During a session on gender sensitization, the co-ordinator asked what do you understand by the term “feminism”?
Amongst all the replies, the one that took everyone by surprise was “feminism is nothing but retaliation”. Being a feminist myself, it was not the first time that I was hearing something like this.
I have often heard people mocking feminism with all the wrong notions. The question that troubles me is why a majority of people still see feminism in a bad light and why it is often misunderstood and misinterpreted.
While tracing the history of feminism, one realises that it was only after Renaissance when rationality became the norm of the day and people started questioning the existing power structures. Science brought along with it logic and reason.
People started emphasizing on collective thought and dignity became the staple for existence. But the problem was that the principles of equality and fundamental rights were considered valid only for men.
Rights of citizens never meant rights of women, they had no representation in society and hence no political identity. So the issues related to women were first raised by men, even if reluctantly, and then carried forward by women themselves.
Women’s participation and emancipation gained momentum only after the French revolution.
Feminism was divided into phases but the basic demand remained the same; that is for equal rights as that of men. But one interesting thing to note here is that since its inception, the fight was against unequal distribution of power.
Feminist theory has always singled out this unequal power division that fuels the exploitation of women and their subservience.
As said by Donald E. Hall, “The semantics of power and powerlessness offers infinite surprises and rich opportunities for both personal reflection and reflections on culture specifically on performances of subjectivity”.
It was this manifestation of power which lead to unequal access to resources and hence, subordinated women throughout history and it was for this cause that women started raising their voice.
The social framework was such that men were always in a dominant position which they used to exploit and marginalize other sections of the society.
Feminists also brought to the discourse the topic of gender as a social construct that, once again, put men in a more privileged position.
In her book Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says, “women’s situation is thus marked by a basic tension between transcendence and immanence; as self conscious human beings they are compelled into immanence by cultural and social conditions that deny them that transcendence”.
Thus, a system of interrelated barriers and forces affects their mobility and puts a certain group of people into subordinate position.
Prior to the debates on gender justice, feminist theory never remained confined to the rights of women alone. Feminists also opposed other forms of subordination such as racism, heterosexist discrimination, class oppression; and envisioned the possibilities for both individual and collective resistance to such subordinations.
Feminism is often mistaken as a fight against patriarchy and a fight against male domination which is not true because feminism, in its real essence, is not a fight against any particular gender but a fight against any kind of power domination.
It highlights the fact that patriarchy is a deep-rooted phenomenon which gives power to only a certain section of society and it is not only women who suffer from it but men also become a victim of it.
So feminism is, and was, never a movement exclusively for women fighting against men but it is a diverse movement which not only aims at advocating the rights of women and empowering them but it aims to vanquish all sorts of disparity based on power relations.
Narrowing it down to the concept of mere a fight against patriarchy and of male-bashing is nothing but demeaning and unjust.
As stated by Simone de Beauvoir, “the point is not for women simply to take power out of men’s hands, since that wouldn’t change anything about the world. It’s a question precisely of destroying that notion of power”.
Feminism is something very substantial which aims for developed and inclusive society. It raises the question of not only women but also the other sections of the society.