India, the land of exceptional diversity, emerged as an amalgamation of thousands of years of civilization. Today, the country is a proud constituent of over 122 major languages, about 2000 ethnic groups and possibly every religion, geography, income, and educational level. However, it is also a rather nuanced and contradictory nation as it is very difficult to define whether the country loves or hates women. On the matter of understanding feminism, which is already a highly misjudged and misunderstood concept, India has rarely displayed any absolute truth.
The immense diversity that the Indian land constitutes explains a wide range of socio-cultural paradoxes. From worshiping goddesses to barring women from temples, from revering Indira Gandhi to expressing disdain towards working women, from valuing a woman’s virtue above her identity to establishing a rape capital, India seems to have landed in a rather confused state of mind and action. The mentioned contradictions exist within most of the citizens, regardless of their education, status or even gender. The unfortunate part continues to be that although there are gender equalities on several levels, most women have accepted the fact they must thrive in this facet of life without questioning it. There is no single brush with which the situation or status of Indian women can be painted. This is exactly what makes ‘feminism’ in the country so complex.
I, as a young Indian woman strongly believe that no individual with any degree of intellectual capacity can say that the country’s women hold equal status to men. Yet, the irony being that feminism is one of the most strongly contested topics by most Indians.
Below are some arguments that I seem to have come across most often:
- “Feminism is about hating men”
At best, this sentiment is rooted in a deep misunderstanding of what feminism was historically and why the women warriors of our past fought for their rights the way they did. As a woman who has immensely benefited from the tireless and thankless work of those who came before me, I will not ever criticize the how of it. But more often than not, this criticism is based on the intentional misrepresentation of what feminism is.
- “Feminism is a woman supremacist movement”
Feminism unequivocally is not woman supremacist movement, but “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Most feminists don’t hate men, and we don’t consider ourselves superior to men. We most certainly do, however, consider ourselves equal. Nothing less than equal.
- “Feminism spits in the face of our traditions and way of life.”
To this I have two simple responses. First, the oppression of women is not the only history of India. Second, tradition is never a good enough reason to continue to do something. Tradition alone will never be enough.
- “Feminism is obsolete. Today women are equal.”
Feminism isn’t about theoretical equality; it’s about the reality in which we all live. And the reality is, most women don’t have equal access to resources or opportunity. This is true even in the best of circumstances. There are many women who have received every single advantage. They have come from good families, have gone to the top schools, work for the best companies, and live utterly comfortable lives. Statistically speaking, however, these women still struggle with inequality often. As a rule, these women are not equal to their male counterparts in terms of pay or rank. But this is a comfortable oppression; it’s one that is framed in cultural complexities and implicit biases. The problems of the bourgeoisie.
- “There are bigger problems than modern feminist issues.”
Finally, circling back to the [un]comfortable oppression of the bourgeoisie, many try to silence women by using other issues, such as extreme poverty, to provide a false perspective (also known as the strawman fallacy). This attempts to distract and invalidate important conversations that need to be had. As organisms with the ability to think critically, we can reconcile co-existing but dramatically different issues. It never has to be one or the other; we can and should care about both.
And though breaking glass ceilings, closing the gender gap in leadership roles, and examining socialisation are important—vital in fact— these are only a small facet of the feminist gamut. The must of feminism is undeniable, but it is not enough. Modern Indian feminists and organisations have to do more, and be better. In a country as large and diverse as India it’s especially important to understand social structures and the varying experiences of womanhood. We must be intersectional in our discourse and united in our actions.