Does feminism need better PR?

It's time to address why the movement gets such a bad rep

I was about 18, and a gauche junior at college, when I first read Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions. Steinem’s witty-yet-biting book was a revelation for those of us who thought feminists could not be funny.

It was 1990, a time when there was much talk in the air about women and what they wanted. For our college projects, we looked up dog-eared copies of Manushi, edited by Madhu Kishwar. It was then the only Indian publication that talked about women’s rights, even if Kishwar refused to call herself feminist.

Much Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer later, I realised I was a feminist, an unfamiliar, uncomfortable word, not one to be said out loud, but one to be hugged secretly to your chest. Gradually, as I got older and less worried about what people thought of me, I was able to say it out loud too. But 26 years later, feminism is still a dirty word in India. In the West, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lawrence proudly call themselves feminists, but here in India, our icons go out of their way to say they are not feminists, in much the same way they might say “Hey, I am not racist.” Madhu Kishwar is now as much of a friend to feminists as Donald Trump.

Most recently, actress Lisa Haydon vehemently reiterated that she was not a feminist. “One day I look forward to making dinner for my husband and children. I don’t want to be a career feminist,” she said.  Those of us feminists who have been cooking dinner for our families for years, and also have proper careers, rolled our eyes.

Haydon was roundly berated. Then comedian and author Radhika Vaz tweeted “The next bitch who says she isn’t a feminist needs to pay dowry and then perform sati. And be married off at age 11.” Vaz was attacked in her turn, including by filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, who tweeted that she was giving “feminism a bad name.” 

What it all amounts to: we have done such a poor job of explaining what feminism means that a feminist is now defined as an angry, ugly, man hater who does not want children and hates cooking. This, despite the fact that modern feminism is all about choices, including the choice to stay at home, work, cook, parent or do whatever you want. Take the word “feminazi” constantly thrown at us; when did it become ok to compare women fighting for their rights to fascists responsible for slaughtering 6 million Jews? It’s hard to escape the feeling that we need better PR, more awareness about what feminism really is. 

Bollywood actresses are easy targets for our ire, but what of the many educated woman who don’t call themselves feminists?  “A lot of women reject the word feminism simply because they don’t know what it is,” says Aparna Jain, a New Delhi-based leadership coach and author of the book Own It: Leadership Lessons For Women Who Do, for which she interviewed nearly 180 women in the workplace. “I asked a group of women executives how many of them were feminists. Everybody was quiet. Then I asked ‘How many of you want equal pay, and equal property rights?. Everybody put their hand up."

For most of us Indian women, there’s also the ever prevailing fear of what men will think. “If men think feminism is not sexy or womanly, than why would a young straight woman call herself a feminist and risk being ignored by the dominant sex?” asks Vaz.

I try this on my own 16-year-old daughter. “Are you a feminist?” I ask. “No,” she says doubtfully. “Well, do you believe you should have a vote and the same wage a as a man?” “I already have that,” she says scornfully, rolling her eyes.

Therein lies the problem. Many young women think they have all the liberties they need, and don’t need to be feminists. Arundhati Roy made a similar point in a no-holds-barred interview with ELLE in July. “I get so annoyed when I hear “cool” young women say ‘I’m not a feminist,” she said. “Every freedom we have today, we have because of feminists. If you’re not a feminist, go back to into your veil, sit in the kitchen and take instructions. You don’t want to do that? Thank the feminists!” 

But while Roy’s response is refreshingly honest, and perhaps what many of us are secretly thinking, is it the best way to bring wary young women on board?

“I consider myself a feminist, but the word has been diluted by the media. Now the aggressive connotations of the word don’t allow me to call myself that,” says Salome Chatterjee, an 18-year-old student from Kolkata.

Chatterjee identifies as a post-feminist, as do many young urban women who rarely face discrimination, and have supportive men in their lives. “I appreciate what feminists have done for us, but these days feminism seems to be mostly a constant hatred of men. And I feel that the choice to be a wife or a mother is not respected enough.”

Personally, I see feminism not as the hatred of men, but as the hatred of patriarchy. Two very different things; women can be just as patriarchal for instance. But is this difference appreciated by everyone? Bangalore-based author Madhumita Bhattacharyya is one of many who think the word feminism is divisive. “To get everyone the same page is so difficult. People run away from this word. I am just not willing to condemn everyone who says they are not feminist, because many of them do feminist things. It’s one thing to not care about being likeable, but then you are alienating a whole lot of people.”

