I'm a Feminist, Now What?
November 2014
illustration

A Muslim ex-boyfriend, whom I dated many years ago in London, on the day he was due to introduce me to his brother and sister-in-law, cancelled because I was wearing jeans and was not dressed in a traditional salwar kameez. At the time, his excuse was that he was embarrassed; I looked like a Western tart and it would be disrespectful towards his family. It took much heartache and a decade of re-education until I understood, firstly, that he himself had no issue about looking at my arse in tight jeans, and secondly, that I supported his blatant misogyny because I was nervous about meeting his family. It had simply been easier to maintain the status quo by agreeing with his excuse.

In September, as UN Women's Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson made her inaugural UN speech on gender equality. It was a great speech. She was humble, vulnerable, down-to-earth, and straight-talking about ideas that for me today, seem totally logical and sensible in terms of equality and gender being a human rights issue and not about a gender bias or discrimination. Speaking in support of the #HeForShe solidarity movement, she put out an open ‘invitation to men’.

What was intriguing about this speech, and the fashion for feminist debate currently in the media, is that those who hear and understand the message are the ones who are already on board, who are supporting the sisters, wives and daughters in their lives.

Of course, everyone wades in with opinions and comments (as I am doing), mostly in support of the speech. People are happy to sign a pledge on campaigns like #HeForShe (much more manageable now in the time of tapping a few keypads on an iphone than it was in the days when you actually had to put pen to paper and write a letter). But we are so subsumed by ideas and information, do we ever stop to think further than a few clicks of the mouse? Before the next vogue topic comes along to grab our attention? It takes a whole lot more than a good speech and a few weeks of trending on social media, because the people who really need to hear and understand the message require something wholly different: compassion, education, and the will to practice.

There is a world of difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘embodiment.’

I am not a cynic. I heartily agree that great speeches are necessary; for inspiration, for expressing what does not work in the world, for making the first step towards change in the policies of Governments and other bodies that need to happen at a collective level. Yet, there is a more crucial question at stake, because talking and being inspired is just the first step. What comes next? What will each of us, at our individual level, DO? It is not simply a matter of ‘liking’ a celebrity who's signed a petition, or posting a selfie of some actor's photo in a snazzy t-shirt that went viral. It's about each of us, looking at our every-day lives, and taking on the responsibility to ‘do the work.’ And it is not easy work!

Of my own experience, it has taken years to unravel and undo the misogyny inherent in my upbringing. It meant telling the truth, that I was raised to participate in and support the gender biases that oppress women in my culture (such as believing that women do not deserve to have an education, a career, earn their own money, have an opinion, enjoy sex, etc.). It meant overcoming my sense of guilt and shame and owning the responsibility to re-educate myself, to stop allowing my body and my spirit from being abused. It meant setting new boundaries in my relationships, not only with men, but with my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings. Like a lot of people who have been on the receiving (and giving) end of gender discrimination, I was not aware that there was another way. Initially, I also didn't know how to make the changes I needed to make, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way.

It's easy to make excuses, to stick to familiar habits, to think that the problem is ‘out there.’ What I've learned is that the revolution must come from within each of us, both men and women. This is the only way to progress, individual by individual, creating a revolution within our own context, not waiting for government policies to affirm what we know — in our hearts — does not work. We must each do the work in our own relationships, firstly with ourself, and then with our partners, parents, children, friends, employers, colleagues, etc. Equal rights is not about ‘expecting’ the world to support me, just because I am a woman and happen to be in the repressed half of the planet. Plenty of men are also discriminated against and ‘enforcing’ policies on gender equality in companies, governments, schools, universities, etc. without educating those involved only creates resentment.

The progress in my culture where I am currently living (Chennai) is laudable; there are colleges and institutes focused on educating women, working women and students go about their day without men, they hang out with their girlfriends and ride scooters on their own. Yet other aspects of ‘Modern India’ manifests in a skewed and shocking manner. Whilst the national outrage from the rape case in Delhi (December 2012) resulted in changes in the law and legal system, four of the guilty men have been sentenced to death by hanging. Young women, who are more liberal about sex before marriage (without having adequate sex education) will prefer to get pregnant and have an abortion rather than trust a doctor to educate them about contraception. Even educated professional women, who have taken the opportunity of equal rights and have full-time careers, are still expected to cook all the meals, clean the house, run around after their husbands, take care of the children, the in-laws, etc.

It is quite sad to recognise that India's modern society is inspired by and modelled on the West (as though it was some holy grail ideal). The same feminist debates abound. In October, Vogue India published a ‘women's empowerment’ issue with the sub-text ‘Think, Speak, Act. It starts with you.’ They collaborated with the good and mighty of business, media and celebrity (over 150 well known faces in total), who all made a pledge to do something towards empowering women/girls. I wonder if they plan to follow up on whether these pledges will actually be delivered? Interestingly, several of the staff production team, all women, pledged to support the education of their house-help's and driver's children. What about the parents’ education? Do they see nothing unethical about having female house-helps and male drivers, one of the most biased forms of gender discrimination in India?

And when I keep looking, past the glossy veneer of a fashion magazine, what I see are celebrities and unrealistically thin, photo-shopped models, being photographed in designer clothes that most of the population of India can barely get their watery eyes around aspiring to, let alone afford. I see Western and Eastern designer brands jumping on the bandwagon of self-promotion, not because they want women to be empowered, but because they want women to be consumers, to desire clothes, shoes, jewellery, etc. that they do not need, to spend money on products they cannot afford and will get into debt for, and ultimately be a slave for. Such magazines are the fodder for women to dis-empower other women! This is the economics of selling magazines and fashion, something I learned from a man, my husband!

Emma Watson will be on the cover of the December issue of ELLE UK magazine, their ‘inaugural feminism issue’ (I'm not really sure what this actually means — sounds good, though). They proudly state on their website that their cover shoot of Emma was produced by an entirely female team. So I wonder, did ELLE even listen to the message of her speech at the UN, about ‘inviting the men’ (the average Joe, who also works in magazine production) to engage?