Several words may come to mind when you say ‘the F word’, the most common of which is a certain four-letter word widely censored by the media. But the word I have in mind is one almost as taboo in India, and to some extent, even in the Western world.
Why is this word so heavily scrutinized? Why do people instantly recoil when they hear it and hurriedly change the subject to something ‘less controversial’? What could be less controversial than equal rights for all? Why is it when someone says they’re a feminist, other people look at them like they’ve just announced their intent to join a circus?
When you ignore or make fun of a movement as important to society as feminism, you dismiss one third of Indian girls who will be married before their fifteenth birthday. The 15 million female victims of sexual assault worldwide, last year alone. The 140 million female victims of genital mutilation. The millions of domestic violence victims all around the world who cannot speak up because society urges them to cater to their male family members. All the women who are discriminated against because of something as simple as their gender.
Basic human rights for half the world’s population is not a ‘controversial issue’. Nor is it a joke, though some people insist on making ‘women in the kitchen jokes’, unaware of how real the struggle is for several people who do not receive a proper education because of their gender, and have so little options.
Perhaps society shudders at the word because it is so often associated with ‘angry, man-hating’ women intent on reversing the traditional patriarchal set-up and suppressing men the way women have been suppressed for centuries. But this is NOT feminism; by definition, this is misandry. Feminism is nothing more or less than the movement to provide basic equality between men and women. If you believe that men and women are equal, and should have equal political, social, economic and legal rights, then you are a feminist, however much the word repulses you.
A common argument against feminism is that male victims of violence and sexual assault are ignored and that feminism will worsen that situation. But it will not; by definition, feminism provides a balance between men and women, provides equal rights. Therefore, ANY victim of violence, male or female, will be listened to, and receive justice. Feminism does not mean giving preference to women. It means treating men and women EQUALLY.
So if feminism is about equality, why not give it a more neutral name, like humanism? The answer is simple. It is the so-called ‘feminine’ traits like crying and displaying emotions that are degraded and denigrated, and it is these traits which must be normalized in society. Therefore, the very implication behind feminism is, in fact, equality.
Feminism also means destroying age-old norms that women are forced to conform to, like assuming that a woman’s worth is tied to her weight, dress size, or the number of her sexual partners. Traditional patriarchal society often decrees that women are better seen and not heard. Indian women especially are told that no man will marry an ‘overly intelligent’ or ‘overly educated woman’. If a woman says she chooses her career over getting married or starting a family, she is considered an embarrassment to her family; or people assume that ‘no man wants to marry her’. Never mind that she has a mind of her own- she must be undesirable if she does not wish to marry! Bachelorhood is glamorized, while spinsterhood is reviled.
Maybe one of the most pressing problems is the growing ‘rape culture’ that is increasingly becoming more and more alarming, especially in India. In the past year alone, several prominent members of society have begun to justify rape, saying that women should dress modestly, not step out at night, not keep the company of men…..the list is endless. The traditional patriarchal set-up of society endorses the notion that men are superior and reinforces the belief that women are disposable, secondary citizens who are subject to the will of the male members of their family.
Feminism seeks to overthrow this belief. It’s time society stops asking ‘what was she wearing?’ after a rape occurs. Rape has nothing to do with the victim’s clothing. It has to do with a power struggle in the mind of the attacker. STOP asking how many sexual partners the victim had. Rape has nothing to do with sex. It has to do with violence. If someone gets hit on the head with a spade, no one calls it gardening. STOP calling the victim ‘someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s sister’. A woman is more than just a man’s relative. She is a human being, with emotions, a family, and aspirations. And when you violate her right to her own body, you commit a crime as violent and unforgivable as murder, the ultimate violation of someone’s right to life.
I believe in feminism because I believe in equal rights for all. I believe that I am the intellectual equal of several of my male peers. I believe in my right, and that of all women to pursue a higher education and a career if they so wish. I believe in the right of all women to settle down and start a family when THEY are ready, not when society is. I believe that a woman’s body wasn’t made to please anyone but herself.
And so, in the 21st century, nearly 200 years after slavery was abolished, I believe that it is time for society to take a stand and embrace feminism. We can talk about a better world all we like, but until half the world’s population is liberated from the shadows of archaism, it will never be a reality.
‘Are women and men truly equal? Until the answer is yes, we must never stop asking.’
Written by Shreya Kaushik, a sophomore at New York University.