The Feminists We Meet

“Oh no, I am not a feminist” rose the cry from those who knew they had not made it, glamourous and popular as they were. Their pay was still a fraction of what was paid to men in the industry, and while they worked just as hard, if not more, did they dare claim something that looked like a victory pedestal? One that might irk the…men. Did one risk it, or was the price of assertion too high.

Those who did claim feminism too had their own journey. Come along, and meet a few types of ‘feminists’ I met. Some I liked, and could respect – while others were politely seen off my horizons. Let me introduce you to four, or maybe six types of feminists: The patriarchs, the privileged, the survivors, the #everyday and the club. And then a sixth who cares not for titles but is strong enough to both embrace it, live it and make it easier for others.

We move up the ladder of strength, the lowest first…

First, to those who declare themselves feminists, claiming to have found the perfect balance between work and home. For that they rely on their mothers and mothers in law. A pet peeve, I will admit, for they further entrench the patriarchy by restricting the choices of other women. How is your exploitation of (the mothers’) their abilities and time any different from what the patriarchy has done before you? How is your working life any different from that of any husband who has a wife to ‘make sure I do not have to worry about the home so that I can give my 100% at work’. A feminist does not ride on the shoulders of other women’s freedom, even if they seem willing. How many women in trapped in the patriarchy do protest the next sandwich or chapati – their lack of protest is not a position of equity. It is a role, a circumstance that they don as duty for they see no other way. To do that to your own mothers is probably just as bad if not worse. And to cry success from the rooftops when you are adopting the patriarchy’s privileges despite your own gender makes me wonder at how you define your feminism.

Many of us have done this in our working lives. When I first started in the corporate world there were even fewer role models in leadership positions. All our learned behaviours, everything that counted for success came from male role models. And that is what we did, we modelled ourselves on men. We adopted that straight shoulder (remember power pads on the shoulders in the 1980s?), the brisk walk, the crisp put down and the board room voice. It was not us, but we joined in, as we joined in on all the sexist jokes. For what harm can a laugh do, we were part of the boys club now, were we not? Our laughter proved it so. Those others, those ‘girly’ ones, or the domesticated ones were not up to our standards. We became the patriarchy and called ourselves feminists. Till we learnt better. At home and at work, we learnt to delegate, to share, and we learnt to survive.

Because survivors were what we were. Survivors in the sea of patriarchy, and all that we could do (and boy, did we work hard for it) was float in that sea. We floated, and swam along with the best of them, to make sure our voice was heard. To carry on with the metaphor, some of us made it to the boat, and then some got to captain a few ships too. Survivors. Sometimes with survivor’s guilt for those we had to leave behind. Were we, the survivors feminists?

Over the years I met so many who had charted their own path. Professionals, writers, teachers and more. And yet I wondered at their feminism, for their own lives were lived as an addendum to the ‘core’ traditional set up. They could be their own selves after the chores at home were done. I will never forget this meeting of school owners, some of whom owned large school chains. I was speaking of professionalism of teachers, and the hours they worked. They needed more hours at work to be able to do the parts of their jobs left undone such as the planning, the feedback and more. This one leader, male, stepped up to say, “My wife is a teacher, and she cannot do this school-work. If she does, who will make the roti for me at home?”. The room full of men nodded approval, while we women were stunned into a quiet determined silence. There were more stories gathered along the way, a classic from an ‘aunty’ to a mother, “So what if you are a PhD, it is still you who has to wash the dishes at home”. Truth. The famous writer sits down to work after the house is fed and cleaned. Is this teacher, this PhD, this author a feminist? Or a survivor of the house of traditions, learning to carve out hidden safe niches for themselves?

Then came the strong women who ran house and hearth. Were the grand matriarchs, defined by tradition for their roles and scope, true feminists? I met those who said, “The man might be the head of the family, but the woman was the neck”. She too took a step forward to claim power in the equation, not quite getting it, but she did get the use of the power. She too did what she could. A survivor, but was she a feminist? Was her way one of power or one for equity? Did she work for the patriarchy, control it or manipulate it to her advantage? I am sure there were some of each type.

