By Ajay Chacko Jul. 30, 2016
Are we only cheering an idea of feminism that is cosy in the cocoon of privilege? Is endorsing any other kind of feminism, running the risk of getting roundly abused?
As a man writing about feminism, I know I will have to tread on eggshells. Not because I’m shy about being a feminist, but because I have been informed, thanks to the generosity of the internet, that there is a “a right kind” of feminism that I ought to endorse. The kind of feminism where I cheer my wife’s career, assume equal responsibility of our child and our kitchen, and work hard to ensure that we have an equitable workplace. A feminism that is cosy in the cocoon of privilege. Because to endorse any other kind of feminism, not prettified by nuance and articulateness, is to run the risk of getting roundly abused.
Last week, we debuted our flagship reality show Arré Ho Ja Regender to the world. The show is based on a social experiment where six men and women from across the country and from varied backgrounds voluntarily step into the shoes of the other gender to gain a nuanced perspective on how different sexes experience life. We introduced the participants – one of whom, Farrah Kader, is a young actor from Mumbai – in the run-up to the show. In the process, we ended up triggering a “class war” of sorts when we introduced her as a “fiery feminist”.
Farrah is the anti-thesis of the feminists you will meet in Lutyen’s Delhi and South Mumbai’s all-organic cafés. Her speech and accent are “unrefined”, her lines are laced with Hindi swears that would make a truck driver blush, and she is completely unapologetic about her personality. In the video, her war cry of “all men are dogs” was countered with a strange (but not unexpected for the Internet) kind of vehemence and nonsense. “Boys r dogs Nd grls are fucking beech” was just one of the comments left on the video.
The video introduction and the episode also detail Farrah’s journey: a pockmarked childhood, shaped by an abusive father who never thought twice about laying a hand on her mother; relatives who wanted her to become a sex worker; and romantic interests who have only disappointed her. Why shouldn’t she be angry? Aren’t all our worldviews moulded by the experiences we have? Why should she have to couch her struggles in terms that are acceptable to our English-medium ears?
But if you cut behind this aggressive veneer, there is a lot to be discovered. The story, perhaps, of a lower-middle-class girl’s survival. Farrah is her large family’s breadwinner and has worked against many many odds to pursue her dreams (and I say this purely on the basis of what we saw in the video and the first episode). To my mind, that alone qualifies her as a feminist. What Farrah has not had is the luxury of hanging out with metro-chic feminists armed with politically correct mannerisms and a formidable vocabulary, who could have helped her frame her struggle in less brash terms.
We don’t think of these women when we think of feminists. The poster-girls of urban feminists are articulate urban women just like them.
The Internet is hardly the place you go to seek nuance, but if you only read the comments on social media, you’d imagine Farrah was an off-her-rocker misanthrope. Judged solely for that one line, her obvious battles against fate and background, completely flattened. What the commenters also missed in the 30-second video, was what Farrah also says after experiencing the world in her regendered avatar: “I [now] understand how boys feel.”
I’ve been thinking about the knee-jerk reactions Farrah has drawn. Most people on social media have reacted to the incendiary content of what she said, but some of the conversations I have had within office with our reasonably intelligent (and critical-thinking) young team, have reflected an inherent bias. Farrah’s brand of feminism is just not satisfactory for them.
Is our feminism elitist? Is it reserved for people like, say, Sapna Bhavnani with just as aggressive outward manifestations but impeccable English? She, obviously, would never say something as bald as “all men are dogs”. But she might be able to endow the same sentiment – that patriarchy is a bastard – with a touch of class, by flinging about a Gertrude Stein quote or two. The difference between both these feminists is that Farrah is unable to dress up her thoughts.
But feminism was around before we had a passing familiarity with Gertrude Stein. In the ’70s and ’80s, it resided in the figure of the “working woman”, who had stepped out of the domestic domain to bring financial security to her family. The real feminist icons of those decades were the innumerable nurses or bank clerks, who had to balance a family dependant on them not just for the hot chapattis on the dinner table. The women tilling the fields, the women carrying large bundles of fish in rush-hour local trains, the women on construction sites – women whose labour goes unacknowledged to this day. Or even upper-middle-class women who could afford not to work for a living and yet did, simply because they had to assert their right to step out of the house.
We don’t think of these women when we think of feminists. The poster-girls of urban feminists are articulate urban women just like them. Not the women who don’t know their Gloria Steinem and their Hélène Cixous and their Caitlin Moran. Not the underbelly. And certainly not people like sailor-tongued Farrah, involved in the everyday struggle of navigating the patriarchy. Farrah might not be able to hold forth on intersectionality, but she sure as hell has experienced it.
May I suggest something without inviting your wrath? (Remember, I’m still trying to tread on eggshells.) For our sake and for Farrah’s, let’s take a critical look at this elitist definition of feminism and who is “allowed” to espouse it. For starters, check out the show (no, this is not a plug). It might not shatter all your perceptions of what is acceptable feminism, but it will definitely give you a glimpse of an evolving Indian woman. Try and step into her shoes.
They may be un-sexy and come with a distinctly ragged sensibility but they’re great shoes. And there’s a woman who knows her mind walking in them.