On The Nature Of Feminist Movements, Binaries And Classifications

It is really saddening to see how women who call themselves feminists, proceed to defend themselves or clarify as soon as someone labels them a ‘feminazi.’ I cannot fathom or account for how many times I have heard women say things like, “I don’t think women are better than men,” or “I know that not all men are trying to oppress women,” and justifying how they aren’t man-haters, so on and so forth.

The fundamental man/woman binary that the institution of patriarchy is based upon, thrives on the subjugation of women, as in binary opposition, there is no coexistence and only violence. Therefore, in order to challenge this institution, it is necessary that this binary opposition is subverted, not to be permanently reversed, only for us to arrive at a new binary opposition but to show how arbitrarily all binaries, including the gender binary, is constructed.

Being able to successfully deconstruct this binary opposition, can at least hypothetically collapse the patriarchal institution and overturn the social order, and it is important that we remember that the overturning of social order, the centralisation of margins is never a cakewalk, it is a violent play of forces, and it is hostile.

Critiques of feminism argue along the lines that feminism has lost its structural unity and has become another aimless movement. Some go as far as to argue that feminism has outlived its purpose since women have gained equality and the equal rights they could have hoped for. However, the ultimate motive of feminist movements does not stop when women gain political rights.

Graffiti at a protest at Cambridge Union Society. (Photo: Devon Buchanan/Flickr)

Political justice does not lead to the disappearance of social injustice. The fight of the depressed class, the poorest of the poor, women and the Dalit community, extends much beyond our primordial needs of gaining our political rights. The political system grants a woman her political rights within the matrix of patriarchy and never truly guarantees the eradication of social evils.

The famous expression that opens the second volume of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” means that there is no inherent female nature or essence. Here, the author adapts existentialism’s notion of “existence precedes essence” to the ways in which gendered identity is experienced.

However, if human beings have no essence then it is our choices, that make us who we are. Nonetheless, often at times, there is no real choice but an illusion of it.

Our choices are influenced by phenotypical factors and our opinions are a result of social conditioning. Simone de Beauvoir, calls the diabolic beauty standard a euphemism for constraining the movement of women, and appearance a diversion.

Most women would call their fixation on vanity a choice; but this does not discount the fact that the feminine ideal of society that these women are chasing, is a social construct created in the context of India, promoted by the media in a process that was jump-started by economic-liberalisation when foreign brands began coming into the country and started using models for advertisements making the Indian woman the earnest consumer.

The lives of women have an element of Sisyphean absurdity attached to them, enough for them to go maverick — they go around in cycles all time, cycles that occur between washing dishes and the monotony of those that come monthly.

However, a running critique of The Second Sex has been that while the author sees femininity as constructed, she does not hold masculinity as accountable. Time and again, we have seen women give up what is more feminine in them and suppress their classically feminine traits while fighting their larger struggles — we’ve seen that in the new woman of the late nineteenth century, we’ve seen it in the women of the suffragette and we’ve seen it in women who stepped in during the World Wars to constitute the workforce.

However, when we do so, when we try to actively suppress what is feminine by giving up hemlines and embracing pantsuits, we are somehow saying that we hold the classically masculine traits at a higher credential than we hold what is classically feminine. The suppression of what is seen as more feminine might gradually lead to the disappearance of the supposedly ‘unwanted’ feminine traits from the public sphere, which is not what we aim to do.

While feminine and masculine identities can coexist in all genders, it is important to recognise that they are both equally, socially constructed. And, contrary to popular belief, the aim of all that is feminine is to not be restrictive; but is sometimes to be half-decent.

A placard at a rally promoting intersectional feminism.

Women, however, tend to let their identity as a ‘woman’ take a backseat but instead associate themselves with other markers of identity: race, religion, and caste. Many women are against calling out their oppressors because they’re afraid about feminism driving a rift in the communities that they are a part of, which they harness their identity from.

Even a woman like Katherine Mansfield, whose works show that she recognises her oppressor, asserts her identity as a writer first and then as a woman. Women across all borders have been sacrificing themselves all along for the sake of their communities and while intersectional feminism tries to make sure that all the identities in an individual harmoniously coexist, the very requirement of intersectional feminism stems from the need to integrate feminism within the patriarchal matrix, in order to tone the feminist movement down.

It helps in integrating a woman’s individual interests along with her community’s interests on the surface. Nevertheless, the very need for intersectionality comes from the requirement of accommodating community identities/social identities that have been constructed, formed, shaped and are protected by the institution of patriarchy, alongside a woman’s interests, which causes feminist movements to lose their nature as destabilising movements. Hence, intersectionality is a concept that has evolved within the patriarchal matrix and thus it works to preserve it.

Feminism isn’t just a support group by women, for uplifting, understanding and empathising with other women or supporting women in whatever choices it is, that other women are trying to make. Choice is not the keyword here.

Feminism is also about calling women out on their own misogyny and on their own internalisation of patriarchy and amplifying marginalised voices. Sometimes it is also about the understanding of how all institutional religions came to exist – how they all promote patriarchy.

Often, it is also about vocalising realisations like the state promotes patriarchy because it acts as an extension of the family. The state acts as a reflection of the family in a certain society and even reflects its ideals, which holds especially true in South Asian countries like India and China.

In both of these nations, the family is an important institution and family values are given significance. Age-hierarchy comes into play and elders are to be obeyed. Both these countries also lay heavy emphasis on national loyalties, where the nation is often imagined as a fatherland, which means that the kind of family values that are dictated to us is complementary to the national loyalties we are taught about and even make the whole concept of obeying without questioning believable. The governments we live under can dictate to a great extent, how the institution of family should be shaped under them, without us even realising it.

The only reason feminism finds so many critiques is because it poses a threat to the prevailing social order, because it dares to treat women as individuals and not as secondary players within the framework of a society. Feminism is about promoting informed choices and not just any choices.

While the concept of coexistence in liberal feminism empowers a woman it will never truly liberate her from her subjugated position in the binary opposition. It is necessary that we not let pseudo-liberals trivialise this fight, hijack the narrative or extend a hand of friendship or offer flowers to those who oppress us.

When we classify feminism into liberal and radical, we tone the nature of the movement down. Coexistence and friendship only exist among equals and in a patriarchal society, women are in a subjugated position and nothing is so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal.

Only when this social order is subverted, shall men and women be on an equal plane, and maybe friendship is possible, from thereon but until then, you are my oppressor.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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