I am a feminist and an ally of the feminist movement. I write this to talk about the transformation that I have gone through and am still going through because of feminist literature, feminists, and my experiences. I write this to talk about how patriarchy restricts men too.
When I joined the Young India Fellowship, while I did have the yearning to know how society functions, I was blinded by how deeply I was conditioned. I did not know that I lived in a male dominated society. I did not understand patriarchy. I did not understand caste. I did not know how patriarchy and caste worked together. I did not understand intersectionality. I did not know how my actions, my jokes, my words perpetuated the social structures that have caused severe inequality, not just economic, but social and cultural. And finally, I did not know how privileged I was.
My experience in the engineering college was very stereotypical. I worked in college festival committees mainly dominated by men, I vented about being friend-zoned, I indulged in sexist and homophobic jokes in the groups of men I used to hang out with, I policed the sexuality of women through my words and behaviour, I was possessive of the ones I dated, I watched excessive pornography.
I can go on and on about how I had built a masculine (toxic) culture around myself, and how everyone around enabled me to continue living blindly, with the privilege that I had. The privilege of being cis-gendered, upper caste (Brahmin), male, Hindu, not-fat, very abled, etc., built around me. So when I, in the first few days of my fellowship, “casually” cracked a pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) joke, wherein I assumed a peer of mine was responding in a particular way because of her periods and was then told by her that what I had done was wrong – it was the first time I had ever encountered a feminist.
I was confused. I could not understand how PMS jokes stereotyped what it means to go through PMS and what it’s like to link PMS to the emotions of a woman. This was the first of the many encounters I had with a feminist who made me more reflective about the privilege I had and what I was doing because of it.
But let me tell you when Paulo Freire says, “the oppressors who oppress, exploit and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. The only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both“, or when Christabel Pankhurst (quoted in Andrea Dworkin’s “Pornography: Men Possessing Women”) says, “Men have a simple remedy for this state of things. They can alter their way of life“, it truly takes strength and resilience to shed the conditioning in which you have been brought up. It takes strength to know what your privileges are, acknowledge them, and be conscious of it at every step. But Christabel is right (though I am using the quote in a larger context) that men can and should alter their way of life. And this can only be done by listening to the things that you resent or do not want to listen to, or listening and reading things that will alter your view of life and your everyday reality. By making it a practice.
Post the incident involving the PMS joke, because of the peers I hung out with and also because of feminist lectures and literature by the likes of Urvashi Bhutalia, Uma Chakravarti, Nivedita Menon, Kavita Krishnan, Leela Dube, and the literature of Gerda Lerner, Catherine Mackinnon – I started seeing more and more patterns of patriarchy embedded in our daily rituals.
I started understanding what gender is and what gender norms are. I started seeing how in lectures it is mainly the men who ask questions first or raise their hands. I started seeing how my confidence levels were linked to the privileges that I had. I started seeing how in groups, men dominate the conversations. I started seeing how men try to explain to women what they are saying and also try to explain to others what the woman is saying (Mansplaining). I started seeing whose voice is being valued more in a group. There were, for example, instances where the same sentence was valued more when a man said it than when a woman did.
Similarly, men who were outspoken about feminism were taken more seriously than women who did the same. I started seeing how I was perpetuating every single one of these rituals. I saw how fragile my ego really was. How I could not take the fact that there is a confident woman who is in front, talking to me, and that she is right, and I am wrong. I saw how I had a stereotypical notion of beauty. How I sexualized women’s bodies. I saw how I valued women who were thin and fair, or who looked stereotypically good, more than others. How I judged women, who didn’t fall under my standards.
I started questioning who the ones in power are and who dominates the high social positions. And when I did that, I could see how dominated it was by upper caste men. I saw how institutions co be patriarchal. I understood why hostels have curfews for women. I saw how courts and sexual harassment committees deal with cases of rape and sexual assault. I saw how patriarchy is also embedded in the laws that we live under. I understood how the root of patriarchy is mainly to control and police women’s sexuality. I understood the politics of sex, wherein peno-vaginal intercourse is valorised over, say, clitoral orgasm. I realised how most of our movies, songs, practices, sports, rituals have patriarchal underpinnings. How I grew up in a society which tells me to protect women, that it is my responsibility, that it is normal to stalk women, and that I should not take it seriously when a woman says no (not only to sex, but also in a lot of other situations). How everything is catered to the male gaze, to the pleasure of men. How fairy tales and fiction talk women who live their lives only to please men and be under their control. I was startled by the fact that even the books we read in schools and colleges are mainly written by men and how no one is concerned about feminist literature at all. The list goes on and on.
