I cannot be Simone De Beauvoir, or Eve Sedgwick. I cannot transcend my gender or my sex, and something in me feels guilty about that. Why? The simple answer is that it would be a betrayal to my sisters in this struggle.
When I turn away from my books and papers, my femininity is an inescapable reality where I am still struggling to achieve some autonomy and respect, leave alone renouncing it altogether. India, or whatever name I give to this amorphous mass of people – is still stubbornly holding onto conventional definitions of womanhood, amply demonstrated by engineering colleges that seek to control women’s clothing, movements and visibility. Or middle class families who drive SUVs, but will not hesitate to kill their daughter for honour. Our society relies on self-sacrificing womanhood – the ultimate price of belonging becomes the renunciation of feminism.
There are enough battles to fight convincing Indian society in our autonomy and value as human beings. From every corner of class or caste strata, women are told that their equality is not a right but a privilege. That feminism is a hundred years in the future for us. In some castes and classes, it looks more like a right, but if you push hard enough, dig deep enough and insist long enough you will see the veneer cracking. My friend hopes to marry her long-time boyfriend. He is divorced, and older, while she has suffered sexual abuse that has medically rendered her “worthless”, possibly unable to conceive through intercourse. Both families are fighting over which of the pair is more unworthy of the other, but it is her who has suffered the most. With the unmentionable accusations lobbed against her by her own mother just for daring to choose her romantic partner, the logic and rationality on which she has built her identity is crumbling. A convent-educated, privileged woman who has more spine than anyone I have met, has been reduced to a bundle of paranoia. How is this possible? Doesn’t she have means to fight that others don’t? Should I turn my back on her for not being feminist enough? These are my fears.
At some point, I will have to renounce my cherished social bonds, above all my family, if I “persist” in my wayward feminist ways. That is what my everyday experience whispers to me at night. What of other women, who are not unwilling to lose everything for the sake of gender emancipation? In India, women cannot be feminists and win every battle. Perhaps this is a controversial statement born out of my bitterness, but you feel the truth of it in your heart, do you not?
I take a minute to breathe deeply, realising that I have so much to fear from my friends, my neighbours, my peers and my parents. My politics hang by a slim thread, and that thread is named privilege. The price for that privilege is compromise. These are my defiant arguments – Who defines feminism? Who tells me what makes me a good feminist? Absolutely no one. I define my own feminism, and if that involves shifting my shape to my shells then so be it. If that means standing united with women who do not have the luxury of an intellectually rarefied feminism, I will stand with them. A freedom that extends only to myself is worthless: it is a selfish bubble in a sea of struggle.
So I resolve. I am with the #PinjraTod movement, accepting that if we cannot abolish curfews, we can push it to a later hour. Compromise? A step forward. I will join my voice to that of other women that are asking for things that seem very trivial to white feminists, but can mean a world of change to them. I could storm away bitterly from my friend’s side, calling her weak for her indecision and pain. Or I will bring down my high-flying theoretical feminism, and commiserate with her difficult choice. She is an Indian feminist. These are Indian feminists. They exist in a complex reality, and it takes its toll on idealism. That doesn’t stop them from agitating, disagreeing and being ungovernable. This is why I have arrived at a newfound sense of pride for my ‘small’ goals, and ‘small’ feminism as it might appear to first-world feminists. Ours is a much tougher feminism, forged in the fire of class, caste, regional and religious differences; our feminism is testing its strength against daily challenges. Surrounded on all sides by largely misogynistic political representatives, a medical discourse that pathologises womanhood and a legal system that defines us in archaic ways, women in India are driven by an internal compass, an impetus towards freedom that is inherent in all human beings.
Someday, we will win.
About the Author
I Laboni Bhattachrya is a research scholar pursuing my M.Phil in the English Department of Delhi University. I consciously engage as keenly as I can with contemporary political, social and aesthetic discourse, and wholeheartedly lend my voice to young activists for social justice.