Recently, I came across an organisation called the Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF). They are a men’s rights group registered in India as a non-profit, non-governmental organisation. In the FAQs section of their website, they have listed down their mission as follows,
“…to expose and create awareness about large scale violations of Civil Liberties and Human Rights in the name of women empowerment in India…”
In their perception, women’s empowerment initiatives lead to large scale violations of human rights. Sensing an inherent unfriendliness towards the feminist movement, I scrolled down to check if there are any direct mentions of the same.
I found the following question and response among others:
“What are SIIF’s views on feminists?“
“Most feminists are intellectually challenged individuals, with very less academic grounding. They are basically frustrated angry individuals, who think intolerance and hate will improve conditions of women in the world. In reality, the condition of women improves due to technology, which mostly men created. Feminists are also extremely ungrateful people, who never get satisfied with any improvement in condition of women.”
It is intriguing to note that an organisation which strives to work for the rights of men and is visibly hostile towards feminism, calls itself the Save Indian Family Foundation. Quite many advertisements seeking brides on matrimonial websites also specifically mention that a “non-feminist” woman is preferred, like the one below which has been doing the rounds on the internet:
This is indicative of the popular belief that feminism is about man hating and breaking families up. Feminists are perceived by a large number of people as individuals who refuse to cooperate with men out of sheer hatred. They are therefore not desired in families and quite many young feminists often choose not to identify themselves as feminists or feminist allies before their family members. Feminism is accused of being a man-hating, family breaking propaganda without any objective investigation into the merits of its criticism of male conduct or the oppressive structure of the institution of family itself.
Is feminism really about mindless man hating and breaking families?
Feminism and the Narrative of Man Hating
Let us begin with the definition of feminism. Feminism is a theory of political, economic and social equality of all genders. Feminism began as a form of resistance against the social order that confined women to assigned gender roles such as birthing, caring and managing the household. It then grew into organised, multi-faceted negotiations for economic, civil and political rights that were denied to women. Today, feminism has expanded to include the concerns of the evolving spectrum of gender, sexuality and its inter-sectional dynamics.
Feminism is therefore, a movement for equality and collaborative participation among all. A movement for equality cannot be wrong in its intention, because equality is a progressive concept that will always be relevant in a civic society. Most of our political struggles are based on establishing equal treatment of their respective stakeholders. Despite being in the very same ideological space, feminism faces particularly strong resistance from all quarters. One of the most popular allegations against feminism is that it harbours and encourages a man hating conscience.
The semantics of the word ‘Feminism’ and its connection to the words ‘female’ or ‘femininity’ must not be confused to infer that feminism is about the glorification of women. The movement was not born to prosecute men at every opportunity that emerges. Any prosecution that ensues is not out of a pre-meditated will to malign the male community but out of a pressing, urgent need to push back against violence and oppression. Let us look at gender-based violence for perspective.
Rape, domestic abuse, assault, eve teasing, harassment, cyber bullying etc., are crimes that are committed majorly on women, children and trans gender persons, by cis-het men. This is not to diminish the gravity of the commission of such crimes on men, but to highlight that on a comparative scale it is women and trans individuals who have systemically and consistently been subjected to violations by men. If we follow the language of the offenders, we can see that such crimes are not crimes of lust alone. They stem from a deep-seated need to assert power and to subordinate the minds and bodies of women, children and trans individuals through violence. Centuries of conditioning has enabled this differential, superior conscience in men and these crimes are born out of a genuine patriarchal belief that men must be obeyed simply because they are men.
Feminism addresses these in various ways, and seeks to educate men and women about the problematic repercussions of gender privilege. But what catches the attention of most people among the numerous efforts of feminist initiatives are the instances of feminist anger and assertion. Angry feminists are immediately called “frustrated”,”intolerant”, “man hating” etc. We are so used to women internalizing their rage that when it is expressed, we refuse to look into the causes for it. Violence and entitlement cannot be remedied with education alone. They must be called out with the condemnation they deserve.
We cannot expect the oppressed to sound sweet at all times while struggling for self preservation. Anger and hatred are two different things and feminist anger is not misplaced hate. To construe their legitimate resistance as blanket hatred towards men is to trivialise the concerns of one half of humanity and to normalise the violent, sub-human treatment of them. Refusing to accept facts about male privilege and slandering feminists because they ask for accountability is thwarting essential dialogues for parity apart from being very unbecoming of responsible, mature, stakeholders of a civilised society.
