By Pallavi Ghosh:
What is feminism? With the ever widening scope of the discourse around gender equality including transgender as well as LGBT rights, there is no one answer to who is a feminist or what being a feminist is. Multiple timelines exist interacting and affecting each other actively.
The development of feminist politics has been subject to, like all movements, its own successes and failures. The persistence of gender inequality globally and the varied forms it takes in specific locales has naturally resulted in a kind of double-existence – one that unites all the different forms into a global struggle to achieve equal gender rights for men and women; and the other that claims its unique identity as against the essentialist tendencies of a universal or global definition of women, their needs and struggles.
Feminism, as a movement, was the child of the 1950s and originated in the UK and US. It began focusing on egalitarian ideas of demanding equal rights for men and women. The notion of difference, as against the all-are-born-equal view of the first wave feminists, gained an early expression in the second wave in the early 1960s. This phase also marked the onset of intersectionality (the term coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, was used to describe women’s oppression as differing in intensity and nature according to the inter-related factors of class, race, gender, ability, ethnicity and caste) debates since it reacted to criticisms against feminism being limited to the upper class, white women in UK and US through inclusionary politics. Therefore different experiences amongst women on the basis of race and class began to feature more. However, it was with the third wave beginning from the 1990s that brought the idea of difference to the centre-stage of feminist discourses.
Following contemporary developments, the experience of feminism in India has also been variegated. Existence of multiple indices in identity politics like caste, class, region and language, along with their complex over-lapping, have complicated the gender discourse. This complex of intersectionality gets reflected through everyday incidents. Rape and sexual harassment of Dalits in the country, discrimination against and harassment of north-eastern women in the northern region; or the sexual exploitation of domestic help or labourers, are all indicative of the factors affecting the power dynamics between men and women. In other words, feminism cannot possibly think of dis-engaging itself from caste, class, regional and linguistic politics.
Naturally then the feminist campaigns so far have been equally diverse. To speak of a few here – The Gulabi Gang’s approach was to literally arm oneself against, and teaching through the stick method, towards patriarchal husbands. On the other hand, the Bell Bajao campaign strode its way to success keeping men as comrades in a common battle. More recently, the pad protest campaigns initiated by students from multiple universities focusing on breaking the stigma about menstruation – a natural/biological fact of women’s bodies. While the earlier Must Bol Campaign aimed at including and engaging men in debates about gender violence as active agents of change as well as victims of violence.
Each campaign and movement relates to and practices a particular brand of feminism. To deny the diversity is to deny the different levels of development and successes that feminism has achieved so far. To think that diversity dilutes or confuses feminist politics is to echo a similar scepticism that British colonialists had of a democratic India – that it will descend to chaos because of its diversity. Well the Indian democracy is very much alive and still creating histories; and so is feminism. Or should we say feminisms?