Tracing my journey into feminism through men’s quest to reduce me into roles of service.
Amit Varma opens his conversation with Manjima Bhattacharjya titled ‘The Making Of A Feminist’ with this quote and ponders how men have treated women for centuries – as support characters in stories where they play main character, as roles to fulfil that further their own lives. The Seen & The Unseen episodes send me on trains of thought, offering clarity or at the very least – a new lens to examine my own life experiences. This time, I’m going to write alongside listening.
<Trigger warnings: homophobia, slut-shaming, pro-life propaganda, glass ceiling>
When Tinder first showed up on Indian screens, I approached it as I have every new shiny internet thing since the 90s. I had no idea about its hookup associations or even what hookup culture was. I was from the generation that pioneered finding friendships on the internet, in contrast to our parents’ sexist, casteist, regionalist ideas about socializing. Finding matrimonial matches online as opposed to ‘by the consensus of 50 relatives’ and elaborate tea-serving rituals – we broke ground on these too. Then a friend’s profile showed up on Tinder and I swiped right because I started all new internet activities by waving to every familiar soul. By this time, I’d received sleazy messages from strangers and had years of dealing with trolls on my blogs so my profile read, “Not here for sex”. My friend’s first message to me on Tinder was, “Then what is even the point of you?” I think about this often. In a single message, he reduced me to a function. And he was a friend.
A decade earlier, I had met the boyfriend of a classmate. He was home on leave from his elite college and seemed smart and nice. I was in the throes of a breakup and mentioned that I didn’t think I wanted to get married. He said, “Then how will you have children?” I said, “Maybe I won’t.” Later, we got to talking about gay people (a term spoken of in hush-hush tones even by brazen teenagers) and I said, “I don’t understand it but maybe it works for them.” He smiled and said, “Human beings are supposed to prolong the species. They can’t procreate. It proves they are an aberration.” That stumped me. I didn’t know how to counter that and I was programmed to be polite to suitors of women friends. This couple broke up after an unplanned pregnancy & abortion when he told her, “You killed my baby”. I still think about this. His religion sanctifies his ROI philosophy about human reproduction. The world that he entered, rewards treating people as ‘resources’. He seemed like such a great guy. I’m sure he still thinks he is.
Between this episode and the Tinder one, I had a decade of blogging & working in the corporate world. I found myself examining two different identity paths – one of a respectable desi woman, pursuing a career, dressing to please prospective in-laws, matrimonial matches that talked down to me. And the other for which I had no references – of a person writing things that people were willing to read. Before that, I’d never had the luxury of being listened to without censorship in real life. I wrote about running from pressure to pressure (top the class, be a good girl, get an impressive job, be a marriageable prospect, find a ‘well-settled boy’ and serve him for the rest of my life). I couched it in humour, showing my inexperience & awkwardness in a role I hadn’t been groomed for. I channeled my disappointment at masculinity into acid poetry. When I was called feminist, I said no, I’m not. Subversive, maybe. Is that feminist? I was just trying to discover who I was. I still am.
In the mid 2010s, I found myself hanging out with people on the activist/politics career path and included in their conversations. Over a casual coffee, the talk turned to a movie and one of the women mentioned having had an abortion. We were loudly interrupted by the man sitting across us saying, “No, that’s not okay to kill a baby.” I asked him what a young, unmarried Indian woman was to do. “Get married” was his smug response adding “I would marry the girl if I got her pregnant.” I watched the woman crumble internally and realised the battle she’d probably fight for the rest of her life, even in friendly ‘safe’ situations like these. As she rolled her eyes, I asked him, “And what if she doesn’t want to marry you?” That stopped him in his tracks, then he blustered, “Then why did she have sex with me?”. My admiration for his knowledge of policy & zeal to bring rights to the downtrodden evaporated. I would like to not have to think about this but his trajectory is a public one. Each time I’m forced to encounter his presence, I’ve to relive his hypocrisy. It makes me angry. Is that feminist?
I recently reunited with a classmate. In reliving nostalgia, we found ourselves unraveling buried resentments, examining our life choices then and our now identities. He said, “You were always a strong firebrand.” It bothers me when people assume that and now I can explain why.
