What is Feminism?
Kamla Bhasin’s Key note speech at the International Seminar Interpreting Feminism vis-à-vis Activism
Sponsored by National Commission for Women and ICSSR
January 23-25, 2015
Organized by Kanoria PG Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Jaipur
Friends, I greet all of you, those seated inside the hall and all of you who are watching me on LCD. Friends, I am thankful to the organisers for inviting me back to my home. I am feeling as if I have come to my maika, or my parental home. And today having come to my maika, I wish to remember our foremothers and foresisters—Miss Tarve and Miss Prabhu, as they were then called by us. They were our teachers in Maharani’s College and later they founded Kanodia College. What a wonderful pair they formed! How fabulous were their dreams! Their dreams are now being actualized. Thousands of girls after being educated here are going out in to society and performing different roles. We must never forget that we are standing on the shoulders of such foremothers and it is mainly because of them that we are who we are. So I pay our homage to them.
Friends, patriarchal violence which is global, has killed, raped, harassed, maimed millions of women and girls. The latest and the most talked about gang rape and death of Jyoti in Delhi somehow seems to have woken all of us up. Let us remember every single woman who has been killed by Patriarchy and let us make a commitment and say “Bass!”, “No More”! Enough is enough of this violence. We will not take any more of this.
Friends! Basically I am an activist. For me Feminism and Activism are the same. For me, there is no Feminism vis-à-vis Activism, as mentioned in the topic given to me. There can be no Feminism without Activism; that for me is clear. In the next few minutes I will speak to all of you sitting inside and outside the hall, and I will try and explain to you in as simple a language as possible, my understanding of Feminism or Naarivaad. I will make ten main points about Feminism.
Point number one, Feminism is perhaps world’s most badnaam or defamed ism. There are all kinds of totally unfounded, unsubstantiated allegations against Feminism. So many people are afraid of Feminism. This is why even strong, independent, actually feminist women do not wish to call themselves a Feminist. I am glad that recently HH the Dalai Lama has said, “If standing up for the rights of women is Feminism then I am a Feminist.” I want to ask all of you in this room if, standing up for women’s rights is Feminism then how many of you are Feminists? Please raise your hands. Vow. Most of you are Feminists. Welcome all the Feminists to this Feminism seminar!
Point number two, this word “Feminism” is not derived from the word ‘Feminine’ which is in many ways the opposite of Feminism. It originated from the French word femme, which means “a woman”. So what is Feminism? Feminism is ’Looking at the World through Women’s Eyes”. Why do we need to look at the world through women’s eyes? We need to do this to create a balance, because for the last over two thousand years the world has been looked at through the eyes of men, defined and interpreted by men. Men created our religions which define who are good women, what are the duties of women etc. Over 90 percent men are sitting in most Parliaments. Laws are passed by men and then judgments in courts are given by men. Most of our books have been written by men. Therefore, it is time now to look at the world and interpret the world through the eyes of women and have a balanced view; get not half truths but the truth.
Friends, when we look at the world through women’s eyes, we are looking at the world through the eyes of the most exploited, most oppressed, because amongst the poor women are the poorest, amongst the Dalits women are the most Dalit, amongst the Blacks women are the most oppressed. When we see the world through the eyes of women, only then we get a perspective of the marginalized, the excluded, and the oppressed.
About Twenty years ago a group of us women met, discussed and created a simple definition of Feminism. This definition has three parts. Anyone who recognizes that in the present world women and girls face discrimination. Where? – Within the family, at the place of work and in society in general, and who takes action against this discrimination, is a Feminist. So, the first step is an acceptance of the fact that discrimination happens against women and girls and that Sexism is a part and parcel of our world However, it is not enough just to recognize this discrimination. One has to take action to fight it.
According to this definition, men can also be Feminists. According to this definition, a housewife and full time mother who brings up her daughter with dignity, who teaches her sons equality and respect for women, is a Feminist. You do not have to go and join protests and shout slogans to qualify as a feminist, although if you do that also, things would change faster.
A Black Feminist, Bell Hooks, has a similar definition. According to her Feminism is a movement to end Sexism. Sexism is when you discriminate on the basis of the sex of a person. So Bell Hooks says Feminism is a movement to end Sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.
These simple definitions make amply clear that Feminism is not anti-men. Feminism is anti-discrimination. Feminism is anti-patriarchy and anti-sexism and many men are our partners in this struggle against patriarchy and sexism.
