A recent issue of 'Time' discusses a book by Susan Faludi who examined the issue of why 63% of American women reject feminism. The answer, according to Faludi, lies in a backlash against feminist, 'a highly effective, often insidious campaign to discredit its goals, distort its message ...'
My reaction of disbelief when I read this was directed against the number, (63% of American women?) not the theory that Faludi propounds to explain the phenomenon. It seems very plausible to me, because in recent years I have been noticing with anger and dismay an increasing number of women in our country too making the comment, whether it is relevant or not: `Thank God, I'm not a feminist!' Unfortunately, one cannot dismiss these statements as being of no significance, because the women who make them are, as is obvious from the fact that their statements are being reported, women who matter. It was an activist, for example, who explained in a lengthy article why she refuses to call herself a feminist, one reason being that feminism is a Western concept. An actress who said that she is not a feminist because she has no desire to desert her family and go out on the streets screaming for women's rights. A columnist who says that she stopped calling herself a feminist because she is not anti-men and does not hate men. To the uninformed who read and may be influenced by these comments, feminism will mean these things: a Western concept, rejecting the family and home, hating men and waging a war against them. After three decades of feminism being written about, discussed and practised in this country, is this what intelligent women make of feminism?
It took me years to say even to myself - 'I am a feminist'. It was the culmination of a voyage that began within myself and went on to the ocean of women's place in the world. Today, when I call myself a feminist, I believe that the female of the species has the same right to be born and survive and to fulfil herself and shape her life according to her needs and the potential that lies within her, as the male has. I believe that women are neither inferior nor subordinate human beings, but one half of the human race. I believe that women (and men as well) should not be strait-jacketed into roles that warp their personalities, but should have options available to them. I believe that Nature, when conferring its gifts on humans, did not differentiate between males and females, except for the single purpose of procreation. I believe that motherhood does not bar everything else, but is a bonus, an extra that women are privileged to have. Would the anti-feminists deny all this?
What saddens me is that the women who make such statements are themselves splendid examples of what women can achieve against many odds. What naming games people play with themselves is no concern of mine; but when they give this wrong colour to feminism, these women are grievously wronging all those men and women who, through the years, have spoken and worked against the injustice done to women. I have no doubt at all that it is the women's movement which has made it possible for an increasing number of women to have more space to breathe. I know that as a writer I am privileged to be living at a time when the women's movement has made it possible for my voice to be heard, for the things I write about to be taken seriously, looked upon as issues that concern all of society, and not just dismissed as 'women's stuff'.
Is to be a feminist to want to be like a man? I don't think so. On the contrary, to me it has meant an acceptance of my womanhood as a positive thing, not as a lack. An understanding that I am different, not inferior. And how can feminism be anti-men when it is really working for a better, a more meaningful and companionable relationship between men and women, instead of the uneasy relationship between tyrant and oppressed? When women can fulfil themselves, when they are not suppressed and do not have to sacrifice themselves, it will obviate the need to play power games within the home, to thrust ambitions on husbands and children, to work out frustrations on them. Cage in the self for too long and it becomes a dangerous, snarling animal. Go on sacrificing and you create monsters of selfishness. Sacrifice, except for a helpless, dependent infant, has no role in Nature's plan. ( I am convinced that the wholly sacrificing Ma of Hindi movies is a male fantasy.) I believe that the family is not a divine, sacred institution, but one created by humans for the benefit of all society; and therefore, it should be built, not on the sacrifice of some, but on the cooperation and compromises of all its members. The loud cry of the new-born is a triumphant assertion of being - I AM. Does a baby girl cry less loudly?
As for feminism forcing women to have careers, to be dissatisfied with being housewives, to desert husbands and families and rush for a divorce at the smallest pretext, it is not just absurd, it is a great injustice to all the activists in this country, who, it sometimes seems, are the only people who care about dowry/rape/desertion/cruelty/slander victims. And I am always annoyed when women speak of themselves as 'only a housewife'. Only a housewife when you work all day, seven days a week, twelve months a year? Many women do enjoy housework and find fulfillment within the home. They have every right to do so. But there are the hazards of not being able to support yourself when it may be necessary to do so; glorifying the wife and mother role sometimes hides this ugly reality. To be dependent means to be a burden on another, at times to be forced to endure violence because there is no choice. 'Violence at home is better than violence on the streets,' a woman columnist says. An obnoxious statement. It implies that women must submit to some violence. Obviously, she has no idea of the years of systematic physical cruelty that many women endure. 'Women are not mentally equipped to make the right choice,' she adds. But does the solution lie in depriving them of choices or in giving them a chance to learn to make their own choices? And which one of us can ever be certain that we have made the right choice?
Feminism, I read somewhere, is a movement that has grown out of and built upon prevailing social needs. I can see how true this is in India, where it has grown out of our own society, out of local specific issues and has addressed them directly. The truth is that we cannot go back. That a great number of people now live within nuclear families, that many women have to go out and work, that stresses are making relationships more vulnerable: these are facts. It is in the context of this reality that changes are required in the man-woman relationship. And therefore, the issue of gender equality, which embraces everything from female foeticide and equal pay to dowry and rape, has to be faced. Those who are afraid that women will turn freedom into license forget that the needs of daily life impose their own restrictions on human liberty. But often there are no limits to human cruelty. And cruelty has to be opposed. To be silent is to abet it.
Whether we admit it or not, most of us who are adapting to this changing world, gracefully or otherwise, are practising feminism. We don't have to sport any labels. Ask any woman 'do you believe in gender equality?' and she may retort 'what's that?' But ask her instead - 'do you think your daughter is a lesser human being, that she should not be educated, should be married early, to anyone, at any price, that she should have nothing in her life apart from her family and home and should stay within the family at all costs, even if it is to suffer or die, getting no support from you once she gets married' - will she say 'yes'? Or will it be a 'no'? But why do I say 'she'? Most men, I have no doubt, will say 'no' too. A world without frightened, dependent, trapped, frustrated women is a better world for all of us to live in. After all, 'no man is an island ...'
The beliefs, views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Soi or official policies of Soi.