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Must Read: Why ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, By The Amazing bell hooks

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By Swarnima Bhattacharya:

“There should be billboards; ads in magazines; ads on buses, subways, trains, television commercials spreading the word, letting the world know about feminism.”

bell hooks’ ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, was her attempt at bringing feminist discourse out of academic echo chambers, and inserting it into everyday conversations about power, politics and power politics. It was borne out of her observation that there simply were not enough informed conversations about feminism. As such, it came to be that thing to be scared of, hence attacked. It was this skewed perspective on feminism, that bell hooks sought to set right, through this slim, rather accessible, text.

Published at the dawn of this millennium, the year 2000, this text comes as a reminder that the feminist movement is far from over; although we are slowly getting there, universal gender equality is still elusive. Not just that, it foregrounded the significance of the new chapter in feminism: Intersectionality.

Born as Gloria Jean Watkins, the prolific writer, academician and activist decided to write under the pseudonym of bell hooks, which was the name of her phenomenal grandmother, a feisty woman who spoke her mind. hooks also decided to not capitalise the first letters of her name, and write them simply in the lower case, as she wanted more emphasis on the “substance” of her works, rather than her name. Through these important gestures, she subverted the patriarchal culture of ‘naming after the father’, and also undermined the phallocentric nature of language itself.

bell hooks And Black Feminist Politics

With over 30 published titles under her belt, bell hooks is known best for her work ‘Ain’t I A Woman’, which was published in 1981. This is one of the seminal contributions towards what came to be known as Black Feminism— calling out the ‘mainstream’ feminist movement on its homogenising impulse, and near-blindness to women of colour.

Even though the coinage of the term ‘Intersectional Theory’ is widely attributed to legal scholar Kimberley Crenshaw in 1989, hooks had already elaborated upon the spirit of intersectionality in her works, especially ‘Ain’t I A Woman’.

‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, now an essential reading for most gender studies curricula, was penned down by hooks as more of an introduction to Feminism rather than a theoretical treatise; a guide for understanding it contextually as a term, a movement, a philosophy and a lifestyle. This handy primer is a conversation with young feminists as well as its seasoned practitioners, men as well as women discussing how Feminism is a means of fighting several systems of oppression at once.

In Which She Explains Intersectionality

“Feminist liberation is linked to the vision of social change which challenges class elitism.”

Intersectional feminism is hooks’ central thesis— in her writings, practice as well as this particular work. She meticulously picks out instances of feminist movements world over tackling not just the issue of equality among genders, but also other systems of oppression and marginalisation such as class and colour. Wary of what she calls “institutionalised sexism”, hooks attempts to understand feminist struggles not just in terms of a male-female binary, but in terms of responding to a system of power that renders powerless, certain sections of the society.

“The freedom of privileged class of women of all races has required the sustained subordination of working class and poor women.”

She points out the classist nature of the feminist movement, which often celebrates the accomplishments of privileged white women, while rendering the others invisible. She is suspicious of the dangerous exaltation of a few women, coming from economically well-off and socially privileged classes, as case points in women’s equality and advancement, but ultimately not contributing to an egalitarian ecosystem at home or outside.

In Which She Pooh-Poohs ‘Lifestyle Feminism’

Continuing her critique of classism diluting the feminist objective, hooks re-interrogates ‘equality’ by pointing out how feminist aspirations are co-opted into capitalism. She shows how celebrating corporate accomplishments of a few women in that milieu, takes away from the grave issue of industrial capitalism being sexist and discriminatory against women. Putting in a word of caution against what she views as “Revolutionary Feminism”, hooks makes a case for “Reformative Feminism”, which seeks to forge systems of “sisterhood” among women, instead of a spirit of competition, of vying for social approval based on notions of the good woman, as framed and sanctioned by a patriarchal gaze.

In Which She Invites Men To Rise And Shine For The Good Cause

“Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and sexist oppression.”

Far from reducing feminism into a tussle between men and women, hooks says that men are “worthy comrades in the struggle”. Feminism, she says, is not about how men oppress women, but how oppressive systems seek a certain performance of coded gender stereotypes, from both men and women.

In Which She Makes A Case For Political Solidarity

“One cannot be anti-choice, and be a feminist.”

Pushing the idea of a sisterhood despite barriers, hooks exemplifies her argument by talking about the contentious issue of abortion. Even if a woman would choose not to abort, she must certainly recognise the right of other women to make their own choices in matters concerning their own bodies. Because, hooks emphasises, feminism is about choices and self-determination, shorn of social pressures and expectations. And women must most definitely support and promote a culture of autonomy.

In Which She Radicalises Labour

“When we work more to make money to consume more, rather than to enhance the quality of our lives on all levels, work does not lead to economic self-sufficiency. More money does not mean more freedom if our finances are not used to facilitate our well-being.”

Continuing to demonstrate how an egalitarian system of economics is central to women’s emancipation, hooks argues for a system of living where women earn money not just to earn more in a male-dominated, patriarchal, consumerist market, but to convert financial independence into complete autonomy.

So, Why Need Read This Here, Now?

Because, well, feminism IS for everybody. Her strong explication of Intersectionality is defining contemporary feminist struggles, and rhetoric, with feminists the world over now also commenting on transphobia, body image issues, sexuality, equal parenting and alternate modes of conception and delivery.

In an interview in 2011, hooks said: “I think what’s so amazing about this historical moment is that it is bringing class to the fore and we have to think about the nature of work and hierarchy.” And this is what makes her works relevant even today, because of a deep, exhaustive engagement with issues like class, colour, economy, gender and labour which are rapidly being recognised everywhere as factors that define selfhood.

hooks’ polemic on intersectionality is especially relevant to India because of the several social identities our feminisms have to navigate. Modern Indian feminism would go nowhere without being an amalgamation of voices from all classes and castes. Because feminism is for a woman CEO leading men and mentoring younger women, as well as a homemaker raising children; for a man raising sons and daughters as well as a policeman refusing to lodge complaints of sexual harassment; for a Hijab-wearing Muslim as well as a Dalit woman in the hinterlands. The middle-class student gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi, as well as the half-widows in Kashmir.

To read more from our ‘Decoding A Feminist Text’ series, click here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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