Why Do India’s Successful Women Shy Away from the Feminist Tag?


Why Do India’s Successful Women Shy Away from the Feminist Tag?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Last year, at the peak of India’s #MeToo movement, Union Minister Smriti Irani gave a fairly confusing statement to the media. “I’m not a feminist,” she said, “because considering yourself human is not a sign of feminism but a sign of humanity. Don’t bind anybody in nomenclatures. Nomenclatures are acceptable internationally. But in my country, don’t call me feminist just because I respect women.”

Four short sentences, so many contradictions. First, the separation of humanity and feminism. Second, the irony of a politician resisting “nomenclatures”. And finally, a successful woman politician’s refusal to accept feminism as a label. She’s not the only one though: Earlier that year when Kareena Kapoor was asked if she’s a feminist, she said, “I believe in equality. I am not a feminist, I am a woman” as if to say that in the Venn diagram of life, women who believe in equality and feminists are two separate circles with no overlap.

There’s no greater irony than successful women in the public eye shying away from the “feminism” tag as if it were something toxic. In an interview, Amy Poehler said “…when people don’t identify as feminists it’s like saying, ‘I like cars, I think they’re great, I use one every day, it gets me from place to place but I’m not gonna go on record and say cars are good.’” It’s amazing that a movement that has made so much difference to our lives – the movement, in fact, to which we owe our education, careers, and rights – is considered too “loaded” for some to identify with. To say you believe in equality but aren’t a feminist is like ordering Jain chicken – it may make sense to you, but it defies logic and it confuses everyone at the table.  

Without feminism, our lives would be almost unrecognisable.

At its core, feminism is the belief that both sexes should have the same rights and choices. Over these decades, feminists have worked tirelessly to create a more equal world for all of us. Here are some things Irani, Kapoor, and Co owe to the feminist movement: We received the same education as male children. We had the option of choosing a career and pursuing it: Irani can be elected to office, Kapoor can act. We can vote. We weren’t married off at 18, dowry in hand. The smaller things: We can drive, buy and sell property, pay taxes, move to another country, and if we want to eat pizza today, it’s pizza day goddammit.

Without feminism, our lives would be almost unrecognisable. Of course my inherited privilege has a part to play too. But most of India’s urban middle-class enjoys some version of this life and I can’t imagine anyone (man or woman) saying, “I wish we could go back to the days when women couldn’t have bank accounts.”

Yet, why do so many women hesitate to use the F-word? Their reasons are not too convincing: “I don’t hate men.” “We have equality already, why are women still fighting?” And my favourite: “Women are different from men, so why are we trying to be equal?” (A regular on my family WhatsApp groups.)

Is our aversion to feminism because of our lack of understanding? Or is it “militant feminism” (All men must die) that’s the problem? If the RSS hasn’t made you feel like you need to stop identifying as a Hindu, I’m not sure why you want to distance yourself from feminism.

We do have many choices our mothers didn’t, but we’re a long, long way, from having exactly the same choices as our brothers do. Much of the patriarchy is internalised and we don’t give it a second thought. But despite our jobs and relative freedom, we are worried when we travel alone late at night, we keep our guard up at work, and look out for our drunk girlfriends at a bar. The wage gap continues to exist and in most of our homes, the bulk of the physical as well as emotional labour is carried out by women.

In some twisted way, women denouncing feminism also seem to think they are showing solidarity with men.

Stepping away from our own lives, can we truly say the world has no need for feminism? The US  confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite sexual harassment allegations against him. Abortion debates continue to rage across the world. For the last couple of years, stories of sexual assault and harassment have changed the way we look at women’s safety. As India had its long overdue #MeToo moment, each of us knows at least a few people who are questioning the motives of the survivors speaking up.

In some twisted way, women denouncing feminism also seem to think they are showing solidarity with men. This presupposes that feminism is some sort of zero-sum game where men and women are on opposite sides. Women advancing must mean men losing out and support for women must mean hatred for men. To many men, feminism is an attack of maleness itself. Some also believe that feminism in its natural form “alienates” men and if we want them to be part of the change, we must dilute it sufficiently so it may appeal to them. If anything, these views show a very poor opinion of men. They all seem to assume that men will continue to display only those problematic behaviour patterns that brought us here in the first place, and that they have no interest in progress unless it’s their own.

The struggle for a more equal world is one that affects all of us. Feminism isn’t only for women then, it has a thousand seen and unseen effects on the world around us. And unfortunately patriarchy isn’t just for men either, women can be as good at holding us back as men are. As humans in the 21st century watching this unfold all around us, do we really have the luxury of living a life shaped by feminism but saying “I don’t believe in it”? If we believe in the simple message of equality, it would be great if we could just stop asking “are you a feminist?”, because everyone is. There are more real conversations waiting to be had.