By Karthik Shankar:
I had a fascinating conversation with a friend the other day about feminism. We were discussing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant TED talk where she states that a feminist is someone who believes in the ‘social, economic and political equality of the sexes’. I emphatically declared that I was a feminist too. After all, I believe that women in India have been kept down for too long. Moreover, my mom herself is an inspiring role model (married when she had just started college, she is now a PhD holder and runs a school). My friend, however, chided me. Men, she believed, aren’t capable of being feminists. We don’t go through the gamut of experiences that women face on a daily basis; eve-teasing, stalking, inhibition of their sexuality and restriction of their spaces. Our feminism was superficial; not rooted in the kind of realities any Indian woman has to grapple with. And if we scratched below the surface, there were several aspects of our values or beliefs that would reveal us also to be male chauvinists. I scoffed at her extreme definition of feminism. I believed I was different.
Over the next few days, that conversation kept replaying in my mind over and over and my ears perked up anytime such issues were being discussed. During an evening stroll, I heard my mom and aunt discuss the documentary India’s Daughter. While my uncle and dad walked ahead, I made sure to stay back. I was a non-entity and so was privy to conversations that normally wouldn’t have happened in my presence. Both discussed their husbands and the idea of freedom and how men expect to be lauded for doing something that women do on a daily basis. My aunt talked about how her husband had cooked lunch one day and then used that line of defence for the rest of the day to get out of doing household chores. My mom brought up her strategy of running any idea by my dad, just to give him that feeling that he had a say in the decision-making process because most of all, men want to feel in control. I also found out that a very cool family-friend despite his refined behaviour and his endorsement of liberal beliefs was not someone who practiced what he preached. His wife was under his thumb.
These weren’t exactly shocking revelations to me but they illuminated that what we count as progressive or feminist in men might simply boil down to ‘better than the norm’. My dad and uncle have supported their wives’ careers and haven’t restricted their movement the way many Indian men do. But they still haven’t completely divorced themselves from our societal norms. My mom is still expected to be the default cook in the kitchen (when she’s not travelling for work) and if something is out of place at home, my dad will ask my mother why she didn’t ask the help to fix it, even though he could have.
It’s easy to imagine that our generation is better but it occurred to me how despite all my talks about feminism, I’m not above enjoying the benefits of patriarchy. Sometimes when I find a shirt is not ironed, I irritably tell my mom as if her only job is about making my life smoother. And I realise more often than not, that I take all her efforts for granted but notice if it is missing. The irony of my ‘enlightened’ self!
A few weeks earlier I had a discussion with a group of friends (all guys), where I discussed applying for a Women’s Studies course. They asked me if I was for gender equality and I replied in the affirmative. My opinion was then attacked by two of them.
I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. I’m questioned about my feminism from both the gender equality advocates and the men’s rights brigade. I admit my feminism may not be perfect, but I resent the notion that I can’t be a feminist. Male feminists bring different experiences to feminism and isn’t that the point? Gender inequality of course disproportionately affects women, but the engagement of both equally is necessary to resolve this situation.
At the end of the day, feminism is about expanding choices for all gender identities. It’s the choice of a fluid identity. The choice to be a man who can watch football games as well as successfully change his baby’s nappies. The choice to be a woman who is a successful career woman and has no interest in mothering a child. It’s about dismantling the preconceived notions that qualities like nurturing and warmth are associated with women while stoicism and strength are the stronghold of men.
Feminism is constantly being re-defined. There was a time; it was a space almost exclusively for white women when they demanded suffrage in the UK and US. Today, it has expanded its base and it means very different things for people in different socioeconomic and political contexts. Every person has a connection to a different issue. Feminism is a spectrum. And yes, there is space in it for men who are willing to speak up for women, listen, empathise and stand in support.