By Heenali Patel:
Feminism has experienced something of a roller-coaster ride in the past month. The recent debacle surrounding The Times of India and Deepika Padukone’s ‘voluntary’ cleavage expose has made headlines internationally, not least because it has revealed a chauvinistic underbelly to ‘prestigious’ Indian journalism. Meanwhile, Emma Watson launched a new campaign for women’s rights, HeForShe, at the UN in a well-received speech on gender equality. In its true form, the anonymous trolls of 4chan threatened to publish revenge porn of Watson, for speaking out, resorting to the tried and tested routes of body shaming, violation of consent, and the casual ‘she was asking for it’ attitude.
It is heartening to see that because of incidents like these, the challenges that women face are finally gaining acknowledgement, not least because the Internet is becoming a platform for women to talk with more freedom and assertion. Feminism is being recognized less for the distorted ‘man-hating’ version propagated by the misinformed, and more for its fundamental message of equality. As journalist Rebecca West famously said, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” In other words, feminism is simply the concept that women and men should have equal rights, economic and social opportunities.
Being educated in Britain, the way I have approached feminism has always in part been moulded by white feminist figures like Natasha Walter, Virginia Woolf and Susan Brownmiller. I have spent most of my life in protest against the pink Barbie dolls that line up the girls’ sections of toy stores. I have never understood why we feel the need to buy a specific shampoo ‘for men’. I find the prevalence of rape across the world shocking, and the lack of women’s representation in politics shameful. In short, I view myself as a feminist largely cultivated by Western thought.
But as a British Asian, there is more to it than that. There is another side of me that feels uncomfortable with a definition that blindly categorises me with white thinkers, whose racial and cultural experiences are so far removed from my own. Emma Watson may speak about women’s rights, but hers is a kind of mainstream feminism that is not speaking for most women around the world. Whilst Watson may be at liberty to cut her hair down to the bone, I shuddered at the thought of doing the same. She may end up on the pages of Vogue and hailed as a model of subversive femininity, but the archetype of an Asian girl with a shaved head is really no archetype at all.
As the razor shaved away layers of black hair, something decidedly un-feminist in me screamed ‘betrayal‘!
A series of memories came back to me, of times when my own culture had insisted upon my inferior place as a woman. There was the time when I got banned from the mandir because I was having my period, and was therefore considered ‘dirty’. Or the times I was ordered to serve dinner to the men in my family, only being permitted to eat after cleaning their dishes. And the times I had been asked about my weight, and felt pressured to be thin for the sake of finding a good husband. As I watched my hair fall away, I came to the realisation that shaving my head would be seen as an act of defiance, not simply because of my gender, but because of my gendered role within the Indian race.
Western feminism often seems to ignore the fact that most non-white women must work against class, race and colonial modes of thinking to address inequality. For many Indian women, ‘feminist’ is a title that muddies the waters of an already murky situation. As Ashidhara Das wrote in Desi Dreams: Indian Immigrant Women Build Lives Across Two Worlds, ‘Most Asian Indian women, even those who call themselves feminists, hesitate to make alliances with Western feminists.’ Ours is a different kind of feminism that needs to recognise women of colour as a discourse in its own right.
My decision to shave my head began with a desire to make a fashion statement. It ended, however, with the realisation that in doing so, I had entered a discourse on what a modern Asian woman can and should be – a desi feminist.
For more on women’s and human rights, follow me on @HeenaliVP