Feminism is hardly just about lifting other women up, “empowering” them or understanding and empathizing with their perspectives. Its use isn’t that limited and should not be restricted to that. It isn’t a tool that should be used as a cheer-leading support group, which is run by women for other women, in whatever it is that women are trying to achieve and whatever choices they are trying to make. Choice is not the keyword in this discourse anymore.
It is disheartening to see, when women who consider themselves feminists, proceed to give a defense of themselves as soon as they are labelled feminazis. I cannot account for how many times I have heard feminists justify how they aren’t man haters. The fundamental man/woman binary that the institution of patriarchy is based upon, thrives on the subjugation of women, as in a binary opposition, there is no coexistence and only violence. And, in order to challenge this institution, it is necessary that this binary opposition be 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 a social order, the centralization 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 purpose and has become another aimless movement, or that feminists are a thing of the past, from when women had no existing political rights. 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 subaltern, 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 her liberation.
The famous expression that opens the second volume of The Second Sex, “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 a 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 that these women are chasing, is a social construct created in the context of India, by the media in a process that was jump started by economic liberalization, 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 Simone 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 work force.
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. While feminine and masculine identities can coexist in all genders, it is important to recognize that they are both equally, socially constructed. And, contrary to the 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 wedge in the communities that they are a part of, which they harness their identity from. Women across all borders have been sacrificing themselves all along for the sake of their communities and while inter-sectional feminism tries to make sure that all the identities in an individual harmoniously coexist, the very requirement of inter-sectional 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 interests as an individual, along with her community’s interests on the surface but these ‘community identities’ or ’social identities’ have found form and are protected by the patriarchal matrix. Hence, inter-sectionality is a concept that has evolved within the patriarchal matrix and thus it works to preserve it.
Feminism isn’t a support group. Choice is not the keyword in Feminism. It is not about helping women make just any choices but informed choices. Feminism is about women calling other women out, on their own misogyny and on their own internalization of patriarchy and amplifying marginalized voices. Sometimes it is also about the understanding of how all institutional religions came to exist and how they all preserve patriarchy and guarantee its continuation. 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. This theory 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 are complimentary 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 ever realizing it.
The only reason Feminism finds so many critiques is because it poses a threat to the prevailing social order and dares to treat women as individuals and not as secondary players within the framework of a society. 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 trivialize 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 exists among Equals and in a Patriarchal society. Women are in a subjugated position and ‘nothing is so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals’. 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.
Maria Uzma Ansari
Department of History, Jamia Millia Islamia