids, is angry all the time, and loathes men.
Film characters and actresses who practice misandry in the name of empowerment are touted by sexist folks as examples of why feminism is bad. Thus, a few bad apples who are actually promoting pseudo feminism are used to discredit a movement necessary for both women and men. And then we have misleading content like ‘11 Ways In Which Some Women Have Ruined Feminism For Everyone’ to fuel the confusion.
On the contrary, popular actresses like Kareena Kapoor emphatically state that they are not feminists, they only believe in equality! If only she knew that’s exactly what feminism stands for!
Hardwired Female Misogyny “Blinds” Many
That cliché about women being each other’s worst enemies is caricaturishly true in India. A little girl is schooled on how to be “a good girl” aka someone who does not question tradition, slips into her preassigned gender role with ease, and stays away from those who do not do the same.
Naturally, many of these girls grow up into proud anti-feminists who mock feminism and shun those who live by it. While some women do this because of plain ignorance, some even do it to appear more likable and desirable to current or potential male partners. And then some do it because they are privileged enough to not have faced serious oppression, at least that’s what they think since a lot of us aren’t aware of the many forms of gender discrimination. Some may even want equality yet settle for less due to unconscious bias and internalized misogyny.
No matter what their reason, these are the women who all but shout from the rooftops that they do not need feminism. What’s more, they question the reason for its very existence.
The one who is a living Breathing Feminist but is Afraid to Declare it
Now you’re probably thinking that women in India are astoundingly ignorant. Well, that’s not the case. Of course, there are women here who are woke. But while they live the cause and even make changes on some level, they shy away from calling themselves a feminist. Why? Because there’s too much at stake if they do so.
A woman who calls herself one is subjected to an overwhelming amount of hate and judgment, way more than the openly feminist man (who also doesn’t have it easy). She is considered a “man-hating feminazi” and has to put up with trolling, insults, and mansplaining on her online profiles and to her face. She is constantly reminded about #NotAllMen and personally attacked for having an opinion. The feminist Indian woman is branded as bitchy, bossy, difficult, uptight, loose, etc. depending on anything she says and posts. All of this negatively affects her image, career, mental health, and personal safety. So she chooses to operate in anonymity and silence rather than receive damning labels and rape threats. The minute she says she is a feminist, she is looked at in a bad light.
Who would want to put up with that kind of discrimination on a daily basis, both online and offline? Not me. Yes, I can relate to this fear of persecution and harassment on a personal level. For even though I am a full-fledged feminist in thought and action, I do not declare myself a feminist on any of my social media profiles. The F word tends to bring out the worst in people and I am not mentally prepared to handle the backlash that will follow.
How Do We Change the Vitriolic Attitude Towards Feminism?
The typical Indian woman is currently dissociated from feminism because she does not understand it. It is only human nature to fear and hate what you don’t understand, so the first thing desi feminists need to do is explain the basic concept and need of feminism to our uninformed sisters. Instead of treating feminism as some snooty, exclusive cult, we need to be more inclusive and welcoming. It doesn’t just end there. We need to talk about current issues as often as we can so we can uproot conditioning and de-stigmatize the good fight for gender equality.
For as of now, mindsets are changing, but not as quickly and rampantly as they should. It is only when we know our rights can we fight for them. It is only when the women of today unite to fight against patriarchy can India hope for a distant future where women and and men are treated as equals.
Mahevash Shaikh is a millennial blogger, author, and poet who writes about culture, society, and mental health. She lives to question convention and redefine normal. You can find her on her Blog.
Featured Image Source: The Conversation