I first heard the word ‘Feminism’ probably towards the end of my final year in college. I graduated from an engineering college of national repute where the sex ratio was somewhere around 5:1, i.e., 5 boys for 1 girl. The ratio changed depending on the branch you chose (or ended up in). I can write a Chetan Bhagat kind of book on that, but that’s not my purpose (nor do I wish to preach the Chetan Bhagat brand of feminism). When a friend of mine called me a ‘chauvinist’ I had to google the word up to understand what should I reply to her. Now we both discuss women’s issues across different time zones and in a way I’m glad she no longer calls me a ‘chauvinist’.
When I joined Ashoka University after graduation, the tables had turned. I was in a class where around 60% junta were women, and a large part of my fellowship experience was shaped primarily due to that. I remember, three terms into the fellowship I asked a classmate of mine the difference between sex and gender. I was judged, but she also patiently answered my question. A lot of my thoughts and opinions have been shaped largely due to the wonderful peer group I had at Young India Fellowship. Some wonderful women have shaped my thoughts, patiently answered my questions, and also pointed out my mistakes. I make a point to read more books authored by women now, but I’m still far off the halfway mark I should honour them.
This is a photo from a Government School in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. We distributed a month of sanitary napkins for all girls in the school.
When #metoo movement happened last year, a lot of men were astounded to see the number of women coming out. The closest of friends posted #metoo on Facebook to give an indication of how normalised things are. I also know men who made fun of it privately, and I also know men who were quick to brandish it as ‘elitist’, calling it social media activism. I, on the other hand, felt it was a start in a good direction. A lot of men at least came to realise the issue at hand. There will also be men in positions of power who will want to do something about it, read about gender issues, tackle them head-on.
A lot of issues related to women, at least in India, were left unaddressed because the people in power were men, who necessarily didn’t think of them as an issue. Reading articles, research papers, etc. made me realise how every issue in public policy is also a gender issue from water scarcity to sanitation. Water Scarcity directly affects women first, then men; because it, sadly, is primarily a woman’s responsibility to fetch water. Swachh Bharat movement changed the game for rural women because they didn’t have to walk for miles in darkness. We still have miles to go, but thanks to more women in development and policy sector, gender issues are being addressed at a larger scale than before.
As I go to rural hinterlands of this country, away from the metros and the cities, I realise that problem is still so deep-rooted, and we are just scratching the surface and hailing it. Feminism hasn’t yet trickled down. It has entered the urban consciousness, but rural India is at least a generation away. In last three months or so, I have scratched my head around the gender issues plaguing the area I am in, only to realize it’s a long battle. In our country, a family is sacrosanct, which by default is patriarchal in nature. The Supreme Court refused to recognise marital rape as a law because it will disturb ‘the family, the very basis of India’s social structure’. The women, over centuries, have internalised this and a woman’s honour has become family’s honour. The tragedy is that the very family which is so concerned about woman’s honour abuses that woman. The family has the ultimate control over a woman’s sexuality. Therefore, then, honour killings become normal, sati was normal (because what is a woman without her dead husband?).
A woman in the village has to first look after her family, feed her husband, her children, her in-laws, wash their clothes, do the dishes, fetch water, and then if time permits come to attend the meeting of local Self Help Group (which by the way is divided across caste, class and religious lines). A rural woman, also sometimes, becomes the Sarpanch of the village thanks to reservations, but she has no agency. A man (husband or son) roams around calling himself the Sarpanch of the village, and everyone gladly addresses him so. A lot of girls get married by the time they are 22-23 (and child marriage is pretty common, by the way, no one minds it). In such a scenario, I often end up confused as to where should I start, how do we really empower the women, make them realise that they have agency beyond their family. People who have tried to rake up revolutions in the village society are often thrown out because it disturbs the ‘family structure’.
Feminism, to those who have an issue with the word, is nothing but a gender equality movement. We can debate on the semantics later, that as of now, is not my point. I personally feel, coupled with class and caste, looking at development issues through a lens of gender can help solve a lot of our issues. The question is how. We need to sensitise more men, especially development professionals, to take up the baton. Coupled with more women working in the rural hinterlands of our country. Development with respect to gender in rural India is trapped in a vicious circle. We need more women volunteers to work in rural India, but the environment is not exactly conducive for a woman. But at the same time, unless a woman enters the
chakravyuh, it can’t be broken. I, as a man, have my own limitations. A woman, on the other hand, if she decides can do wonders on a rural level with respect to gender issues. All the talk of feminism in cities and on social media, will remain trapped in the same space unless women visit rural India and help feminism trickle down. I see more and more women run NGOs in urban spaces, that sadly isn’t the case when it comes to rural India. Lot of NGOs are run by men with a focus on education, sanitation, agriculture, water, health, etc. but not necessarily gender. I have limited view as to how do we change this scenario. For a start, I think we need fellowships sponsoring women, in particular, to work in rural India, with focus on gender. It is also the collective responsibility of all those in development space to ensure that this becomes a good model, to ensure it succeeds.
Feminism, the talk of it, the movement needs to trickle down. It needs to break its predominantly urban and linguistic shackles and enter the realm of a common tongue. And we need to educate not only girls but also boys in this country about it. The question is how soon.
Ending with sharing a video of a TED talk by award-winning American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on why ‘we should all be feminists’.