This post is by Deepa Ranganathan is a part of the Feminism & Education series jointly hosted by Equality 101 and Gender Across Borders. Archives of the Feminism & Education series are here.
Feminism is a tricky word. And from what I, as a woman first and a feminist later, have observed, most don’t even know what it really means. People aren’t aware of its complexity and its often contradicting school of thoughts before they either use it or identify as a “feminist.”
More often than not, there is an undeniable level of hesitation and even fear to identify as feminist. During a discussion on women’s liberation and the empowerment of womanhood on the ‘occasion’ of International Women’s Day in my class, I heard some valid arguments and points being made by my classmates. However, every statement began with the following clarification: “I’m not a feminist but I feel…” or “I’m no feminist or believer of feminism but one needs to look at…” Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out the need to be aloof from this particular school of thought, when no one seems to mind being labeled as a Marxist, communist, socialist or even an atheist.
So, why is there this reluctance? Why is it so hard to accept (forget about being proud of it) that one is a feminist? And no, this is a case not just with men, who might throw open the baseless argument of being termed as effeminate by defending the rights of women, but women themselves who prefer shying away from being labeled as a ‘feminist’. The problem lies in the perspective. Being called a feminist is almost seen as being a rebel without a cause. Perhaps this is a consequence of the entire movement of feminism that began as early as the eighteenth century, now reduced to a state of dormancy and superficiality. In India today, Women’s Day is ‘celebrated’ by inviting a few socialites and Bollywood divas on a “panel” to discuss what we, as a gender, have achieved over the years in terms of women’s liberation and what still needs to be done, and how scary and dangerous women still feel in the 21st Century India. What about the million other women who feel insecure 24*7 and do not even have the promise of economic affluence? Kalpana Sharma, an independent journalist who writes on women’s issues, raises these crucial points in her essay Women’s Day Circus:
The crux of the matter is that feminism is not recognized as important and necessary enough to be included in the everyday curriculum, which is bizarre given that gender roles are assigned and fed into right from the moment a child is born. Most don’t know the difference between sex and gender, the first thing you ought to be aware of when living in a harmonious, civilized society. Children, regardless of their sex (and not gender), have to be made aware of the historical, cultural and social difference between the two at an elementary level so as to look at the world and things from a more balanced, and hence nuanced perspective.
Feminism has and continues to affect our education no matter how much one shies away from it. Depending on education background, education experience varies (for example: the experience and understanding of gender equality of someone who attends a co-ed school is different than a single-sex school). Whether it is for the better or worse, it has been proved that a co-ed education does not necessarily ensure better knowledge and grasp of gender issues. However, knowledge and awareness of certain issues right at an early stage of a child’s growth and development is critical.
Sex education is a significant case in point. Interestingly, sex or talking about sex openly is still a taboo in India, a country well on its way to becoming the most populous country in the world! We have extremists, fundamentalists, fanatics popping out of thin air opposing vehemently to the idea of sex education in a culture-loving India that will not tolerate any Western idea or concept in its archaic way of functioning. Meanwhile, no one has to acknowledge that Indian law is over centuries old, designed and framed largely by the British during their colonial rule in India. There is a gross confusion between sex education and education about sex, per se. One does not realize the importance, nay the necessity for sex education. Though the right age to begin the same is still being discussed, the intention behind the whole idea cannot be frowned upon.
Most believers of any feminist ideology (liberal, socialist, radical, to name a few) completely overlook the factor that feminism comprises of both genders, and not just women. If the intention is to liberate one gender, the idea should also be to liberate the other. The accusation, largely, has been that men have been responsible for the oppression of women. This is historically true. But one cannot oversee that women themselves are also to be blamed for their own subjugation, according to John Stuart Mill’s theory that holds true in almost every context, culture and country.
Calling someone a feminist seems to be like calling someone something derogatory, like you’ve just been called a Dalit or an untouchable. And the irony is that the one who calls you that himself/herself doesn’t know what it means, what it demands and what it requires to be a feminist. In the true sense. To raise your voice about the plight of women on International Women’s Day every year does not make you a feminist. Neither does blaming the men for every oppression women go through. And the first step towards bridging this disparity and disconnection would be to make students and children aware of issues of feminist concern at an age where they will be able to grasp gender differences, if not agree with them.
Deepa Ranganathan is a trainee journalist currently residing in Bangalore. Brought up in a small town called Jamshedpur in East India, she graduated from Miranda House, University of Delhi with a BA in English Literature and pursued a PG Diploma in Print Journalism from the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, Bangalore. Feminism is one of the many literary theories she enjoys reading and writing about.