Feminism in India: A Battle for Equality
By Palak Singla and Tanisha Chauhan(09/06/2020 14:30IST)
If I stand up straight before you and say that “I am a feminist”, who would you perceive me as?
Would you see me as someone who promotes female supremacy or as someone who believes in gender equality? Would you see me as a radical who demands for all past traditions to be revoked or as someone who wishes for the society to leave behind the practices that traumatise women and discriminate against them?
In today’s modern society there is a common misconception as to the true meaning of feminism.
"So what is feminism in reality?"
Feminism is a political doctrine of equal rights for women and men. The feminist movement strives to achieve political, economic and social equality for each sex. It is people’s cry for an egalitarian society where everyone is given equal rights and opportunities.
The society we live in is a patriarchal one, which means that men are considered to be the inheritors of primary power to make all significant decisions and dominate social, political and economic scenarios. Feminism seeks to challenge this oppressive system that has led to inequalities among people based on their gender.
Patriarchy is justified by its supporters by stating that men and women are different in nature and therefore they deserve unequal position in society.
Feminists, question this way of thinking and make a distinction between 'sex' which is the biological difference between men and women, and gender which determines the variety of roles men and women play in the society. They speak against the allocation of gender roles which are the set of expectations and behaviours we deem appropriate for a particular gender. In our society men are seen as 'creators and discoverers' while women are viewed as 'caretakers and homemakers'.
Feminists assert that the inequality between men and women is generated by the society and is not natural. This inequality expresses itself in the form of sexism which is the umbrella term for all the beliefs, attitudes, acts, gestures, visual representation or spoken words that discriminate against women. Sexists claim that women are inferior to men and less capable to perform certain tasks. This eventually leads to cases where women face heinous crimes such as rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence because of the “superior sex”.
Feminism represents the struggle against this injustice and cruelty towards women. This struggle is not yesterday’s feat, but rather it has been bravely carried on since as far back as the nineteenth century.
The story of modern feminism in India began with the advent of colonization. A consciousness towards the struggles faced by women was always significant, but what did not exist was the concept that these injustices were created due to the presence of a social, economic and cultural system that valued men more than women.
The nineteenth century reform movement included the passing of certain laws against practices such as Sati and child marriage, which are now quite justly seen as social evils. Such measures were received with great rage by conservatives across the country who demanded for the intricacies of their religion to be not imposed upon by foreign men, who knew nothing of their customs and religion.
Alongside, a new model of the ideal women was emerging which was in part influenced by Victorianism. This ideal woman was to be educated but not as much as a man. She was to be intelligent but her propensities were to be limited to her “home”. The aim of her life was to ensure the comfort of the family she was bound to. She was required to have no ambitions of her own personal development, and was expected to willingly sacrifice her needs for her family.
With the rise of the twentieth century, women’s organizations started budding across the country. These organizations demanded greater opportunities for economic and political participation for women. Another significant element was the active participation of women in the national movement. These two factors challenged the shackles of the societal structure that limited a woman from achieving her real potential. When the Indian Constitution was formulated it incorporated the Right to Equality and universal adult suffrage i.e. the right to vote for every adult citizen.
But this progress towards gender equality recoiled in the first two decades after gaining independence from the British. The state was unable to render women the rights promised by the Constitution.
A second wave of feminism emerged in the late twentieth century along with a widespread resistance by workers, peasants and middle class employees as the state was unable to provide them their basic needs. The women sought action by the state on issues such as land rights, political representation, divorce laws, sexual harassment at work, alcoholism, dowry, rape, guardianship and custody. During this time the Indian women’s movement and Indian feminist writings made their presence felt globally.
This period witnessed the strengthening of the cry for equal rights for both men and women. On the other hand, religious fundamentalists attempted to assert the laws of their religion upon women even more austerely. One of the most significant examples of such an assertion is the "Sati" of an eighteen year old girl, Roop Kanwar. On 4th September 1987, she was burnt alive on her husband's pyre in front of 3000 spectators. This led to the passing of the Sati (Prevention) Act, but only after the consistent efforts of the women's movement.
Therefore the main conflict faced by feminists was offered by the laws of religion and community that sought to bind the activities of women to their "homes" and wanted to maintain the norms of the patriarchal society.
With the commencement of the twenty-first century, the women’s movement further developed and gained greater force. Today, gender discrimination is considered to be one of the major issues that our society faces. Awareness and discussion about issues such as the scarce use of sanitary napkins (only 20% menstruating girls and women in India use pads), rape (including marital rape), domestic violence, sexual harassment, gender stereotypes and the paucity of LGBTQ+ rights, has considerably increased in comparison to the past century. But a lot still needs to be done, both socially and politically.
Feminists who protest against patriarchy face hostility and hatred since they live in a male dominated world. Misogyny, which is the dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women, is something which is quite a common practice.
