“I don’t think [Quantico is] a bra-burning feminist show where you’re like, we hate men, but we have really strong male characters, too,” said Priyanka Chopra in an interview last year. She is one of India’s leading pop culture icons who has countless young women looking up to her, and here she was, publicly dissociating herself from feminism despite stating that she believes in female empowerment. Even though she later embraced the term in another interview, there was no doubt about the kind of impact her earlier statement might have had on impressionable young girls still figuring out their politics.
Similarly, we’ve seen and heard young women from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds hesitate to call themselves feminists, or be wary of associating themselves with the term way too often. It’s become a refrain in our popular culture – fellow actor Parineeti Chopra followed suit, so did Lisa Haydon, who made some incredibly problematic statements by equating feminism with a rejection of men, marriage and babies. Taking off from these and countless other examples, many women (especially those who are young and impressionable) keep distancing themselves from the term, keep forming the wrong ideas about it, keep refusing the label despite claiming to believe in equal rights for all. And that is highly disturbing.
There aren’t many spaces, both online and in the real world which provide awareness of education about what feminism really is. There is a lack of proper and unbiased gender and sex education, or sensitisation from the school-level itself as a result of which so many women end up relying on the patriarchal myths and inaccurate online narratives which paint feminism in a negative light.
There is also the misconception that feminist theories and ideas are purely academic or are the domain of ‘activists’ and ‘social justice warriors (which are again supremely problematic stereotypes), and that particular myths continue to be perpetuated when these ideas aren’t made as easily accessible to a layperson from a young age.
Due to all of this, women end up thinking that feminism (and being feminist) will end up ‘antagonising’ men.
“For young women, their feminism is precarious because it places possible heterosexual romance at risk by marking them as ‘anti-men’, or so they perceive,” observes academic and feminist scholar Shilpa Phadke, and does so with great accuracy. Women, from a very young age are so deeply conditioned to seek male approval that they often subconsciously tailor their personalities and beliefs in order to seem desirable to the male gaze.
Ironically enough, this reliance on ‘male approval’ is what feminism itself tries to address and counter, but it becomes a reason for young women to shy away from feminism. Even women who do have a significant exposure to education by virtue of their economic or social privilege continue to be uncomfortable associating themselves with the term because of how ingrained the prejudices against it are.
But even those who have managed to break the conditioning; who have managed to understand the term and even realise how problematic the stigma surrounding the term is, often find it difficult to own the term explicitly because of how often sexist hate is directed at them for it. ‘Feminist’ becomes a slur, a means to put a woman down for daring to speak up, and not everyone finds the courage or strength to tackle that head on.
While many are too conditioned, repressed, or ignorant to recognise the implications of the term, many women also have legitimate objections to the term ‘feminist’.
The Feminism vs. Equality debate is an endless and convoluted one. There are those who argue that if feminism really wants equality, then it shouldn’t be defined by a term that refers to a particular gender. While a lot of us side with the one half of this debate – that ‘equality’ is too broad a word and denies the specific problem of gender (which is what the movement started out addressing) – there are also many who side with the the half that thinks the term ‘feminist’ isn’t inclusive enough. Feminism isn’t just about gender equality, but also includes within its ambit issues surrounding sexuality, class, caste, race, disability, mental health, and so on and so forth. Therefore, if not ‘equality’, many argue that the term ‘intersectionality’ better represents these concerns than just ‘Feminism’.
The word ‘feminism’ itself has uncomfortable historical connotations, because the movement began with cis, white, and heterosexual women, and often excluded narratives from women of colour, queer women, trans women and so on. It was initially a movement which was fighting against the man vs. woman binary, but now that feminist thought and criticism has developed and become more nuanced and inclusive over the years, many reject the term because of its earlier associations.
While this is, on many levels, a genuine criticism against the term, it comes with its problems too. The word ‘feminist’ has a socio-cultural relevance that cannot be entirely dismissed. Years of social and political movements have gone into making it what it is today – for the rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of colour and so on. To deny it completely would mean to annul its achievements, which is something we cannot afford to do.
Perhaps the first and foremost step towards embracing the term is to engage with the ideas and concepts first. It’s not easy to unlearn generations of conditioning and prejudices, but with better gender and sexuality education and awareness, it is definitely possible to do so. We have to make feminism accessible to young girls, whether it be by sensitising them about issues from a young age or by encouraging them to speak out when they experience oppression or see it around them.
As for the contested connotations of the term ‘feminism’ – that’s a debate which continues to rage on. But to truly find a solution to that question, we need to first spread awareness about what feminism is, and have young people engaging with these ideas and debating them.