If you identify as a feminist, you automatically begin to look out for the female gender—whether cis or trans or just close enough on the binary. If you don’t, you go through life with your elbows out because women far from becoming your allies become your main competition.
It’s not just the Bollywood stars who are doing it. The biggest trend among urban, educated, Indian women? Saying you’re not a feminist. Heaven forbid anyone mistake you for one of those man-hating, non-threading, shouty-aggressive women with short butch haircuts and rasping voices! You’re a delicate flower, you are “sixteen going on seventeen and you know that you’re naïve”, you are feminine with long hair and kajal-ed eyes, how can you be a feminist? Of course you believe that men and women are equal. Of course you’ve also sometimes rolled your eyes at the men around you and their insane sense of entitlement. Is there anything a man can’t do, you wonder, as your brother goes out till 3am every weekend, and your phone starts to buzz with messages from your parents when you’re later than 11pm. But all this—all this questioning of the status quo—doesn’t make you a feminist or anything. It just makes you a thinking woman of the 21st century. Which is totally not the same thing.
Except, um, it sort of is.
Why are Indian women so afraid to accept a word that signifies a movement? Partly, I guess, because of its connotations. I was on a panel once with a Bollywood actor known for her outspoken manner and her charming demeanour. The panel was at a women’s summit and we were discussing whether women can do everything, or something similar.
Point of note: I was the only one in pink, a long gown I had bought just for the occasion, with a rather revealing neckline. All the other women—psychologist, actor and the moderator—were buttoned up, looking prim and strident as could be—whereas I, in my bubblegum pink, was the epitome of everything people think feminists are not.
I was sitting there, enjoying the debate, when the actor suddenly piped up, “I’m not a feminist, but….” I, frankly, gaped at her. We had been getting along so well! And there she was saying idiotic regressive things! I waited to hear if she’d redeem herself, but she went on to say, “I believe men and women are equal, and I believe in living my life according to my own rules and my own choices” and I was just sitting there, shaking my head at these words, when the moderator noticed and asked if I’d like to say anything. “But, but,” I sputtered, “All these things you’re saying! That makes you a feminist!”
But later, when I had a chance to think about it, I wondered what she was shying away from. Not the equal rights thing—because she admitted to wanting that—and surely no one actually believes women are the weaker sex anymore apart from a few “men’s rights” activists, who, frankly, should stop breeding so the stupidity doesn’t spread. But, maybe, she wanted to be liked; it is very important to be liked, even if it seems like a silly goal; and traditionally, in India, saying that you believe there’s no “women’s work” or “women’s role in society,” would make you a very unpopular person indeed. We are all tied to our histories more so than we would like, and to break away from it requires an act of courage that some people might want to save for another rebellion.
It’s not even an “all women in it together”. If you identify as a feminist, you automatically begin to look out for the female gender—whether cis or trans or just close enough on the binary. If you don’t, you go through life with your elbows out because women far from becoming your allies become your main competition. You go to a party and you “check out the competition”. Competition for what? Competition for whom? What is the prize and are you sure you want to win it?
Now, I’m not saying you have to hate men. No one is saying you have to hate men. Love men all you like, or love just some men, or love the one man, or want to be the prettiest girl at the ball and have all men’s eyes on you but not actually want to talk to any of them or anything. But also remember to call them out on their bullshit. The times they tell you you’re being emotional when you’re just plain angry. The times the male CEOs don’t get together to consider your safety or rights outside the building you work in. The time your maid’s alcoholic husband beats her up and still she hands over her salary to him every month. Think about these things. Consider them deeply. Is it fair? If you still think it is, then fair enough, you’re not a feminist.
But if you don’t, then you are. Hi! Welcome! We have cookies!