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If you’re looking for a primer on how to attack feminist writing – this isn’t that. That title was really meant more tongue-in-cheek, but as someone who writes on issues of women’s rights, and has been doing that for almost 5-6 years now, I can’t help noticing how the same arguments get repeated whenever one has the temerity to demand empowerment. So, this is a summary of some of those arguments – if you find yourself using some of them, even ‘genuinely’ or ‘with good intentions’, i.e. you’re not simply trolling or a misogynist, you may want to check yourself.
Why should you check yourself? Because all feminist arguments are inherently superior? No. Feminism is not a monolith, nor are its practitioners. Some arguments will be more sound, some less so – because we are all human, none of us is infallible. So, you don’t need to respect an argument simply because it argues for women’s rights. But, what you do need to remember is that you may come from a position of privilege – remember the old “walk in a person’s shoes” adage? Certain things which are offensive or disempowering to a woman (or a Dalit, or poor, or any group with a history of protest) may simply not be relevant to you if you are not a woman (or a Dalit, or poor). For instance, if you are a man – have you ever felt the need to walk down a street with a notebook in front of your crotch, ‘just in case’ someone on the street decided to grab it? You may find it difficult to understand why street harassment is such a ‘big issue’, and why it is not about our clothes. Or you may understand, but still not empathise. Even if you are a woman, do you only travel by car? Your perspective on the subject may be very different from someone who uses public transport.
This doesn’t mean that you should never question a feminist argument. But, start from that position of respect, and you may find yourself asking very different questions. With that in mind, here are 5 ways commonly used to diss feminist writing, especially from an Indian perspective.
Isn’t issue Y more important than issue X? There are issues that everyone sees as important. For instance, if I were to write about poor women who lack toilets, I will not face any argument. But, there are issues seen as less worthy. Talk about a woman’s “place” in a marriage, traditions of ‘paraya dhan‘ or the lopsided division of chores in households with dual working couples, and suddenly, you will have commentors asking, “Is this really important when scores of children are dying of malnutrition in our country?” One simple reason for this is that when we ask for more toilets for poor women, no one reading here really has to give up anything. But, when we ask for equal rights within a marriage, we hit directly at privilege. If you are a man, we’re asking you to do your fair share of household chores, to accept that your wife has a choice about staying with your parents or the right to care for her own parents. If you’re a woman, we may be suggesting that relationships can be quite different. So, issues that directly question norms of how girls are brought up and their rights and responsibilities within relationships, threaten those who stand to be affected.
This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t cover issues of poverty, malnutrition, corruption, crime or poor governance. In fact, if you feel strongly about them, why not write about them instead of wasting your time rebutting a feminist blog? Maybe you should ask yourself why you find issue X so threatening that you want to frame this as a contest. It is not a contest. I am interested in women’s issues and those related to poverty. In fact, they are often overlapping.
But it doesn’t cover rural women/poor women. Related to the point above, yes, not every feminist campaign will cover every women. But, there are often linkages. Slutwalk a.k.a women’s right to walk unmolested on the street regardless of the clothing they wear may currently be an urban protest, but the awareness generated by such campaigns has the potential to spread. When TV channels cover such protests, a policeman or woman in a far off town could be watching too – and keep it in mind the next time she deals with a rape victim. A young girl in a small town may find courage to protest against her parents who want to “protect” her by marrying her off early. The reality is that many of us who write on such issues do come from urban, middle-class backgrounds. That doesn’t disqualify us or our concerns automatically. The benefits of fights won by feminists such as the property law amendments are now enjoyed by women around the country – poor, rich, urban, rural. Could we find more ways to get perspectives from our sisters in rural India? Yes, we could – and if you really care, help us do it – rather than whining about how entitled we are.
Are you qualified to talk for all women? This is the converse of the previous argument. We either don’t talk enough about underprivileged women, or if we do, then people ask, are you qualified to do that? Short answer: No. I don’t have a degree in the area of social development, nor have I lived the life of a poor woman from rural Orissa. I haven’t walked in her shoes. That means I may be wrong when I talk about certain issues. But – that doesn’t mean I can’t try to talk about it, respectfully, without acting like a know-it-all. If you know more about the subject and want to, help me learn more. The funny thing is, the people who ask this particular question are almost always men – who one assumes are still one degree further away from rural women than most urban woman are.
Men have a tough time too. Talk about women facing domestic violence, and you’ll get to hear, but men face it too! Which means exactly, what? Men face it too and hence we should all sit tight and do nothing? First, there is data to indicate that violence is clearly a gendered issue, affecting women disproportionately. The socialization of girls to stay in bad marriages and women’s economic disempowerment means that women facing violence have a harder time getting out. As feminists, we care about that. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s ok for men to be abused. But there is no need to run down women facing violence, or those working with them. If you know that there are sizeable numbers of men facing domestic violence, sure – write about it, work to establish helplines, raise funds to help victims and raise awareness about false definitions of masculinity which prevent abused men from speaking out. Work positively on helping men – I’m all for it!
Can’t you present it nicely? Sometimes we present our arguments politely, but sometimes, guess what, we’re too angry to do so. When young women are burnt alive because their parents couldn’t cough up enough dowry, when girls are married off and forced to have children before they are even 15, when women are asked to stay on in extremely unhappy marriages ‘for the sake of the children’ – excuse us if we get angry and can’t be ‘nice’. But before you take umbrage at our anger, maybe ask yourself why someone getting angry on this issue upsets you so much. Is it really about the tone or do you just not like what is being said? This isn’t to say that anger always gets the best results – sometimes it may, and sometimes cooperation, not confrontation may work. But sometimes, we have a right to be angry, and at least don’t try and take that away from us.