Till very recently I believed that I was a liberal; a liberal who is tolerant and accepting of people of all faiths, genders, orientations, backgrounds and abilities. I scoffed at the archaic Section 377 verdict; I laughed at the immaturity shown by pseudo-nationalistic factions who wanted to censure the media, and I am despondent because women are still not safe in India.
I considered myself a feminist. I come from a family of strong women; I have often narrated their tales of grit and fortitude in the face of overwhelming adversity. I have been vocal of my admiration for the strong women in my peer groups. I have marvelled as these stellar personalities have navigated through life and emerged victorious in almost everything they’ve done. I have never believed that a person’s birth was an indication of their talents or potential, and this has been particularly true across the gender spectrum. I thought I was doing and thinking everything that would have made Gloria Steinem proud.
I considered myself a feminist. How could I have thought otherwise? My privileged education accorded me the arrogance to assume a moral high ground above not only the so-called right wing extremists who suppressed women but also over friends and family who subconsciously advocated patriarchy. And this arrogance resulted in a belief that I had complete mastery over the subject of feminism simply because I watched exactly one empowering TED talk and read no more than two articles on the subject.
I considered myself a feminist. I was living in a bubble. I had to finally face the harsh truth that there is much more to feminism than just being an armchair thinker who gets irked every time a dim-witted politician passes a misogynistic comment or a female actor is cast in a movie only to be sexually objectified. This realisation was triggered by an unassuming party with a few ultra-liberal friends of a friend.
After the customary exchange of pleasantries, I spent the next six hours of my life having my ideas and morals challenged. To say that my castle of arrogance was demolished would be an understatement. And as the dust cleared, I could suddenly see where I was wrong. It was all too clear in front of me. I had been taking my privilege for granted. Even though I was objectively educated about the inherent discriminatory attitude towards women in our society, I had failed to grasp how debilitating and oppressive this must feel for women. It is rightly said that privilege does not see discrimination. I realised that just like me many men around the world were erring in the same way. Condemning attacks on women and then returning to one’s regular life in which women are relegated to a secondary position in society, is not feminism.
Shackling women’s freedom in public under the guise of protection is not feminism. Raising only your daughter to be beautiful while you raise your son only to be tough is not feminism. Consciously or subconsciously, most men are guilty of perpetuating a discriminatory attitude towards women. One of the most common manifestations of this disposition is mansplaining. On it its own, mansplaining is hardly a significant issue for women. But it is the perfect allegory of the inherent social standing of men and women today.
Enter empathy. I believe feminism begins with, as I have come to realise, empathy. True empathy requires that one step outside one’s own emotions and view things entirely from the perspective of the other person. This would go a long way in ensuring that the women around us feel respected and not denigrated. One can’t even begin to solve the problems of sexism without understanding them first. It is the single most important first step a man can take today towards ending gender discrimination. An empathetic world would not deny a woman her basic rights. An empathetic world would not vilify a lady for her choice in clothing, and an empathetic world would not have started the grossly myopic trend #NotAllMen.
I do not claim to have solutions for treating the more perceptible symptoms like female infanticide or girls’ school drop-out rate, but I do know that a good place to start is to develop empathy. The preservation of basic rights and freedom for women is as much a responsibility of the average man as of the liberal thought leaders. A simple exercise would be to ask ourselves and the ones around us, “would the situation have been any different for a man?” This might not be the sweeping institutional correction that half the country is clamouring for. It is my humble opinion that it is imperative that we start small, but we need to start now.