I did not start off intending to be a feminist writer. I began like most people, assuming that life would go right if I followed the rules. But to my bewilderment, I saw a big difference in the way my (cis) male peers were treated as compared to me. Even if the rules made sense (and they don’t), the punishments were disproportionately severe on my gender. The luck of birth premise was not just a greater gap to bridge, it was a solid fortress around a world into which I would never gain entry, no matter how hard I worked. My feminism was born of my disappointment in what I was told and how life finally showed up. It was emotional, very.
I have been going through my old blogposts. Amidst the treasures of “I’d forgotten about this”, I’m seeing my own evolution. I’ve had time to disconnect my rage from objective logic. And experiences enough to show me that I must do it this way to have a fighting chance at life. As a woman, I do not have the luxury of drowning in my emotions when even feeling traumatised is weaponised against me. Feminism brought me the good parts of the life that I did have (education, access) and I could see it was my way forward. I also realised I would have to pay my dues, that feminism would need rigor and strength from me to bring me to the life I wanted. One of the posts I came across was an important turning point in my beliefs. It’s a question that feminists still ask themselves.
Years earlier, I had predicted the times we live in now. I thought the women of my generation would sustain the bruises of toxic masculinity but survive and emerge hardened, that we’d have less patience with men’s imperfections because of these traumas. And I also thought that eventually these brutal men’s actions would come home to roost, their doting parents’ generation that made them Raja Betas would get older & less able to pad them from life’s realities and where would they be? I predicted that they’d wake up in their 30s realising nobody gave a damn about babysitting them and would flounder and that women like me would have no reason to be be sympathetic after having endured the consequences of their sins and thrived in spite of them. It doesn’t make me happy to be right. We are there and the men got us all there.
At the time I wrote my post about male feminists, I was trying hard to make sense of a tumultuous time. I had already experienced child abuse, intimate partner violence, the glass ceiling, harassment, moral policing, slut-shaming. And I was surviving the aftermath of an abusive relationship with a man who posited himself as feminist. He introduced me to ideas that shaped my feminism but with a bizarre cruelty (“Gaslighting is what I do to you” he said once smugly). Men like him poisoned feminism the way they have poisoned everything else that is life for the other genders. So did I really believe it when I said a man could be a feminist? I think I hoped it more than holding it as concrete belief. Nothing I saw in my world substantiated that thought. No man showed me that he merited that faith in him, much less his whole gender. Feminism was just another toy for men to play with and their entertainment was always going to be based on hurting women. It was desperate hope, the only way I saw to survive. I realised that I needed to negotiate predatory masculinity even as I explored feminism.
I couldn’t forsee that feminism would become a fashion statement, that the next generations would weaponise vitriol (were we that vicious too?) or that I would feel so tired. Too tired for hope even. No matter how hard I tried, it never stops being emotional.
A decade later, have things changed?
Feminism became a buzzword in the 2010s. This has brought its own share of issues, like befriending capitalism (that sneaky version of patriarchy). It is lucrative for people to claim feminism as an identity label. Corporations have been quick to pivot to commercial wokeness for (always) personal profit. And since they set the primary narrative, the belief is that saying you’re a feminist makes you a feminist. There is no value on personal reflection, much less on demonstrated worth. It has made it easy for people to posit beliefs that they do not actually uphold, much less live out. It has become a battle of words between people of privilege and oppression olympics are big-ticket events. I believe this will pass too. All fads do.
MeToo forced out the filth of men’s predations. True, the movement is being relegated to a fad and perhaps it was. But there is no going back from that truths that cis men have been exploitative, have turned sex into power currency and relegated our bodies to sites of brutality. No matter how much feminists are ridiculed, how much whitewashing is done by incels, there is no forcing that truth back into hiding. Even internalised misogynists (ugh, the worst – these are women who throw their entire gender under the bus, the parasitic cowards) will live out the rest of their lives knowing they’re upholding rape culture for their pettiness. Shame is the kind of punishment you can’t escape.
These realities make the question of men’s feminism much more complex. There is my own growing awareness of gender identity beyond binaries. Transmen are men and is it fair to tar them with the same brush as that of their oppressors (universally cis men in power)? Nonbinary & genderfluid folks may be reeling from the traumas exacted this gender system that gives cis men so much power. So at this point, I have to qualify my own thoughts with ‘Can a cis man be a feminist‘? I am aware that this question itself may be redundant in some time. So I ask,
How do I define feminism?
I say feminism is the belief that all humans have the right to identity, dignity, safety and love. Having the right to this is not the same as being entitled to it, much less from other humans (down with incels). It means that we each have the right to pursue these and frame our definitions of these. It means we have to negotiate with the rest of the world for this because none of these ideas exist in isolation. It means recognising that we don’t all start at the same place, navigate the same paths or end at the same place. What keeps me sane is remembering that feminism is a choice I make, not a label imposed on me or one that I hide behind as convenient for personal gain.
There is definitely a crisis of masculinity in the world today. It is a natural reaction by the powerful to their base of power being eroded. My feminism prefers gentleness over cruelty, empathy over revenge, hope over brutality. So I can recognise that cis men are struggling. Feminism feels like a lifeboat to many of them to scramble back onto a ship they were given to captain. But that’s not good enough reason for me. My feminism, non-malicious as it is, still does not include saviour complexes especially enforced ones.
I have to earn my right to exist in the world even today, to spend an hour alone without being harassed, to do with my body what I please after levels of moral policing. I earned every morsel of my strength and my feminism. Why shouldn’t a cis man? How does he do this? That’s the stuff of another post and honestly, not my responsibility. When a cis man starts to recognise that truth, perhaps he’ll be on the path to feminism. Maybe gratitude over enraged entitlement is the first step.
I started to recant the post I wrote 10 years ago. That post marks an important point in my feminist evolution. I am not ashamed of it anymore than I should be ashamed of finding myself in a room with a violent abuser. I was a product of my circumstances and under those very awful circumstances, I still made the choice to believe things that were hopeful and based on whatever truths I was able to best glean. Given this is the internet and people are trigger-happy about quoting out of context and weaponising every word, I have added an Update 2023 subscript, recanting specific points. And here’s what I believe now.
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?