Three incidents which occurred in separate corners of the world, and manifested themselves to me through virtual social networks, have been making me ponder the nature of modern-day feminism. Everyone is eager to declare herself and – very pointedly – himself, a feminist.
But what does feminism really mean? Does it mean one doesn’t think of women as property? That women should have the right to vote? That women should be paid as much as men in the same positions they occupy? Or as men with the same qualifications? That women should have babies and go to work, and that they have failed in some way if they do not? That women should have the choice to do whatever they want – abort, have children, not have children, wear bin liners, discard veils, take their husbands’ names, retain their family names?
My understanding of feminism is that it is essentially about choice and equal rights.
It is also the basis of the one fight in which I am personally involved – animal rights – and of all the movements against various atrocities over the centuries: slavery, colonisation, women’s oppression, the dowry system, casteism, and animal slaughter, though that last is never acknowledged as cruelty and vegans are more often the butt of imbecile jokes than the subjects of acknowledgement.
Since I am not particularly concerned about humans, male or female, I believe I stand a little outside the system, and I find myself bewildered by the modern-day feminist.
The three incidents to which I referred are – the outrage against Aziz Ansari over a piece in a website which has articles on rape, the name of the latest Kardashian baby, dildos, and horses on its home page; a friend’s rave review of the Tamil film Aruvi, which she called “feminist and anti-capitalist”; and the celebration that greeted New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy announcement.
I have never understood why it is such an achievement for a woman in a position of power and responsibility to get pregnant. There was similar ecstasy over former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer getting pregnant, quickly followed by resentment over her failure to use up her maternity leave. She is most famous for the in-office motherhood, and is considered an achiever for the same, though she went on to practically run Yahoo to the ground; her time as CEO was fraught with data breaches and poorly-run system updates which ended up wiping millions of inboxes.
Tony Blair had a baby as Prime Minister too, though he was not involved in the lowercase version of labour.
If feminism is about equality, wouldn’t the real milestone be going about one’s business as if the pregnancy of a head of state was not as remarkable as the discovery of an alternate source of fuel?
And if it is reason for celebration, one must also acknowledge the support system in office which will allow her to take time off while a deputy runs the country, and the support system at home which will allow her to return to office.
There was a similar outburst of ecstasy when a female politician breastfed her baby in parliament.
As there was when a photograph of female scientists in sarees celebrating the outcome of an Indian space experiment went viral. How do their sarees contradict their education in science? What we are celebrating is the prejudice in our heads, and begs more condemnation than celebration.
The joy over powerful women getting pregnant is related to the outrage over being asked at job interviews whether one is, or is going to get, married or pregnant.
I am not offended when I am asked that question, because I have seen women leave their jobs after marriage; I have not personally seen men quit work after marriage. I have also seen women stay on at work after marriage. I have heard a female colleague in Delhi tell two male colleagues, “Arre, but you are bachelors, na, you can stay late and finish”; I have had another female colleague, also in Delhi, ask me to cover part of her shift because it was her wedding anniversary; I told her I would if she gave me five hours’ worth of her salary. She was annoyed, and went on to guilt someone else to cover for her gratis.
When Human Resources personnel want to know what my nuptial and uterine plans are, I reply, “Whatever I do, I’m not going to quit or take more than my allowance of holidays.” It is always enough.
The modern-day feminist is angry when there is no female author in a random list of best reads, or on the shortlist for a prize; the modern-day feminist is angry when the prize money in a sporting event is not equal, favouring men, but will not take into account the fact that the men’s version of most games is far more strenuous than the women’s; and the modern-day feminist does not seem to question the existence of women’s only chess tournaments, while no chess tournament is exclusive to men.
And yet, it seems, the modern-day feminist will lavish praise on a film like Aruvi, in which (spoilers to follow, naturally) the female protagonist is HIV positive. The film is loaded with medical misinformation – claiming as it does that female contraceptives can prevent the spread of HIV – and classist generalisations, hinting as it does that she contracted HIV from a nick on the hand of a coconut seller who handed her a coconut, which is also medically impossible. The film ends with the girl partying with her rapists, who have become nice guys after she holds them hostage, and with her father, whom it is her last wish to meet though he threw her out of home because her failure to commit suicide when he accused her of disgracing the family through premarital sex had apparently proven she was indeed guilty of premarital sex. What does it say about the modern-day feminist that such regressiveness is lauded?
The problem is the assumption that the woman is always right, and must always be believed. It is certainly true in a lot of cases. But to make that the cardinal rule and apply it to all cases is bound to undermine the cause of those who are genuinely violated.
The piece on Aziz Ansari humiliated him, laying out his alleged kinks in excruciating detail, after waiting less than 18 hours for his response, if the time stamps in the story are correct. His texts to the woman, who chose to stay anonymous, are quoted, and none of hers to him is. They have, rather grudgingly, included his personal apology to her, and eventually his statement about the incident, both of which struck me as very decent.
But it seemed odd for a person who claims her non-verbal cues about her hesitation to sleep with a man must be understood by that man, to be oblivious to her own, other non-verbal cues. Surely, rushing home with a celebrity whom you sought out and persisted in conversation with after he “brushed you away”, flirted with while on another date, met in his apartment before letting him take you out to an expensive dinner, and then kissing him in his home, in a country where kissing in public is not illegal, is a series of big non-verbal cues? And surely it indicates rude and crass behaviour by the woman to her own date, in whose presence she flirted with a celebrity? In the face of this, what cues did the celebrity have to assume this was not a hook-up?
If one were to leave out gender and bring in race, the entire equation changes. If one were to set all –isms aside, the report is one-sided, sensationalist, and a failure of journalistic standard.
But it is easy to take up the woman’s cause, by throwing in words like “consent”. What is consent? No means no. Yes means yes. Maybe means maybe. Maybe does not mean no; it does not mean yes. People hear what they want to hear. And when a man has no power over you, when he is not threatening to harm you if you don’t, why would you perform oral sex twice on him and then say you were violated? The term for this appears to be “gaslighting”, a phrase whose etymology and meaning I fail to understand.
I also fail to understand the feminist stance that a garment as horrible as the hijab is not necessarily ignominious; one might as well support the right to wear a chastity belt. Which is why I don’t see why videos of veiled women dancing to Beyonce should go viral.