‘Strong woman’ was a label imposed on me that I did not ask for. Who is born with the ability to survive abuse and should that even be taken as a talent, much less a praiseworthy trait? Other people’s misbehaviour is not my trophy collection. I reminded him of an experience I’d had with another classmate (let’s call him DV) that he didn’t remember.
DV joined the class almost 6 weeks late, having paid a massive ‘donation’ under management quota which was more than twice the entire course tuition. In contrast, I had registered under the open quota (not given the consideration of any reservations) and won a merit seat based on my grades, work experience and performance in the selection rounds. Of the colleges I’d been offered, I had picked an upcoming one and I was the first student to choose it. I enjoyed my time there, working hard and doing well in academics as well as extracurriculars. I barely noticed DV as he seemed more interested in cutting class & splashing out on boozy parties with classmates whose families could barely afford to pay their student rent in Mumbai. One day I was working on a group presentation. DV wasn’t in our group but had sauntered in and drawn the others into his saga of jokes & brags. Ignoring him, I continued tapping away at the computer alone. Then I realised the room had been silent for a long time and they were all staring at me. DV sauntered over to me and said, “Yeh 33 percent waale aa jaate hain, hamari naukriyan chali jaati hain“. (These 33%ers come in and we lose our jobs). He was referring to the Women’s Reservation Bill in Lok Sabha that was under consideration at the time. I replied, “At least I didn’t have to bring my great grandfather’s identity certificates and my family didn’t have to bribe the college to allow me to set foot in here”. It was fact but I had done the unthinkable in calling out the Great Indian Family. In the weeks that followed, female classmates bragged about how they were just there ‘to do timepass before getting married’ while the men laughed. I was harassed by a professor for asking questions because according to him I ‘should be at home learning to make rotis’. Not all my classmates were jerks so openly. In fact, many were warm, even fond of me. The best of them are still in my life and we’ve shared many vulnerabilities, joys and secrets. Yet I wonder if any of them really know me. I’m that ‘strong’ girl, the ‘first feminist’ to them, as if that is my identity, not a reaction to a situation.
It bothers me that people associate feminism with the aggressive definition of strength. That is such a toxic masculine construct. It allows people to project male aggression onto me, to blame me for men’s misbehaviour with statements like “He’s nice to other women; you only must have provoked him” or the kicker – “You’re strong enough to take it”. How does refusing men’s unflattering projections on me, feminist? There’s no time to ask, in fighting off the backlash against perceived feminism.
Why is a life of dignity one that a woman has to earn through abuse & assault (and fight to keep) when men have it handed to them as birthright?
I spent a year in Clubhouse rooms, weaving through conversations about poetry, language, current affairs and politics. I found myself in one where several vociferous men were arguing for the merits of different political parties. The one that I might have aligned with, began with, “No minister in our party has ever raped anybody. We have 10% fewer rape cases when we are in power.” 20 minutes (and several male gasbags later), it was my turn and I asked, “Is that how you see rape? As a way to measure your party’s worth? Half this country’s population is a votebank to you and also bodies to chalk up as raped or not?” I exited the room after this. The only progress I see in 23 years is that I’m able to articulate what’s wrong. It would be nice to image that it makes me a better feminist but then I’m just as guilty of treating the world as accessorial to ME. Is this any cause to celebrate when feminism has failed to make men treat other people as human? Or do men have no love at all for the rest of the world?
I’ve embraced the label of feminist (while rejecting others) for years now. I’ve shouted out my beliefs loud and proud and been attacked for them. But it has only felt worth it in the last 5 years because I went in fully anticipating opposition. I was not born a feminist. I wasn’t an angry teenager. I never even considered a life of telling other people what to believe, much less fighting the system I was born into. But I was born with a brain, with feelings. I was given an education and some rights that made me assume I was a human being. And as I came of age, I found myself increasingly bewildered by a world that constantly sought to deprive me of these rights, to shut down any experiences I had had of freedom, to erase my knowledge that I was, I am, I will go down fighting for this because I am a human being. Guess how feminism happened then?