IS FEMINISM OUTDATED?
March 06, 2012A cousin of mine met me for the first time in his life, and we had a pleasant time meeting each other. Later in the day, he confessed, “I don’t know what I was expecting when I came to meet you, honestly. Somebody had told me…” here he looked at me with alarmed eyes, and his voice lowered a notch: “A feminist!”
The way he said feminist made me wonder what he had been imagining me to be like. How exactly does a feminist appear in the popular imagination? From the tone of his voice, it was almost as if he had expected to meet someone with two horns on her head, breathing fire out of her nostrils.
People in Nepal, I find, are particularly misinformed about what a feminist is and what feminism stands for. The dictionary defines feminism as a “collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.” I don’t think any man or woman in the world can argue with that—I think the arguments arise from what exactly those social rights or economic rights should be. If a daughter asks for equal property as the son, does this violate the social norms which say only sons get to inherit—therefore causing violence to the carefully ordered patriarchal social norm? In that case, a society can come to view such a woman as disruptive, nasty and mean.
On the other hand, for the woman deprived of these rights, who may end up getting less education, less health care, less economic security for her family and her children, and less care in old age, this carefully ordered society in which everything is stacked in favor of the man but not the woman is hardly liberatory or fair. And in this breaking down of what constitutes the real way to live life; feminists can often come to be perceived as threatening to the social order.
Of course, none of this social stigma deterred the real heroines of the feminist movement in all parts of the world from fighting for their rights. Fighting is considered un-ladylike and women who indulge in this are sure to get slapped down by society—but without those initial fighting feminists, women would have no jobs, no salaries, no rights to vote, no property rights, and no space to reproduce with the same choices as men.
Every once in a while, a woman married to a rich man will argue that feminism is outdated—why, they say, should anybody fight for their rights if their husbands are already providing with Gucci bags and Jimmy Choo shoes? Or the nice middle-class woman who is happy to stay home and take care of children, and not bother about any of this “western” feminist stuff? Of course, this kind of argument lasts all the way till the marriage breaks down—either from domestic violence or the lack of respect for the woman’s freedom of speech or movement, when the lady suddenly finds herself thrown out of the nice, cosy patriarchal structure, and where she is not entitled to any property rights, her education stopped at some early stage, and the children don’t end up taking care of her. Then feminism suddenly becomes acutely relevant.
Oftentimes people in Nepal also assume that feminism means that women start wearing trousers and behaving like men. This is truly an appalling misunderstanding of feminism—there are plenty of French feminists who wear bright red lipstick and miniskirts and plenty of Indian feminists dressed in saris and kurtas who demand equal rights—without their dress or their life choices affecting their right to believe in a fair society.
Misunderstandings about feminism in Nepal also include this 800 pound gorilla accusation: “feminists want to take away men’s rights”. This is a total inversion of feminism’s deepest tenets. Why would a movement interested in equal rights of all members of society want to take away men’s rights? If the “right” in question is to beat the wife, or sell a 15- year-old into prostitution, then definitely feminists will oppose these kinds of rights. But all other rights—social, economic and political—feminists have always argued in favor of equal rights for men and women. Feminists were often the core supporters of civil rights movements worldwide, including the movement to end racial discrimination against African Americans in America in the sixties. Feminists have also played a crucial role in anti-war movements worldwide.
Of course, I’d be more than happy if feminism became outdated. But that would presuppose a perfectly equal world--one in which men and women lived within families, states and nations in which policies, laws and social norms allowed people of both gender equal freedom and rights. Since this kind of Utopia is yet to happen, and with general hostility to women’s rights still a wearing reality in many parts of the world, feminism won’t die out that easily. As long as women continue to be beaten, burnt, tortured, circumcised and deprived of their rights across the planet, there will be a feminist movement. Let’s hope that men as well as women will join it, eventually transforming it into a movement for emancipation of all of society.