“I’ve come to realise that it’s rather hard to live by feminist principles in every sphere of your life – at home, at work, in your social circle, in public spaces, on social media,” says Sowmya Rajendran.
I was 18 when I discovered feminism, though I had always been some confused version of a feminist in my mind without knowing that I was one. In fact, since I used to read women’s magazines a lot as a teenager, my impression about feminists was that they were women who burnt bras and were, in general, quite unpleasant people to be around.
And yet, I resented being told to do housework while it was never a compulsion for my brother. I hated the fact that my parents were buying gold jewelry every year for my future wedding. I was angry that I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans. All the million mutinies in my brain found validation when I studied feminism as part of my BA English course. Suddenly, everything made sense. Here, at last, was acknowledgement that much of my rage was justified – and what’s more, many other women, all over the world, had the same feelings. And it wasn’t just a bunch of emotions, it translated to their politics.
It was exciting to unlearn, break down my own conditioning, see the world through fresh eyes, build arguments against the patriarchal world around me, analyse works of art, cinema, and pretty much any product of culture through the prism of feminism. It was exhilarating and I felt free at last – if the world wouldn’t let me be in my woman’s body, at least in my mind, I would be unchained.
I’m in my early 30s now and much has happened since I passed out of college. I’ve published books, jumped industries and changed jobs, fallen in and out of love, found someone I wanted to marry, become a mother and managed to keep it altogether without losing my sanity. While my ideas about feminism have evolved with time, I have never questioned if I should continue to be one. The more I learn about the world, the more convinced I am about the need for more people to understand feminism and wear the label on their sleeve.
In the last few years, there has been increasing acceptance of feminism in the mainstream in India. When I was growing up, for instance, the term only ever appeared in a negative context. I remember watching films where “modern” women with funny-looking hairnets or bob-cuts were usually dubbed “feminists” and brought in line by their husbands eventually. A feminist, in popular culture in those times, was someone who was in dire need of taming. Now, however, it is far more out in the open – if advertisers are making feminist ads for detergent commercials, you can be sure that they’ve done their market research! You have glossy Bollywood films like Padman speaking openly about menstruation when much of the country still harbours brahminical ideas of purity and pollution, and yet becoming a blockbuster.
We’re also hearing a lot more women and their opinions. The presence of more women in the newsroom, for instance, has meant that “women’s issues” are not sidelined but have instead become prime-time news. The explosion of social media has also meant that people who don’t have access to conventional platforms can subvert the system and be heard. And this means that many of us may feel challenged about our own commitment to feminist ideals that have largely been built by reading and listening to privileged women.
For instance, ‘Me Too’ started in India with a Dalit feminist, Raya Sarkar, putting together a list of alleged sexual harassers in Indian academia. It led to a lot of passionate discussion – most of it was online – in feminist circles itself. The discussions drew attention to the lack of intersectionality in feminist conversations, which stay focused on gender and don’t look at other aspects like caste which simply cannot be ignored in India.
What I’ve learnt by observing and being part of such conversations is to never shut down someone whose lived experiences are very different from your own, however much your instinct is to disagree with them or take offence at the “tone” they are adopting (do look up ‘tone policing’). I’ve learnt to shut up more and listen, in other words.
The other thing I’ve come to realise is that it’s rather hard to live by feminist principles in every sphere of your life – at home, at work, in your social circle, in public spaces, on social media. So, the feminists you’ve grown up idolising may slip up and it’s necessary to call them out when they do, but there’s no need to be disillusioned by feminism itself. It has been disappointing, for instance, to see feminists defending sexual harassers in their own networks; feminists who passionately argue about equality underpaying and exploiting domestic workers in their homes; feminists who question male privilege but also assert their caste pride and see it as “cultural” identity.
My learning has been that it’s not necessary to put anyone on a pedestal and then defend them when they fall. It’s also not necessary to ignore the flaws or wrongful actions of people who share your political beliefs for the “larger cause”. There is no larger cause if the smaller causes have to be defeated in the process of attaining it.
Being a feminist requires self-interrogation on an everyday basis. It’s not easy and neither is it a smooth journey. You will lose friends and family along the way (try discussing Sabarimala on the family WhatsApp group if you don’t believe me) if you really want to take everyone along towards a more equal world. Because despite how often it’s described as an ‘elitist’ movement, it is the opposite of that. Or at least, should aspire to be.
Editor’s note: Feminism has exploded over Indian screens and minds in the last few years, bringing what was considered an ‘uncomfortable’ topic into everyday speech, with all its hues and forms, warts and all. Wonder of wonders, it is even becoming an accepted way of life!
In this series, we invite women of note who’ve made a mark in their respective fields to share their Feminism – how they have experienced it, and how their view of it has evolved over the years.
Sowmya Rajendran is a feminist, and an award winning writer of many books for children and grown-ups, and also reviews films. She’s a Deputy News Editor with The News Minute.
This is the first article in the series #WomenWhoMatter.
Want to know what our other feminists say? Read the thoughts of Ethel Da Costa here.
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