THE STORY OF FEMINISM
On this pretext, it is no more surprising to see that people are generally aware of its commitment to women’s rights. But hardly anybody ever has any idea about the particular issues it cares about and the methods it employs to tackle them. Against this backdrop, it does not easily come shockingly when one hears statements like ‘its maddening to talk about women’s rights or it is a ‘threat to how we are naturally shaped up.’ Much worse, ‘it is Westernization of local norms.’ A lot more awful, ‘feminism is not for men.’ Above all, ‘feminism is about women who could not find husbands.’ Such were the two cents of a journalist who advised Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [a Nigerian writer whose works include novels, short stories and non-fiction] to reconsider her choice to start her writing career as a feminist.
Together, these misconceptions make it one of the most misunderstood notions in the 21st century. As Ismail Gul Khilji once said, “The problem with many among us is that they misunderstand the meaning of feminism.” For Smriti Irani, equating women empowerment with “… nomenclature subjugated to a gender, does a great disservice to the cause of women.” The resolve as far as I know is to start by giving its real definition and history and explaining its importance. Needless to say, this will not dispel all resentment but would, in many ways, push out misgivings and roll the discussion back on the right track.
Apparently, from the very outset, it is clear that feminism is loaded with stereotypes, something addressed by Swati Shukla.
In her book ‘We Should All be Feminists’, Adichie shares the sorts of women stereotypes found in Nigerian culture.
First of all, women were discredited for the good deeds they did. For example, the waiters in her country were used to saying thanks to a man for the tip given by a woman. Second, they were moralized; they were not expected to hang out alone and if they went to a hotel on their own, they were always presumed to be sex workers. Third, they were prejudiced. Men were always given preferential treatment over women. At schools, boys were always appointed as class heads even if they were academically subordinate to girls. Although these are small examples, when put together they show how women are disadvantaged because of their gender.
The situation has been no different in the Western world as well. For example, in the United Kingdom, for much of its history, women were denied property rights. It was a common belief that after her marriage, a woman’s property was to be regulated by her husband. She was never given its legal or beneficial ownership because women were not considered fit for property administration. Not to forget that the very right of who and how to marry was outside her discretion. She was expected to marry off a wealthy guy even if he did not care a bit about her views and mocked her for her lower social status. And she was expected to attend the local ball party to be chosen for marriage. Such reflections were the pivotal theme of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice.
Speaking of Pakistan, it had been a colony of the British and is currently under the influence of Americanization. These days, it is a common perception here that much of our ways of thinking and governance are inspired by the West. There is a general fear that feminism is premeditated to instigate women to disrespect the values of their homeland. Hence kicking off with the British and American thoughts on the subject will assist to assess the truth about such claims and apprehensions. It will make us see how these countries traced and tackled the misconceptions, attitudes, assumptions, environment, language, traditions and stereotypes that disadvantaged their nationals from experiencing full potential. Besides, it will push us to ask some of the basic questions underlying their feminist thoughts: how are people treated because of their sex? What is their place in society because of it? What expectations are attached with them because of it? And, how are they made to feel because of it? These gender-neutral questions show that for the West, unlike the East, a feminist could be a man or a woman who sees a problem with gender inequality and is ready to take measures to fix it.
In our times, it is hard to deny that society shapes us and informs our thinking about what we regard as right and wrong. There are many norms we all live by that are not Western but are a part of our routine because of their repetition. They are brushed under the carpet because we do not wish to imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. Take the small example of our growing culture of extravagant weddings. We spend lavishly without giving a split-second thought to its detrimental effects on mental health. We gloss over because we are naturalized to indifference for others. In her heart-touching column, Fehmida Ki Kahani, Beenish Mehmood engages us to question the moral soundness of doing extraordinary weddings. While she is absolutely right that it is utterly devastating for those with lesser means for it deepens “a feeling of inadequacy and insecurity”. What is more important to look at is how it has changed our perception of marriage. For those with riches, it is a ceremony while it remains a burden for the have-nots. The rich do extravagance and the poor do debt-bonding to keep up with the set standards of marriage. This is beneficial for none because it keeps one out of sight with the values, attributes and hard work that goes into keeping two individuals together in spite of distinct differences. It makes marriage an overnight joy rather than a sheer commitment to one’s duties for a long-term union.
