This post was written in 2013. I recant most of these thoughts in a 2023 Update at the end of the post. The recanted thoughts are underlined within the post and point to my now beliefs in the Update. Please read both for context.
I was at a seminar last month discussing the world of erotica, pornography and the internet as it pertained to women. There were exactly three men in the twenty-five odd gathering. One was the cameraperson (silent throughout), another lurked in the far corner of the room and I never heard a word from him. The third was sitting right next to me and as vociferous as the women. It was from him that I had this question.
Put that way, it seemed rhetorical. Feminism is a movement, an attitude, a perspective on the world. Since sex is determined by your body plumbing, a mind activity such as this can’t be a gender restricted one (See this for distinctions of sex and gender). On the other hand, I believe women and men experience inequality, injustice and disparity differently. Their motives to come to this movement are different. And an overpowering life attitude such as this, is a combination of rationale as well as emotion.
I do have several men in my life who are supportive of equality, who even call themselves feminists. This is not meant to disparage their efforts and even their struggles. In some ways, I think it’s even harder to be a male feminist than a female feminist. For one, it requires going against automatic conditioning, peer pressure and media messaging. Then there’s the constant deriding from both sexes (what, you think women are always nice to someone who stands for their rights?). My father (probably the first feminist in my life, male or female) sometimes tells me that women are probably the worst male chauvinists in this country. After all, he points out, it is a mother who makes a mama’s boy. It is a mother-in-law who drives the daughter-in-law harassment. I have to agree with him.1
I know my own ‘strength’ and independence are constantly being held to account by the men in my life, not the women. When I bought a new computer recently, dad accompanied me and so did a close (male) friend. This plus two conversations with other men who advised me. One of them asked,
“Just how many men do you need to help you buy a computer?”2
Hmm, indeed. My independent woman self is kept in place by the men in my life – now is that ironic or pathetic?
How and why we come to the feminism philosophy is utterly different. These men are feminists/ equalism supporters because they believe it is the right thing to do. I support equalism because it gives me access to a better life. When we go into a debate on this, I am fighting for my survival as an independent human being with rights. They’re debating something that may not impact them at such a profound level as it does me. I must also make mention of privilege guilt3. There are several men who are struck by advantages they enjoy that are not extended to the women in their lives. They don’t all become feminists but they struggle with the inequality anyway. I think this actually describes the angst of most ‘modern men’ I know today.
Let’s set aside the fervour and commitment for a second. I want to question whether a man can truly understand what it is to be a marginalized gender.
In my first semester at b-school, the Production Management professor, an M.Tech from I.I.T. Bombay spotted me sitting in the first row. He walked up to me, sneered and asked, “Why are you here? Why aren’t you at home learning to make rotis?” The whole class laughed. Through the year, he routinely made fun of my questions and was dismissive of my presence. He was just one professor in the 40-odd faculty members we saw in two years. But his words have never left me. I worked very hard to get into the program, studying on the bus on the way home, reading my texts during lunch breaks at work. I was at the top of my class. Yet, my efforts and my very presence was taken as insignificant. Can a man fathom the utter humiliation and frustration of that?4
During the placement week, a very prestigious company came to the campuses across the city. My seniors advised me to not even bother applying as the company had a reputation of being gender-biased. I ignored them and applied anyway. The guy I was dating then didn’t even make it through the entrance exam. I was one of three women in the twenty that got through. And the only woman shortlisted for an interview. And in that closed room, the four men seated around the table told me that while I had made it that far, they couldn’t see the company actually hiring a woman. My classmates and the (then) boyfriend who hadn’t even gotten through this entrance exam – every one of them got jobs before I did. I finally landed a prestigious job, a better paying one than them. Will a man ever understand just why I still feel vindicated by that?
Last year, I was to get married and after a very public engagement, the relationship ended. Friends have behaved as if nothing happened (which I know now is the best I can hope for). And several of them have egged me ‘to get over it’. I can see how uncomfortable they are with having to be okay with something like this. I have also had a few people stop talking to me, some parental units ask their kids to not invite me over any more. I know the ex has not had to face anything of this nature. He is a self-acknowledged feminist but he won’t acknowledge that this is happening.5 How, I want to know, can he rightfully be a feminist, if the world treats him differently from me, in the same situation and he does not see that difference?
I am not at such a place of anger any more. I am able to engage in conversations (rather than arguments) with men about attitudes to women. I find myself thinking that the man before me has not had a chance to experience what I have. I’m willing to make allowances for their limited experience range and be grateful for their extra effort. But don’t these considerations negate the equalist philosophy? And if so, how can a man be a true feminist?
1. Now I think this is an indication of male inadequacy where the entire onus of the child’s evolution rests on the woman. Likewise, an adult man who is unable to stop his family’s abuse of his partner is a bad partner. I do not anymore align with the shaming of women for men’s faults.
2. This person is no longer part of my life. The distance made me realise his condescension was a veiled form of misogynist hatred. The above situation happened a year after I had been beaten up and abused for two years by a partner. It gave me severe trauma including self-harm. This ‘man ‘friend’ knew about these in great detail, having been one of the few I felt able to trust. In the aftermath, I was blamed for my ex’s abuse and told sneeringly, “You’re supposed to be a strong woman, right? Then deal with this.” This former ‘friend’s comment is more in the same vein. For someone who saw me go through such violent situations and pick myself up, does this reaction carry even an once of friendly compassion? It’s dismissive, hateful and cruel. In my experience, cis men are resentful of a woman’s assertions of identity, if they claim to be woke, they resort to these passive aggressions instead.
3. Privilege Guilt does not compare with the trauma experienced by marginalised groups. Feminism is ultimately the fight for human dignity for these marginalised groups. It includes reprieve from or at least acknowledgement of the atrocities committed by the group that benefits the most from patriarchy – straight cis men. While patriarchy imposes issues on them as well, in no way does it compare with what their group systemically does to other sections of society. Privilege Guilt at best, is uncomfortable when cis men have to face this idea. At worst (which is how I see most of this play out), it becomes an excuse for further misbehaviour in addition to adulation ‘for at least trying’.
4. Most men I brought this up to answered a vehement yes. I realised that men understand the sting of humiliation as a blow to their ego which hurts. But for women, humiliation spells danger. We live in a culture where ‘honour’ determines whether we get to live or not, whether we can choose a life we want or not. Most of the time these measures of honour have nothing to do with us but with how men perceive us. A humiliated woman is treated as a ‘fallen woman’, someone who has been opened up for predation (“akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hain”). In the above incident, a male teacher was aiming a gun at my head with that comment and it led to thousands of microaggressions by my classmates for the next two years. My high grades & other college successes were in the face of all this attack. No, men will never understand what that feels like.
5. A decade later, I am still fighting for my right to stay single because I am too traumatised by the men I’ve endured. I have been threatened and attacked for writing & performing about being a woman with dreams. While cis men have gone viral for writing poetry about this incident. And my ex, my abusive ex gets to perform at events about Violence Against Women, brag that he beat up his fiance and gets applauded for ‘being honest’. In what universe is this feminism when the core of feminism was to bring equal rights to people other than cis men?