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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.
Founder, Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations
This is the list I am sending to the next person who argues with me in an attempt to diss feminism. Loved this post.
Nice post….every time I see a woman abused, my blood boils…I want to write about it but abused woman doesn’t seem to mind, she asks me to shut up…….
You are getting a standing ovation in my head!
Brilliant points! So on the mark!
Definitely sharing the post all around me.
It is the Y chromosome working overtime when men tend to laugh off issues so important to women. Like, while it is expected that a woman should take charge of running the house and slog like an oiled machine, the day they complain of being over worked and tired the husband seems surprised that she should even say so. ‘after all with all these modern gadgets house keeping is child’s play’
None of the issues like child sexual abuse, incest or rape within marriage are taken seriously. According to them these things happen. No point bringing it up for discussion.
Having said that I feel that the current generation in their early 30’s or late 20’s are perhaps more accommodating than mine. Good points.
Right on target: thanks for spelling this out!!
Came here via Shoot At Sight, excellent article.
Great post!! Am sharing this on FB.
brilliantly, crisp & straight to the point! Loved your argument 🙂
Same comments as above. What a lovely post!
Thanks all for your comments. Although I do worry that I am preaching to the converted, I’m also hoping that this post will make a few on the fence think. Plus, you can all use it as ammunition for your own arguments. 🙂 Thanks to all of you for sharing this.
A few individual responses to commentors:
– Pushpee – sometimes victims of abuse may not react the way we want them to, but that doesn’t mean they want to be abused. You may find this post useful: http://aamjanata.com/how-to-fight-domestic-abuse/
– Hip Grandma – blaming the Y chromosome is letting people get away too easily. And the thing is, this isn’t even about men. Many of these arguments are used by women too. For e.g. the thing about “more important issues” I often hear from women too – priorities will always vary from one individual to another, and we need to be supportive, not combative.
What a fantastic post that articulates beautifully and precisely our collective anger.
Someone sent me this video recently. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFl_hiPXP-8
It is deeply worrying that such dangerous ideas are given main stage and have widespread approval. We still have a long, long way to go before we can walk without holding books over our chests.
Abhi : Thanks for the youtube link! God! Women like her put chauvinistic men to shame!
Spot on! Very nicely written. Shared this my non-Indian feminist friends and not so surprisingly, they were able to relate it to. Also as a Queer person, I have seen some of these arguments used against Queer writing too! Thanks for this wonderful post Aparna.
Spot on! Very nicely written. Shared this with my non-Indian feminist friends and not so surprisingly, they were able to relate too. Also as a Queer person, I have seen some of these arguments used against Queer writing too! Thanks for this wonderful post Aparna.
as a feminist ‘Male’ I’ve come across a lot of above arguments several times… and m glad you put them together so aptly! this is surely going to the next person who argues 🙂
@Abhi – I couldn’t get through watching that link. *puke*. And I thought Bharati Bhaskar was a sensible sort of person!
@ Shri – thanks for sharing. I wonder if you’d like to do a take on this from a queer writing perspective? Would love to see that.
@ Ankush – glad to be of help 🙂
Thank you so much for this post. I really enjoyed it and shared it too. Came here via Angry Malay Woman.
Aparna, I thought of BB the same way too. Her argument is flawed and insulting on so many levels that it is revolting. And it worries me no end that her ideas are put across as progressive (notice how she couches it under the equality label) and receives approval and applause all round. They are so insidious, how do you fight them?
Perhaps a platform such as this one is a place to start a dialogue. One lives in hope.
Excellent article. Reading it as a man, I love the balanced, non-confrontationist way you’ve gone about clarifying the matter – including a very empathetic explanation for men as to why feminists are often too angry to be nice. Also, I like the fact that it so neatly crystallises the prevailing discourse of parochialism, which otherwise well-meaning people tend to unthinkingly recirculate.
I totally love your post. Really really moving. I completely agree
Feminists expect the women they advice to take aggressive action in dealing with their difficult husbands, in-laws, etc while they themselves darenot display same approach in their own marriages and homes
In awe.! You were sharp and hard hitting.!
Excellent! Its unsettling how commonly these arguments are used. To these I would like to add one more, that all that feminists do is sit and talk/blog about various issues and do/have done nothing about it. I wonder how change is to ever come about if no one dares even talk about problems for fear of being labelled as only a talker.
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You for got the “not all men…”, mother of all rebuttals.
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