Bhattacharya thinks it’s too much to expect Indian women to adopt the word “feminism” enmasse. “I think it should be decoupled from basic human rights. There can’t be a debate on the fact that everyone must have those, but I don’t have to be feminist to be against rape, do I?”

But Jain disagrees that the word needs to be scrapped, when it’s still a man’s world in most areas. “You cannot call yourself a humanist because first we need some basic equality,” says Jain.  “It’s like the fight for gay rights. Gay people and their supporters don’t call themselves humanists, do they?” agrees Vaz.

Many of us believe getting rid of the word feminism ignores the sacrifices made by feminists before us. “Many women, especially young women, don’t see what feminists have done for us,” says Delhi-based Japleen Pasricha, founder of  Feminism In India, a portal that aims to spread feminist consciousness through workshops, posters and campaigns. “Indian women didn’t have to fight for the vote. After independence, we got it automatically because of the suffragette movement in the West. But very few Indian women have heard of the suffragettes.” 

Pasricha makes a good point: many of our freedoms were won by women who don’t fit our image of feminists, and maybe didn’t even call themselves that, but whose actions were feminist none the less. “The Dowry Prohibition Act, the Domestic Violence Act, and Vishakha committees for stopping sexual harassment all exist because of women’s groups,” she says.

Vaz defends her sarcastic tweet, which was accused by many of shaming non-feminists. “I was not trying to shame anyone. I was taking an extreme tone to show women how they were hurting their own interests by disowning feminism”.  

“I think it’s fine if you are not a feminist, but please don’t badmouth it without understanding it,” says Pasricha. “That said, I am not in favour of campaigns shaming people who are not feminists. We don’t focus on the definition, but on the actions. I’d rather have people who want to be feminists than drag women into the movement by shaming them.”

A cliché perhaps, but those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. As Roy said, chillingly, in her ELLE interview, “Remember the women in Afghanistan? When we were growing up, they were doctors and surgeons, they partied and wore cool clothes. And now? We have to be alert to the dangers.”

Many of us who are feminists are also alarmed by the easy acclaim for men who are feminists. Women feminists are called ugly lesbians, men progressive, open-minded thinkers. Comics like Vir Das and Tanmay Bhat tweet sexist jokes one day, then brag about their love for feminism the next. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that feminism is simply a fashionable, modern way to sell product. We need men on the journey to feminism, sure, but do we really need feminism mansplained to us when women have been living it for years?

Then there’s the whole debate over who is a real feminist. If you go by much of public opinion, only rural women in stereotypical cotton saris and buns, fighting for justice in the villages, are ‘real’ feminists. Many of us feminists on social media are derided as ‘lipstick’ feminists, because we are undoubtedly privileged.

But Rajendra Pachauri’s harassment of a whole group of educated, urban women at TERI should give the lie to the idea that privileged women have nothing left to fight for. And while many of the big battles may have been won for some, there are still so many more. “Privilege is irrelevant,” says Vaz. “We all have a role to play. And that is where the problem lies: there is this fear that we are not feminist enough!”

Personally, I think ‘small’ causes are every bit as worth fighting for as big causes. “Urban women are fighting sexism with petitions and social media,” points out Jain, talking about a recent instance where Delhi-based journalist Veena Venugopal tweeted about a bar owner whose menu described his love for “big boobs and long legs.” The bar owner first jeered at feminists, and then eventually scrapped the menu, after outrage on social media. In a UK campaign, Nicola Thorp, a woman sent home from her job at Price Waterhouse for refusing to wear heels, started a petition to get companies to stop enforcing sexist dress codes. In 48 hours Thorpe got 1,10,000 signatures, and her company withdrew the requirement.  

How do we get better PR? Instead of inane videos by comics and Bollywood actresses, why not proper campaigns by women in the workplace, like Shreya Ukil, who recently sued Wipro for gender discrimination and won? And perhaps more “feminist” women in our textbooks, including those who helped us escape dowries, sexual harassment and unequal pay, so the younger generation learns what feminism did for them.

Like our government, we get the feminists we deserve. Time we worked to find those who represent us in all our diversity. Urban. Rural. Housewives. Career Women. Privileged. Unprivileged.