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.
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.
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.