On the surface, it does seem that feminism and heterosexuality are two concepts that would overlap quite a bit. However, the question of them being somewhat at odds with each other doesn’t occur as easily. And when it does, it is bound to spark some controversy.
Feminism is a movement which aims to create a society in which everyone is treated equally, specifically every gender has access to the same opportunities and choices. In doing so, feminism has recognised the institution of patriarchy as one of the major roadblocks in its path to an equal society. While it would be absolutely incorrect to state that patriarchy is synonymous with men, it is undeniable that it is a system that is mostly perpetuated by men (and when by women it is because they are victims of the system themselves) and its primary beneficiaries are men.
Every woman carries the legacy of patriarchy, they are all—at the very least—historical victims. Keeping this essential distinction in mind, we come to ask: can a woman really, given what she knows, enter a relationship of trust, adulation and love with a man? Is it really possible, taking both the sexes’ histories into account—that of the oppressor and that of the oppressed? Can she really be a heterosexual feminist?
While it would be absolutely incorrect to state that patriarchy is synonymous with men, it is undeniable that it is a system that is mostly perpetuated by men (and when by women it is because they are victims of the system themselves) and its primary beneficiaries are men.
Marriage as Legitimisation of Male Power
A heterosexual relationship is essentially a contract of trust between a man and a woman. The world we live in has been dominated by male definitions and assumptions. Within this setting, in a lot of cases, heterosexuality has emerged as a space for the exercise of male power. Marriage is one such space, as it is seen as the legitimisation of such a bond. The institution of marriage, however, is one which has shown to be an inherently sexist practice throughout cultures and time periods.
Socialisation from a young age tends to impose certain expectations on children creating gender roles. For girls, these expectations are often to be ‘nurturing’ and ‘caring’. In other words, they are expected to be on the path to become good wives and mothers. Most married women don’t enjoy the same degrees of freedom as unmarried women. Wives are often relegated to the private, domestic sphere, often making them economically dependent on their husbands.
In some cultures, death of the husband means that the woman must go through some sort of ceremony which establishes her identity as a widow. For instance, for a long time, the tradition of sati was common in India. Moreover, these roles and traditions are propagated as natural, associating an immutable character to them. Hence, the institution of marriage isn’t one that affects married women in their married life alone – their lives before and after marriage is restricted by these patriarchal dictates as well.
The Personal and the Political
Feminism is not only a way of living but also a political movement. Feminists in heterosexual relationships often find themselves stuck in a position wherein their political feminist identity clashes with their personal feminist ideals. Romantic relationships require compromise and often feminist women find themselves compromising on their radical political stance of being a feminist in order to strike a balance in their private life.
For example, a woman might assert herself less frequently, might accept certain sexist behaviours as she might believe them to be ‘alright’ in a heterosexual relationship, she might believe them to be ‘just the way things are with a man’. More often than not, feminism is treated as an academic construction meant to not cross the boundaries of a classroom. Feminism here, becomes restricted to women alone. Only a woman on her own can be a feminist, the moment she starts interacting with the outside world, her feminism must come under control, must be confined to herself in order to exist and co-exist peacefully in society.
What is needed is a dialogue, with the self as well as outside the self. A dialogue to ascertain identity and principles, and also to establish them for the self as well as the partner. There also needs to be an acceptance of the fact that it can be quite difficult for some women to reconcile their feminism with their heterosexuality completely.
What is the Solution?
There is an option of escaping this conundrum of being a feminist heterosexual. One way is to renounce all interaction with men, which comes at the cost of giving up their heterosexuality – something that can be not only undesirable but also impossible, like in the case of married women. In fact, lesbians have been seen as escaping the patriarchal hold – a view which actually completely dismisses their sexuality.
It seems that the only way to be a feminist heterosexual is to let go of one or the other. But making these two mutually exclusive isn’t the solution, both practically and otherwise. What is needed is a dialogue, with the self as well as outside the self. A dialogue to ascertain identity and principles, and also to establish them for the self as well as the partner. There also needs to be an acceptance of the fact that it can be quite difficult for some women to reconcile their feminism with their heterosexuality completely. Women need to understand it’s natural if they feel conflicted, and their partners need to be understanding and see this conflict as a result of – at the very least – the historicity they carry.
Nobody is and neither can ever be a perfect feminist – the term does not exist. We are all learning, relearning and unlearning as we go. And by delineating a space where we can be both feminist and heterosexual, where we don’t limit one identity to one aspect of our lives, where we recognise how this is a valid dilemma that needs to be tackled, only then can feminist heterosexuals be true to themselves.
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