And this realisation, while it was excruciating psychologically and emotionally, was also liberating. It is almost as if all the notions that I had within me crumbled (the pain of which I could feel inside), and a new set of notions started forming. I started understanding this process of continuously questioning what we do in our daily lives. I started understanding how ideology works. And how our ideas and beliefs are shaped by the narratives of the ones in power. Put simply, since men are in power, they have to retain power. And in order to retain power, they have to ensure everyone in the society is shaped by ideas and beliefs which imply that the status quo is normal and that nothing needs to change. Thus the entire system of education, culture, and rituals continuously tries to keep them in power. So you have both men and women under patriarchy which benefit men and constricts women. And women are subordinated into the system; even they perpetuate patriarchy.
I am putting myself through this process of liberation even now. And every time I liberate myself from certain masculine, patriarchal notions, I feel lighter. I can cry now and not be afraid talking about my emotions, to be honest about what I feel and why, instead of using anger or violence to emote. I can participate in a culture of nurturance wherein I understand how relationships are formed and nurtured. I can show physical affection and understand the value of it, understand the value and meaning of love. I understand the lines between sex, emotions and patriarchy. I understand now how jealousy that you feel in a relationship with a woman might have a lot do with patriarchy and possession of women as objects too. I am conscious of the decisions that I take, whether I am shutting down a woman, or dominating a conversation if my biases are creeping in while interviewing candidates and how I can tackle that.
My concepts of beauty are changing. I understand fat shaming, and how caste and notions about dark skin are related. I deeply value and respect the feminists who have fought all these years for their rights (many times without any recognition) and continue to do so. I understand now how feminism is very much required to have a society that is not as unequal as it is now. I understand now how feminism liberates all the sexes and isn’t out to kill men. It is out to fight patriarchy which kills women and harms men, as the feminist Mona Eltahawy usually puts it.
However, there is a lot of outrage I see when it comes to talking about feminists, women who are speaking up and questioning the status quo. I see how people don’t even want to use the term feminism and have a certain distaste towards it. But it takes efforts to understand movements.
It takes efforts to move out of your comfort zone to understand that the personal is the political. It takes some self-reflection to understand what Pericles means when he says, “just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
Feminists are not one single set of individuals who all have one pathway to fight patriarchy. “Whataboutery” of the movement, wherein you try to derail the movement by telling the feminists which causes they should pick up and which they should not and how they should go about their fights, is not going to solve anything either. And just because I call myself a feminist, it doesn’t transform me into a perfect human being. That is because shedding privileges and power is always a process, shedding deeply entrenched notions is a process, fighting for rights is a process, understanding the realities of others is a process. And in every process that involves human beings, there are bound to be mistakes; a lot of mistakes. But the point of mistakes is to move towards a movement that is more inclusive of all races, religions, genders, classes, castes, sexualities. Maybe sometimes it is a local movement, sometimes it is a global one.
I am a feminist. A feminist who is going to continuously read, listen, and understand, and not stop calling myself a feminist because I make mistakes. I will not pull other feminists down. I will learn from my mistakes. On the same note, it is very much necessary to define what feminism means to me. What feminism is for me is to work towards socio-political-economic equality of all the sexes, which not only involves fighting for women’s rights but also emancipation of women, keeping in mind the intersectionality. And I as a man can only be an ally of feminists and should not lead the movement (refer to the Freire quote above).
I’d like to leave you with the beautiful words that Mona Eltahawy left me with, which run in my head all the time: “When I am asked can a man be a feminist, my answer usually is ‘A man cannot be a feminist, but an ally of feminisms.’ The reason I say that is because I believe women must be feminists. Because a man cannot come and rescue me from the same system that he benefits from. This is where your role of a man is crucial, this is how a man can be a feminist ally… in intervening with other men. So leave for us women to lead Feminism, like how LGBTQ lead their movements. Here is how you can help us best. With other men. Because other men will not listen to me. Other men will listen to men. So in the male spaces, where no women are involved, where other men speak honestly with each other, this is where you can best practice feminism. And say that ‘Listen I am a feminist, I am a feminist ally, I believe that Feminism liberates women and also liberates men, and explain to him how it will liberate him from patriarchal practices that imprison him too.’ We have to tell men that Patriarchy harms everyone, but harms women more (kills women), but also prevents men from their full expression of humanity. You can have this conversation with men in the way that I can’t. If I say the same thing to them, they will immediately shut me down and say that you hate men and would not listen to me anymore. But when a man has the conversation with another man, they will listen to you in a way that they won’t listen to me. This is how you can best promote feminism… And say that ‘Patriarchy hurts you and it hurts me. I don’t want to be that kind of man. Do you want to be that kind of a man?’ ”
P.S: I thank all the feminists, whose immense knowledge and experiences have helped me understand feminism and practice it in my personal life. I thank Sneha Visakha, the first feminist I met, who was patient enough to speak to me and answer all my questions which I asked her throughout the year, and continues to do so.