Feminism has gone mainstream, and it has resulted in self proclaimed “feminists” minimalising the real struggles of women
Now that the hijinks of International Women’s Day are behind us, it is safe to pronounce that not only is feminism dead, but it was murdered by “feminists”. The advertisements and SMS messages offering 50 per cent discount on cocktails and 25 per cent cashback on solitaires, in order to “celebrate women”, was certainly a sign of the beginning of that end. But what has truly felled feminism is the mindless mainstreaming of it.
Let me explain. Last month, I found myself speaking at a Women Writers’ Festival. On the panel with me were other, well, women writers. While discussing the pressures of handling work and home, especially when you have kids and an opinionated in-law, one of the panellists recounted that she once went to her therapist and complained about her mother-in-law. The therapist suggested that she agree with her mother-in-law, no matter what she says. “I was surprised at this, but I decided to go home and try it out. My mother-in-law said something and, irrespective of what I felt, I agreed with her. I have had no problems with her since,” she said to much applause. At this, I will confess, my mouth fell open. That therapist should have been in the United Nations. Think of all the wars he or she would have avoided by asking people to just agree with whatever was being told to them.
But, I digress. The therapist’s easy solution wasn’t the end to the folksiness of feminism, neither in life nor at the panel. On hearing this account, another panel member piped up. “I have done something else,” she said. “I have simply converted everyone into feminists. Now my mother-in-law is a feminist. My son is a feminist. Even my maid is a feminist.” Feminism, I didn’t realise, was as easy to cultivate as love for bacon. Like a bee on an inadvertent mission to pollinate, all you need to do is waft through life and, perhaps, point at people and say, “You are now a feminist, my friend. Welcome!”, and the issues of equality and safety that have been plaguing the gender for hundreds of years would just vanish. After which, I suppose, we can all wear our discounted solitaire jewellery and share a discounted drink, have a fun evening and just go home. Except the “maid” of course, she’d have to finish the dishes first.
Of all the terrible things that have happened in the fight for equal rights, I am going to stick my head out and say, this current phenomenon of privilege masquerading as successful feminism is the most damaging. This presupposes two things — one, that this is a silly problem with very quick solutions and two, everyone has the same privileges. In the course of the research for my book about Indian mothers-in-law, I discovered that a large majority of Indian women are deprived of their very right to choose. They are told what they are “allowed” to wear, whether they were “allowed” to have jobs and careers, when they should have children and how they should be raised. In fact, one of the biggest lessons for me was that not even ‘people like us’ lead lives like ours. You might meet someone urban, English-speaking, educated and assume that they have the exact same kind of freedoms, but scratch the surface and often the story that oozes out is one that illustrates quite the opposite. How corrupt, then, is this modern feminism which not only shirks its responsibility to fight for the disempowered but actually trivialises their struggles, making it seem as though their difficulties are merely the result of their inability to agree with their oppressors or “convert” them to feminism.
This has been a slippery slope that we have been on ever since the conversation about gender rights arrived at our drawing rooms about three or so years ago. On television now, ad films mostly tell stories of the new empowered woman, fighting the good fight, winning adversaries over in less than 45 seconds, and managing to look beautiful doing it. Why, clothing brand Benetton has even managed to reduce feminism to a hashtag. #UnitedByHalf, it says, unwittingly revealing the utter meaninglessness of the sentiment as well as the idea. The marketing overdrive is all-pervasive. I am not sure about other cities, but on Delhi roads now most taxis sport a sticker that says, ‘This taxi respects women’, which always make me wonder, ‘but what about the people inside?’
It is to this depleted interpretation of feminism that the new, mass wave of champions are coming in. Their focus too is on a consumerist interpretation of women’s rights. We should be allowed to wear what we want, look how we choose. Yes, these are meaningful things, but the trouble is that the outrage rarely extends beyond anything that was endorsed by Sex and the City. Just this week, bang in the middle of the Women’s Day hoopla, two surveys were published about salaries and wages in India. The gender pay gap they showed was 25 per cent — that is, women are paid 25 per cent less than men for the same job. However, there has hardly been a conversation about this, much less, outrage. Which is why I am certain that feminism is dead. It has forgotten what the battle is about. And is now simply reduced to “you go, gurl” vacuousness.