Demanding for harsh patriarchal structures and male privileges to end should not be seen as a movement “against men”, but rather a movement towards equality of men and women. Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of men who are feminists. They fight for equal rights even after being aware of their male privilege in society. In fact, men have been involved in the feminist movement since its very inception in India.
Many a times feminists are considered to be “man-hating” (i.e. misandrists) and are seen as seekers of female supremacy (i.e. pseudo-feminists). Some people think that feminists hate men and discriminate against them because they are just angry career-oriented women who don't believe in marriages. None of this stands true.
It should be understood that misandry and pseudo-feminism are concepts that completely go against the root essence of feminism that is equality for each sex. These concepts are as distant from feminism as anything can be; therefore they should not be associated with feminism at all.
Feminists do not crave for gender roles to be reversed because if that happens then the world would be no better than the current one.
Interestingly, another emerging phenomenon is that some people of the millennial generation believe that the state of equality has been reached in the twenty-first century. To them I say, ask the rape victim who is being blamed for her own rape, whether equality has been reached. Ask the pregnant 14-year old girl married to a man twice or thrice her age, whether equality has been reached. Ask the female foetus which was removed from her mother’s womb because of the “crime” of being a girl, whether equality has been reached.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, one woman is raped every twenty minutes and a crime against women is committed every three minutes in India. Our country has been ranked as the most dangerous country in the world for women according to a survey carried out by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. At least 27.5 million Indian women have been victims of physical violence and verbal abuse. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) considers forced sex in marriages as a crime only when the wife is below 18.
Therefore, the need for women empowerment is as eminent as ever.
Since most of us have grown up in a patriarchal society, we all have gender stereotypes ingrained in our minds, consciously or unconsciously. We all must learn to unlearn such gender stereotypes which contribute to the roots of gender discrimination.
Our environment has a great influence on our behaviour. When children are growing up they are provided with toys that “suit their gender”. A boy is given cars and toy-guns while girls are given kitchen sets and dolls to play with. Naturally, the child develops an interest in whatever he or she is given.
Why does our society assume a child’s preference based on his or her gender? Why can’t the child be simply given the opportunity to decide what he or she prefers?
From a young age children are taught what they are supposed to like, how they should behave and who they must become as a person, based on their gender. And in this way even the mere opportunity of deciding who a child wishes to become as an adult, is snatched away.
A boy is supposed to be aggressive and strong while a girl is supposed to be docile and sensitive. Men are repetitively told throughout their lives that, “Boys don’t cry”. It is a pity that our society forces one gender to suppress their emotions while calls the other gender too emotional, with no proof other than a common stereotype.
The reality is that emotionalism and gender don’t have a connection. A woman can be strong, outspoken and bold, a man can be sensitive and caring, and the vice-a-versa can also be true. We must learn to see people the way they truly are and not generalise their qualities on the grounds of gender based assumptions.
Another common stereotype is that girls don’t have the required aptitude for making a career in fields such as science, technology and mathematics. Those who work in these fields, work in male dominated spaces where they are usually neither given enough credit nor equal pay. They often become victims of sexual harassment at the workplace. The under-representation of women in such fields is the result of sexism and institutional barriers instead of lack of skills. The society also considers girls to be incapable of possessing the leadership qualities required to head any organisation.
Due to such stereotypes the “skill sets” provided to a boy and a girl are very different. Boys are taught to be controlling so that they can do the decision-making whereas girls are taught to be agreeable and submissive so that they can manage the house under their husband’s directorship.
Such stereotypes get psychologically imbedded in people in such a way that they accept things the way they are without questioning or realizing the injustices inflicted by such practices. The reason why people behave in this manner is that deviating from normal societal constructs seems mentally, emotionally and socially uncomfortable to people because it can lead to criticism.
A lot of women are so deeply influenced to believe in patriarchy that they are not able to recognize the fault in it. Such women are manipulated by our society to believe that men are the ones who earn and therefore deserve more respect. They believe that a woman sacrificing her personal requirements for the male members of the family is the natural order of the world.
Many a times, a girl is not allowed to work after getting married because handling the household chores is considered to be her primary duty. Her ambitions and dreams are considered as something which can be sacrificed. Women are expected to take up the role of their husband’s “subsidiary” after marriage.
It is worth mentioning that men are also imprisoned by gender stereotypes. Men also face the fear of not being accepted if they fail to fit into the stereotypical boxes deemed appropriate for them by the society.
“If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.”
- Emma Watson, UN
Women’s Goodwill Ambassador
To conclude, feminism is the battle and the just plea for a society which respects each individual so that everyone can lead free and equal lives. We have come a long way in this struggle, but still a lot of progress needs be carried out. We all must come together and endeavour towards changing stereotypical mind-sets to become a community of accepting and open-minded people. As responsible citizens, we should embrace the ideal of equality that the noble concept of feminism preaches.
Feminism is one human fighting for another human's rights and if you believe in equality, you are a feminist.
- The Guardian (website)
- Political Theory (Part 2), National Council Of Educational Research and Training
- Joan Schmelz (womeninastronomyblogspot.com)