Let me also say it out loud that there are quite many individuals who proclaim themselves to be man haters, while aligning themselves to feminist politics. The saying that a few, however loud or visible, are not representative of the whole, is true in this context also. Feminism, distilled down to its heart, is about equality. How different people choose to interpret it cannot be used as conclusive material to be dismissive of the core conscience of feminism.
Feminism and Family: The Vertical Power Hierarchy of Gender
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the fact that a men’s rights organisation calls itself Save Indian Family Foundation is rather absurd to me. It looks almost as if families are being asked to be saved from feminist invasions. It is a very popular conviction that feminists are not “marriage material”.
What about feminism makes it unfavorable to the institution of family?
In her book Seeing Like A Feminist, author and feminist scholar Nivedita Menon quotes a 1984 Delhi High Court judgment where the honourable court held that, “letting fundamental rights into the family, is like letting a bull into a China shop”. She writes,
“The Judge was in fact, absolutely right. If you bring in Fundamental Rights into a family, and if every individual in the family is treated as a free and equal citizen, that family will collapse. Because the family, as it exists, is based on clearly-established hierarchies of gender and age, with gender trumping age; that is, an adult male is generally more powerful than an older female. Thus, the family is an institution, based on inequality; its function is to perpetuate particular forms of private property ownership and lineage…”
This is precisely the crux of the feminist criticism of family. Feminism does not have a problem with a family structure that is independent of vertical power hierarchies based on gender. As long as all members of the family are free of its restrictive, gendered commandments, it is an acceptable space of trust, friendship and mutuality. But, in our country, this is not the case. Save a few matrilineal families within which also the problem of concentration of power with a particular gender can be found, majority of the families are patriarchal.
Starting from changing surnames, to the division of labour based on gender, the domestic space is one that is filled with discriminatory practices that we have been safeguarding in the name of culture and values. Women are expected to shape-shift so as to not disturb the convenience of the male members in the family. Therefore, when asked whether feminism has a problem with families, the answer is that feminism has a problem with the gendered power structure of families that invade the fundamental right to non-discrimination. As a movement that strives to establish equality among all, feminism is especially critical of the patriarchal family structure that deprives women and trans gender persons of their agency and individuality, apart from being grossly violent towards their bodies and minds, in some cases.
The unwillingness of feminists to agree with what is normalised as “family pressures” is not feminist rudeness. Such pressures are not as harmless as they seem because they come at the cost of the individuality of women and trans gender persons. In that sense, feminists are detrimental to families, because they refuse to be treated as lesser human beings in the domestic space. If a society considers such self-assertion offensive, and justifies its suppression, it is very telling of the pseudo egalitarian conscience of that society.
A legitimate question that then arises, as is visible on the website of the SIFF, is why feminists do not speak about the atrocities on men, if they strive for equal treatment of all people?
The fact that it is mostly men who are at the receiving end of feminist criticism is incidental because it is men who have been running the society, holding positions of power and making important decisions for everyone since the beginning of civilization. When every institution hands more power to men, it is of course them who have to be held accountable for its abuse.
Therefore, the feminist movement strives to highlight the problems of women and trans gender persons because most feminists feel that focusing on men’s rights will shift the conversation from the majoritarian victimhood of women and trans individuals, and impair their progress. A lot of feminists take up men’s issues in ways that do not blame women for feminism to gain traction. The experiences of men do not occupy the centre stage of feminist concerns simply because they are more often the violators than the survivors.
Besides, despite being the oppressors in majority instances, to want everything to be about themselves without a reflective acceptance of the agonising effects of their own gender privilege is in itself indicative of the attention and importance men are used to in our society. The feminist movement has no obligation to cater to it because it is this very notion of gendered self-importance that the movement seeks to dismantle.
Perhaps the reason why the SIFF and a large part of our population consider feminism as a threat to men and families is because feminism teaches people to ask important questions. Feminists are inconvenient to the society because they upset normalcy, i.e the normalcy of a patriarchal society where it is unacceptable for women and trans gender persons to make their own choices or question male privilege. When we downgrade feminism and dismiss it off as noise, in effect we dismiss the idea of equality that we have ourselves vowed to uphold and practice.
It is our collective admission of how hollow our promises of parity are and how dearly we want to cling on to gender discrimination. Reflective acceptance is sure difficult but any society that holds discriminatory practices and institutions sacrosanct must be reorganized no matter how ingrained they are into our past and psyche. When fair criticism is leveled against gendered practices and oppressive institutions, it is on us to come up with alternative community models that are founded on lateral, collaborative, equitable communion among the stakeholders.
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