Let me address the elephant in the room, err, air – the f-word that has almost come to haunt the current generation. The word that has been so misused, that it has almost been let down. The word that, even those who practise the notion that it was intended to convey, are afraid to say aloud nowadays. Yes, I am talking about feminism.
For the uninitiated, the basic idea is: All humans are equal, irrespective of gender. They may have different physical characteristics and needs – but the society should not treat them differently. Eligibility for job positions, choices of entertainment, or anything at all – should be absolutely irrespective of gender. Equal positions in jobs warrant equal pay and equal respect, based on merit and merit alone. Basically, one’s gender does not determine one’s performance, nor should it determine opportunities for it or returns from it. Society, however, discriminates between individuals based on their gender, and feminism is a human movement trying to raise awareness and erase the difference at the grass-root level.
Let me reiterate: feminism is not a war. There is no battlefield. If there is, it’s in the minds of people. It’s in the minds of you and me. It is not something that anyone needs to actively do anything about – except being aware of the idea and actually practising it in daily life. That is always harder than preaching or carrying out heated debates. It requires everyone to do soul-searching, irrespective of gender (I will come back to that). One needs to review one’s own behaviour, criticize oneself when one does exhibit inequality even subconsciously, call themselves out and look to not repeat such behaviour again, however subtle it is. It requires coming out of cognitive biases. For example, while writing a scientific report or textbook, an article like this one, a poem or prose, or giving a lecture – instead of referring to the gender-less character in the narrative as “he,” one may simply say “they” – which is a perfectly-acceptable singular pronoun. Pictures of the science experimenter in the school-level textbooks should have an equal number of smiling boys and girls. Not cringe when someone ends the last sentence as “girls and boys.” This requires one to come out of the practices ingrained in our minds due to our upbringing in a non-equal society. It requires a practice of thinking objectively.
A few common questions that are asked about feminism, are: Why the terminology, “feminism”? Does not that mean more importance is given to women’s issues, than men’s issues? Does not that mean it is a movement by women, for women, against men? Are issues faced by men not important? The answers are simple: Society has treated and continues to treat the male gender more favourably over others (in a statistical sense) for no good reason. The terminology is an acknowledgement of this disproportionate practice. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that women are equally compatible. And no, it is not “against men.” You don’t need to be a woman to be a feminist. Feminism is not for-women, it is for gender-equality. Men’s issues are equally important, they are just not more important than women’s issues. Unfortunately, the situation is such that this needs to be explicitly stated. It is the job of both men and women to practice equality. Feminism acknowledges that women bear the brunt of the inequality that does exist. And finally, whether or not you claim you are a feminist, if you acknowledge and practise the idea consciously or sub-consciously, you are one.
A female colleague of mine was visiting our institute for collaborative work. One fine day, she went into a shell and I noticed that she was not only absent from lab and office, but she was even skipping her meals. Out of genuine worry, a lot of persuasions, and trying to make her absolutely comfortable, she finally opened up to me. My guess was that she required some kind of medical intervention by a specialist, I just could not understand exactly what. So what had happened? She was not having her periods for close to two months, and feared of being pregnant. To really address the situation, one required objective thinking, careful planning and execution. Going into a shell would not help. However, due to the fact that all of her colleagues in our institute were male, in spite of knowing us over years, she could not open up to anyone. I have a problem with that.
The fact that women feel shy to talk about their “womanly” problems – and I am talking about matured adults working in the scientific profession – means that we men do not get the opportunity to educate ourselves about the female anatomy: knowing about periods is one thing, and about the reasons one may have missed their periods, another. I got educated in the process, but I can certainly assure you that not many men around me know about these details. If women do not talk about their issues openly, we men do not learn. If we do not learn, women do not feel comfortable to talk to us. It is a vicious cycle, and it needs to broken. Right now. And the onus is equally on men and women. We need to put objective thinking as the top-most priority about any issue at hand – feminism or not.
Imagine this: The same “educated” men become husbands and fathers, and the practices continue. Being hush-hush about “womanly” issues is not helping the cause of feminism. We need to come out of it, right now. In our immediate neighbourhood, wherever we are. Men should actively try to seek factual knowledge concerning women. Women should talk about their issues without a fear of being judged, whether they are being judged or not. If you are judged, then you know whom to cut off from your life; if you are not, you gain either good ears, or a friend who is willing to know, also giving the man an opportunity to learn. The more this happens, the more the number of children growing up hearing about periods and condoms just like brushing teeth and using toothbrushes. Instead of shying away, let us make our own small efforts to practice equality in our own lives, in our own immediate environments – families, workplaces, schools, colleges, institutions. Labs, canteens, hostel-rooms. We cannot expect the society to change suddenly. After all, charity begins at home.
The f-word has been highly abused. By individuals of both genders. Certain women have used the idea to play the woman-card and exploit men and get undue favours. Although we can debate about individual cases, this general truth is not a matter of debate. Taking offence about something that was not meant to offend anyone, misinterpreting facts and asking questions of gender-equality in cases where the issue is clearly something else – is not practising feminism. No feminist condones such behaviour. On the other hand, some men have evidently used the feminist-card to portray themselves as light-bearers of the idea, to assume a higher moral ground than others in the eyes of women to gain personal favours. These men are equally manipulative, and it is a shame to have them around. In a nutshell, these women and men are hypocrites, not feminists. Feminism is not about chest-thumping.
Did you notice how I was being a hypocrite throughout this article? I started with defining feminism as gender-equality, and throughout the rest of it, I talked about equality of women and men. Do you see the hypocrisy in this?
If you don’t, then here it is: I talked about women and men only. Nowhere did I acknowledge that gender-equality is a wider term – that gender is non-binary, that gender is a choice, just like sexuality. It reminds me of the famous quote in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Irrespective of the gender you are assigned at birth, you can choose to associate yourself with either, or both, or neither. (See Demystifying gender identity and homosexuality for a detailed study of these questions.) Gender is an artificial term, and our making it a social norm, and especially a binary norm, has no bearing whatsoever on the humanity or efficiency of a person. Albeit a minority, there are individuals who are not born either male or female – society loosely calls them transgendered humans. Some of them are assigned a binary gender at birth, only to realize their true identity gradually while growing up, via a process that is very painful. Gender-equality is about making everyone feel at home in the society at large (pun intended), gender-equality is about not discriminating against anyone because of their gender choices. Life is already difficult for transgendered individuals, let’s not make them any more difficult.
So what can we do? Have gender-neutral washrooms, use gender-neutral pronouns (like “them” as singular), have gender-neutral conversations. Let me give an example: We can simply ask a friend how their “partner” is doing, instead of asking them how their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” is doing. In most cases, there is no difference. But this also ensures that one is not only not assuming a certain gender of either individual, but also not expecting them to be “straight”. You are leaving them the space for coming out as a transgender, or a gay, or a lesbian, or bisexual, or queer, or whatever they prefer to call themself — in case they haven’t before but always wanted to. The next time there is a survey intended to collect data about gender equality, there should be an option to choose “Other”. The next time there is an article written on the sex ratio of a region or state, the published ratio should be at least three numbers, even if the third number (representing all those who do not associate themselves with the binary) is zero.
Whether you call gender-equality “feminism” or not is a choice that you are free to exercise. Just don’t go chest-thumping about it.
I will end with a piece of spoken-word poetry that speaks of itself: The Men I Meet and Love by Nidhi Chaitanya. Go watch!