I was introduced to some who called themselves quiet feminists. The ones who dealt with questions of identity, self, equity and choice everyday and moved seemingly placidly through the patriarchal structures they had inherited. They looked traditional, but quietly, each day, they moved one tiny piece of the structure, so that a generation later, the entire structure had shifted for their children. They could never claim feminism for themselves, for they were mere survivors too. They never put up a fight, or struck out for what was right in the binary fashion of all large movements, they were the ones who fought quietly, not just for themselves, but for others.

Then, there were those young ones who stepped up for themselves. Some stepped out of traditional confines to work for pay, knowing they may be forced to abandon this path – because true choice and freedom were not theirs yet. They were ‘allowed’ to catch a glimpse of themselves for a bit before being bound again. Whether they were feminists, or survivors, (or even losers) I cannot say. But in each step, some sunshine had entered the dank tradition. Those who stayed within the norms laid down, and started a boutique, or a tailoring shop, or a festival even – did they conform or did they create a path? Were those who owned a ‘beauty parlour’ in affordable nooks asserting economic independence or were they serving the culture of objectification? Was the very act of ‘beautification’, or even simple grooming not an assertion of the self? Were they winning the battle or losing it?

In a very Eastern/Indian way, they did both. The divergence from tradition so subtle that one did not even notice when the matriarch of television soaps with the giant bindi moved from holding her aanchal to holding a laptop. It is Schrodinger’s feminism – did it or not kill the cat? Much of this feminism was too subtle to be seen, often to weak to survive. If there was a hashtag called #EverydayFeminism, it would be mocked as much as revered. It would be the refuge, the community of those who were still in there, trapped and fighting, not so much for others or any grand cause, but just to survive in ways that did not stunt their aspiration. These struggles often too petty, too small and too lost for the ‘cause’ would – and technically could – be seen as betrayal too. They did not cross the line, did not assert for equality, yet the line is what they owned. And by owning that line, they were able to blur it for the others. Were they feminists too? Or mere survivors like us, up in the corporate ship, playing the game as best we could?

And above all, of course, came those who conflated privilege with feminism. You could be both of course, privileged and feminist, but it was easier to reap the rewards and claim victories if you had enough money to pay for help and enough networks to glide through tough assignments. Glamour helps too, as does charm, since they carry privileges of their own that look so much like choice. For those who earned these privileges, I have a special regard. And an even greater respect for those who did not tread in the footprints of the patriarchs who came before us. These are the true ones who shine a light on the path for us.

Those who know and own their feminism are rare, and often not well known at all. We are beginning to discover them, as we seek to understand our version of what it means to be a woman and hold our own. Some of them are now grey pictures of women who traveled abroad to become doctors and pilots in the middle of the past century. Those that broke through barriers became our heroes. (They were heroes, but we note that not every feminist has to be one. If I were to have to break barriers each time to express or own myself, I’d be a very exhausted feminist. They were heros, but every feminist does not have to be one.) We look further, and see queens who went to war, scholars who were poets and philosophers and so many more. To some of is it is a comfort, a precedence that makes our assertions a little less ‘out there’. An easier battle for the self, we sigh in relief.

For the others, those in the club, a little twinge, as we realise that we are not the grand pioneers that we thought we were – but then swish our pallu back strategically – and the glamor of the moment of assertion is ours. The cat and the mouse here are both feminists in their own ways, one pleased with cream and attention, the other uncaring for the lack of it. The ones we rarely see, the natural feminists, they are too busy living their life their own way to care for titles or tags.

As another day celebrating women comes around, we will see it all again: privilege and patriarchy calling itself feminism, while true feminism quietly holds the line of equity, holds it firm and looks us in the eye asking – are you strong enough to stand with me for what is fair and just?