Does Feminism have a gender?

Search high and low and you will perhaps, come up with a clutch of male names who bravely call themselves feminists. This is more than a little surprising if you consider that most people agree on the fundamentals of equality, freedom and justice, for all. Our age records ‘humanist’ as a proud badge; yet, it marks a palpable hesitation with ‘feminist’. Both sexes stand together as one species under the umbrella of ‘Homo sapiens’; why then is one standing aloof and apart from what is increasingly recognized as the defining concern of the other? Which begs the question: Is feminism, female? This is not to say that no men support the cause of feminism; far from it. They exist, in individuals and in groups; but, their support has low visibility. Some have even rallied under a sub-classification: Pro-feminists. While that is heartening to know, its breaking-off from the main provokes the inevitable question – why do men need a separate definition for the same cause?

The problem might lie with the word, Feminism – an excluding and exclusive term that possessively holds woman alone in the embrace of its roots. It might also extend to disquiet with what feminism has come to represent; a reason too why many women themselves fight shy of the term. What began as equality has gradually shifted to embracing entitlement and to a more radical form that mistakes misandry for empowerment. The entry of fringe radicalizations has done undue damage to mainstream debate of the real issues by muddying common purpose. Yet, most women are uncomfortable with publicly denouncing these positions. Their hesitation makes men uncomfortable with lending full throated support on the larger issues.

The women’s rights movement started as a struggle, in the West, for equality with men in the political, social and economic sphere. As expected, the political goals were relatively easy to achieve. It was political equality that was the threatening notion of its time. Once that took root and rapidly spread, suffrage automatically followed in its contrail. The other two fronts were slow to keep pace. Rather predictably too; since change herein directly threatens the social order as it exists. Equal pay for equal work is a principle most men align with reasonably. It has not yet translated due to structural impediments created by vested interests and delays in governance reform. This should have been the focus of feminism’s next major thrust. Instead, it was side-tracked by the tumult in families wrought by the rapid devolution of the social order.

It was Carol Hanisch, a sixties-era feminist who popularized the phrase: The personal is political. While that indeed is true; its corollary is not. The political is not always personal. Not in an emotional or social sense. The political and economic facets of equality for women can deservedly target the ideal position. However, on the social and familial front, equality is a hard nut to crack. Here, the chasm splits wide open between the ideal and the actual. Change at this micro-personal level will not happen with a single tectonic shift. It has multiple interwoven interests and will necessarily be in fits and bursts with revisions and edits. Unfortunately, frustration with its tardiness has transformed feminism into activism aimed at enforcement. This is rightly interpreted by many as the long arm of the State extending into the personal spaces of relationships and families.

At the level of the family; feminism is but one cause in many and feminist is just one hat. It jostles with multiple kinships, competes for space, and is no longer an identity absolute. With this contextual shift, there are many hyphenated roads to its end-goal. Expectedly, the feminist label has split into a bewildering mélange of: liberal-feminists, conservative-feminists, cultural-feminists, eco-feminists, material-feminists, pro-feminists, etc. The cleaving is especially jagged on social issues. Irrespective of the reasons this fractured identity has fragmented the faith. No more does feminism reside in an unquestionable resplendent absolute; it now cowers in the shadows of an adjectivized state.

Indian feminism reflects the heterogeneity of its origins. Broadly it can be grouped into two categories: activism against oppression and activism for equality. This neat slotting, while diligent on paper, is confounding on the ground. Oppression of, and brute violence against, women violates the lowest bar of their fundamental rights. Curiously, it is not restricted to any one economic or educational stratum. Disagreement between the sexes on this issue is rare and is the exception to the norm. It is on the matter of social/familial/work-life equality that gender divide raises its clunky head. The easy transmutation of what is really an equality debate into one of oppression and the latter’s over-use as a convenient, brook-no-opposition, fall-back for all and any disagreement, alienates men and denies both sexes the opportunity of a more harmonious co-existence.

At this juncture, the women’s movement would do well to heed the models by which political equality gained success. Time and again, we are shown historical evidence of the patterns by which a collective end-goal was achieved. The most successful ones are homogenous in purpose, have a well-defined goal, have multiple players invested in it and importantly, have invariably had the support of breakaways from the privileged class. ‘Subordinate’ groups have easier gained a seat at the table when they’ve commissioned the active support of ‘insider breakaways’. Whether out of genuine or opportunistic belief insider involvement is critical to the process. For women; this implies the active and tacit support of men. Every familial issue – whether that is education, marriage, children, work-life balance, elder care and support – necessitates the hands-on involvement of both sexes. A cooperative approach to and with men will not only hasten the fruition of feminism’s goals; it will also ensure a stable and sustainable change in the social order. An inclusive and participatory change has a better chance with longevity than enforced and regulated change.

Equality at home is best achieved by a balance of compromises. Fathers and grandfathers (along with their women) were feminists before we were. They and many others of their ilk from even older generations made great and bold sacrifices to enable the empowering reforms of the 20th CE. Whether as proto-feminists or pro-feminists, both women and men have more control over challenges than we are willing to accept responsibility for. One way of exerting control is through a mature response, not a shrill one. Through assertion; not aggression. Our mutually cooperative response to the challenges of our times will set the agenda for the coming generations. Ideally, (having transcended these divisions) that should be to merge feminism into a more universal humanism.

I’ll conclude with a couplet which says more than all the words I’ve summoned to make my case. Written by one of Tamil’s greatest poets, a 19th-20th CE Indian Nationalist and an Ur-feminist, Shri. Subramania Bharatiar: Kangal irandinil ondrai; kuthi Kaatchi keduthidalamo? Pengal arivai valarthal; vaiyyam Pedamaiyatridum kaaneer [Would it be reasonable to destroy the vision that two eyes contribute to, by intentionally destroying the sight of one? Will the world not be a better place if we encouraged the intellectual development and progress of women?]

(Sincere apologies to Tamil readers and scholars for my weak attempt at translation)