I recently happened to attend what seemed to be a mental health awareness event for women to empower women dealing with depression and other mental illnesses, within the Indian diaspora in London. Organized by, for and about high society, privileged women where clichés like ‘women are emotional’ were the highlight.
It was all about vain pictures and videos and endless selfies. There was absolutely no diversity despite it being an ‘Indian’ women event. I, one of the speakers at the event, sat there and watched as the charade of wealthy privileged women, flaunted their expensive latest couture and jewellery. The women who organised the event refused to pay a single penny for my 8-hour travel and hotel stay in London as they ‘couldn’t afford it’. The meeting felt more like a bored, wealthy housewives club’s effort of making themselves feel good about doing something useful for the world, to be honest.
You may wonder, what do diversity and unpaid labour have to do with feminism or the larger picture of our society?
The UN report on women’s mortality in India that was published recently, made a direct link between the duration of a woman’s life and her caste. According to the report, an average Dalit woman would die 14.6 years earlier than the average upper-caste woman. Shocking? Hardly. Haven’t we all witnessed our sewers scavenged by people of that caste, at some point in our lives?
But here’s the thing. We’ve identified the problem, but do we have a solution to help change this? I am sure the solution doesn’t lie in theoretical policies or cheap subsidies. The answer lies in changing people’s attitudes, and in this case, the attitudes of women.
When the suffragette movement began in the West in the early 1900s, it was not inclusive of black women. In fact, to this day, white feminism is a separate area where women of colour, minorities, women of other faiths, transwomen, women from the LGBTQ community, women with disability, and immigrants are not welcome. Thankfully the concept of intersectionality coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 came into play and people began to recognize that feminism needs to be inclusive.
I try to look at my Indian counterparts with the same lens of intersectionality and ask if we have become inclusive at all within the community. It is important to question whether the privileged women in our society are making enough efforts to lift underprivileged women because at the end of the day, let’s not forget, it’s the individuals that become the masses.
In my analysis, privileged women in India are clearly not doing enough. I am not saying there aren’t exceptions, but the larger picture is depressing as the UN report clearly shows. Hence the banned jewellery ad featuring Aishwarya Rai posing next to a dark-skinned child servant that neither the ad makers nor the model gave an ounce of thought about in terms of what it represents. Or the hundreds of Dalit sanitation workers who die annually, cleaning 20-feet sewers by hand.
In high societies, it seems that charity and empowerment have become mere status symbols and there is no real effort in these circles to make a change. Exactly like the #mychoice advert by Vogue starring Deepika Padukone that was criticised for being too ‘elitist, urban and upper class’. Yes, the ad talked about empowering women but those choices are only available to the privileged women.
For a rural girl and woman, the choices are sparse. And when it comes to choice, the best things Vogue could think of was clothing choices and sleeping outside of marriage along with other things that neatly fit into the demographics of the women that can afford to buy Vogue. Feminism and empowerment are used as a packaging material to a nation where young women are finding a voice against patriarchy. When a privileged woman holding a high position in the women’s movement gives empowering speeches in public only to come home and ill-treat her underprivileged maid, we are far from equality. This is exactly what drove Rohith Vemula, the prolific writer and PhD scholar to suicide in 2016. The superficiality of it all.
We have become the nation where the rich favour the rich, men favour men and privileged women favour other privileged women. When they sing ‘saarey jahan se acha, Hindustan hamara’, I see a tiny disclaimer there which says ‘as long as the lower caste and minorities remain complacent in their oppression’.