Yet another site for trendsetting is our educational centres. They lead us to have a fixed perception in our minds, closing the door to dialogue and dissent. For example, the vast majority thinks that chastity is the sole responsibility of women while men can go scot-free and have the privilege of indulging in extramarital affairs. Most erroneous beliefs have gained a foothold because they have never been tested, particularly in our schools, colleges and universities.
On another level, it is about formulating ways, modes and methods for minimizing the challenges that men and women confront every day. It could start by paying attention to what we watch on television. What is popular culture is our worldview and the only way to see what is wrong with it is to engage through critique and comment. The power of constructive review is much emphasized by Taha Kehar in his column Power of Second Chances. The subject of his article was the Netflix season Emily in Paris. He drew attention to how the first season projected French men as “insular, lazy, obnoxiously resistant to change … and disloyal lovers.” And emphasized how it led to criticism by the French audience for they thought it could lead to negative stereotypes about their culture. This responsiveness made its way into adapting the second season to positive aspects of the French culture. It is this sort of mature engagement that we need between our media and audience. Unfortunately, given what happened after the drama serial Mere Pass Tum Ho, it is hard to imagine an uninterrupted dialogue in our society; let alone effecting change through dialogue and critique.
Another agent of change could be the literature exposing the challenges and harms faced by the vulnerable. A fascinating example of it from the Western culture is Virginia Woolf’s works. In her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, she described the life of a woman of her time through the voice of Shakespeare’s sister. She stressed that society treated men and women differently. Men enjoyed the luxury of studying and doing a job of their dreams but women were always put in the pigeonhole of home life. This role assignment was cultivated and it deprived women of taking meaningful decisions in their lives. They could not choose to learn, write, marry or build a career as they wished because they were seen fit for house chores alone. They were forced to accept life as it lay in the hands of men or society as they call it. Their lives were robotic and controlled with little or no room for personal thought, choice or development. This was destructive for their well-being as it shut down their doors to experience life and its challenges from their lens. After all, who can say if they were to live in a society full of women they would have behaved or lived a similar life as they did now? Since there is no clue about that; therefore, it should not be taken a natural position of every woman to be a homemaker, warm, affectionate, emotional, shy and submissive sort of a person. Men vary with pride and dignity, so must women and we. This can only come about if we empower them to think for themselves.
Woolf sketches this through the voice of Shakespeare’s sister. She laments how she was married off young, denied schooling and life skills and ended up with a baby without ever finding time to learn what she wanted with her life. Her silence either meant her implied consent or shied acquiescence. It never translated into her refusal, confusion or pressing circumstances. Even when “she cried out marriage was hateful to her” because the context “that she was severely beaten up by her father” was never relevant.
Moving on, there are three strands of feminism in the Western thought. Firstly, there is the first-wave feminism. This is the timeline before 1960s. It was high time for gaining public participation and economic security for women. For its actualization, their inclusion in public life was pushed forward. The right to vote, own property, get education and earn a living were all fought for. Secondly, there is the second wave. This is the timeline between 1960s and 70s. It was crucial for making change through social media to which end BBC dedicated a day to programmes and debates on women’s issues. This was supplanted with criticisms of beauty contests. The Miss America and Miss World contests were protested against for setting up flawed beauty standards, particularly because a woman of colour could never be its winner. The feminist revolt was reflected in the works of Susie Orback and Naomi Wolf, when they wrote books like Fat is a Feminist Issue and the Beauty Myth. Lastly, there is the third wave. This is the timeline after 1980s. This was mostly about putting together the old works for a streamlined feminist account of legal practice and social order. For depth, it crossed over into post-modernism, critical race theory and psychoanalysis. For me, there are lessons to be drawn from this brief feminist history. First, the movement and its realization have been a lengthy process. Second, the change was not overnight. Instead, it came about in three stages viz. sensitization, discussion and theorization.
That said, there is no second guess that feminism is beneficial, and crucial as well. Academically, it fosters law students, practitioners and professionals to have a sharpened understanding of the dynamics of life. Our tendency to take human skills for granted should not be lost sight of. We are all tainted with some impartiality, subjectivity and assumptions and are prone to easily presuming that the mastery that went into lawmaking was free of the spoils of human nature. Individually, it encourages both men and women to be vigilant about the challenges they are facing and speak up about them if they are gender based. At the end of the day, the story of feminism is the narrative of any gender facing challenges because of who they are.