Editorial Note: Being Feminist is a fortnightly column that features personal narratives documenting the emotions, vulnerabilities and innermost contradictions every feminist encounters while trying to push through various degrees of patriarchy in private, professional and public spaces.
If I were asked to identify the exact moment which revealed that there was a personal conflict with the identity of being a feminist, it would be the series of silences, repeating with a sense of deja vu, that always followed every time someone directed the following question at me – “Would you call yourself a feminist?”
When this question comes from family members, friends or close acquaintances, more often than not, their tone and expressions give away the subtle challenge tied with the enquiry, where an affirmation would immediately lead to a set of assumptions being created about the person being addressed. These assumptions vary depending on the class and social circle, and in the case of a middle-class setting that is governed by values and cultures that are also essentially middle-class in its sensibilities, the status of a woman who identifies as a feminist remains a point of much debate. It is within this framework that my personal conflict with the feminist identity also arises.
I have been noted for my “boysome-ness” as one of my classmates innocently termed it, after observing my constant initiatives to involve myself and a few of my friends in activities that were often reserved for boys, such as lifting chairs for events or claiming space in the school grounds for our games amidst boys playing football.
Such a reaction was also nothing out of the ordinary in a school that largely catered to a middle-class audience and from a boy who was only as old as me when I had just started high school.
But as I gained a better grasp of the toxic power relations and issues of gender inequality in society, the values and ideologies critiquing patriarchy through feminism that were developed as a result of academic exposure and personal development began conflicting with the foundational values that I grew up with. This conflict manifested itself through various contentions in the family and among close friends where the only resolution was to agree to disagree.
Being brought up in a typical middle-class household meant internalising several viewpoints, moral codes and value judgements that are quintessentially part of these social circles. Therefore, I grew up with several strong reservations about the body and female agency. This is reflected in the way discourse around sexuality and anything that could be interpreted as sexual, right from clothing choices to relationships, were portrayed as shameful and my contrary views on these subjects were framed and voiced only in recent years.
The values that were inculcated through cultural and family structures within the larger framework of class and society were further amplified with similar inputs that carried religious authority from spaces like the Sunday school and Catechism classes. I remember one of the teachers instructing us not to look at movie posters on the walls featuring ‘scantily clad actors‘, in what I assume was an attempt to protect the “innocence” of a bunch of teenagers.
Such a culture of self-sustained moral policing and replenishing the underlying power hierarchy in society is further aided by the media. Films, songs, advertisements and other cultural products that are directed at the middle class while also portraying this section of society reflect, reiterate and recycle these values and morals as something that is intrinsic to this class.
This is the reason why advertisements featuring a mother who is perpetually cooking or cleaning, and a father who is busy with work, become a staple image that is not reformed even when several contemporary families do not resemble this image, as it caters to the larger imagination of a ‘typical middle-class family‘. This is also the reason why movies like Thappad slaps us awake, because they expose the microaggressions and subtle workings of patriarchy in a seemingly happy middle-class household where there it is projected that there is no need of any feminism to deal with “just one slap”.
Studying gender as a site of power and control that is exercised by dominant patriarchal forces in order to perpetuate the subjugation of all factions that do not adhere to the prevalent ideologies opens up one’s worldview by exposing us to newer narratives and perspectives. Along the way, a lot of my core beliefs shifted radically to become broader and more inclusive, while also being at odds with several views that were part of my cultural and class-based upbringing.
One recurring discussion that sheds light on this idea is when talks about getting a piercing or a tattoo leads to the possibility of a future husband, who is definitely expected to be in the picture, not approving of them. Even the plan of continuing education abroad, somehow becomes irrevocably tied up with a cost-benefit analysis of how it would affect the chances of getting married.
The absurdity of every minute decision related to my body or my education becoming linked to a phantom husband figure and his approval was surprisingly rendered not absurd at all. In fact, this reveals how deeply entrenched the hovering the notion of male validation is when it comes to the agency of women.
Within this structure of a middle-class family and society, there are certain roles that are modelled for women to occupy, without question. Those who choose to question these roles and alter them, become “those women” who are “too modern” or “too high-class”, automatically leading to alienation. Contemporary times may have succeeded in ensuring that feminists have a place in middle-class families and societies, but they are yet to feel comfortable and confident in these places.
Terms like “feminichi” made their rounds on social media as part of distasteful comment sections which were later integrated into the vocabulary of a large section of Malayali population. The cultural implications of words like these and the attitudes they shape add to the discomfort, complexities, conflicts and ambivalences that most women from these classes and backgrounds feel when it comes to identifying as feminists.
Harmoniously aligining yourself with certain family values and cultural backgrounds and identifying as a feminist become mutually exclusive choices within such a status quo.
But positive changes can be observed in the way the term “feminichi” itself has been reclaimed by Malayali women which led to a diametrical shift in its implications. This change was notably pioneered by public personalities like Parvathy T. K and Rima Kallingal who flaunt accessories and tattoos that boldly declare their feminist takes.
What started as a backlash against these actors who protested against misogynist movie dialogues and delivered TedX talks on feminism, became a term of empowerment which negates its own demeaning connotations.
Forces that are rooted within the middle-class and resonate with similar sentiments also took up the task of deconstructing this term with Instagram and Facebook pages where critical gender commentary meets sharp wit. They also dismantle the offensive potential of words like these, and the authority of concepts like moral policing and idealised character traits such as “adakkaam” and “othukkam” which loosely translate to standards of modesty and gentleness expected from women.
These efforts steadily pave the way for women to question patriarchal ideals as proud feminists without being recipients of contempt and attack.
As more women become comfortable and empowered to break away from these narratives of bodily regulation and ideological subjugation, this would also reflect in the visual media and larger culture which symbiotically influences and derives itself from class sensibilities and societal norms. Such a rewriting of these derogatory definitions and age-old ideals can be the sign of hope that seeks to resolve the conflict I began with.
There would be an inevitable period of gruelling retrospection after every time I gave a vague answer to this question – “Would you call yourself a feminist?” These thoughts often ended in frustration and regret at not being assertive enough about my beliefs. The task at hand is to gradually bridge the gap between discriminatory family and class values and ideals of feminism and progressive thought, as these notions are often in disagreement with each other, leading to conflict, contradiction and loss of self among women.
This would work towards ensuring that answers to this question in the future would be more sure and assertive while also being backed by firm belief and support from people around. With such promising changes on the horizon, I am driven to believe that the next generation of feminists, across classes and cultures, would be more aware and confident about their take on feminism and being feminists, who not only claim space but are both comfortable and powerful in these spaces.
Featured Image Source: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India