Point number three, Feminism has two parts. It is a discourse, a perspective. It is a theory of change. And, it is action and activism. Feminism and Feminists walk on two legs— one leg of action and another leg of theory, and these two interact constantly. Actions inform our theories and theories inform our actions. As I have said earlier, for me activism is an integral part of Feminism.
According to me, Women’s Studies are the daughters of Feminism. Feminism has created the movement of Women’s Studies.
There is a saying in Sanskrit Sa Vidya Ya Vimuktaye. That which liberates is education.
Here I wish to recite a poem I wrote in Hindi, some years ago. This poem defines in a way, what education should be for girls and women. I am giving the English translation done by me also.
A father asks his daughter
Study? Why should you study?
I have sons aplenty who can study.
Girl, why should you study?
For my dreams to take flight, I must study
Knowledge brings new light, so I must study
For the battles I must fight, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study.
To fight men’s violence, I must study
To end my silence, I must study
To challenge patriarchy I must study
To demolish all hierarchy, I must study.
Because I am a girl, I must study.
To mould a faith I can trust, I must study
To make laws that are just, I must study
To sweep centuries of dust, I must study
To challenge what I must, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study.
To know right from wrong, I must study.
To find a voice that is strong, I must study
To write feminist songs I must study
To make a world where girls belong, I must study.
Because I am a girl, I must study.
What she means is that had she been a boy then perhaps studying would not have been as necessary. Because she is a girl and she faces all kinds of discrimination, she has to challenge and change everything. This is why she must study.
Point number four, just as today there are many kinds of Socialisms and Marxisms and many kinds of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, there are many kinds of Feminisms. Feminism has been shaped by various people in various ways in various societies and cultures. Therefore, instead of speaking of Feminism in singular, we should speak in plural of Feminisms. For example, there is Liberal Feminism, Socialist Feminism, Dalit Feminism, Black Feminism etc. They have their own analysis and strategies for change. However, all of them have one thing in common; they are all striving for gender equality.
Some Feminists are concerned only with Gender inequality, they talk only of bringing about a change in Gender Relations. But there are other feminists, like me, who think that Gender hierarchy is only one unjust hierarchy and system. There are other unjust and exploitative systems like class, caste and race. These systems intersect and influence each other and therefore we have to understand and challenge all of them, although we may work on one system more than the other. Let me explain -I am a woman, but besides being a woman I am a rich and exploiting caste woman. Being a rich woman I may be exploiting the women who work for me at home. Because of my caste, I may be discriminating against Dalits. Hence we need to address multiple inequalities and not just one. Black feminists in the US felt that White feminists were not addressing race, so it was necessary for them to create Black Feminism. Similarly, in India Dalit women felt the mainstream women’s movement was ‘upper’ caste and it was not addressing caste issues adequately.
Point number five, there is no one mama or papa of Feminism.Marxism has Mr. Karl Marx, the big papa of Marxism; Gandhism was defined by Gandhiji. In Feminism you will not hear the name only of one, two, three, or even of a hundred women who defined Feminism for everyone. Feminism has been defined and enriched by thousands of women and sometimes by men like Baba Sahib Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule. So, thousand flowers have blossomed in Feminism; thousands of voices have expressed Feminism. This is fantastic, but it also creates problems. People criticize us feminists when we speak in different voices. They say feminists are always fighting with each other. I think, the multiple voices of Feminisms have enriched us, and have rooted us in our different realities. In the US there is no dowry; therefore American Feminists did not talk about Dowry. They did not talk about Sati. We did. That means we were not copying American Feminism. In India we addressed local issues. However, women face some common issues everywhere. For example, rape is a global issue; violence against women is a global issue; equal Wages is a global issue. Women’s Political Participation is a global issue, etc. Therefore, these are our common struggles in different countries. Here Sisterhood is Global. Feminism, therefore, is both local and global.
Point number six. I believe, Feminism has been and should be like Water. Water takes the shape of the container it is in. If it is put into my anjali it takes the shape of my anjali. In this bottle it takes the shape of the bottle. It becomes what the situation demands. And that is what Feminism has been. Roop Kanwar’s Sati took place in Rajasthan. Feminists in Rajasthan took it up. In Bangladesh men started throwing acid on women. They took up this issue. In seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe many women were killed as witches In Africa female genital mutilation takes place. Feminists have been responding to these local issues. Because patriarchies are also local, feminisms have to be local also. Feminism deals with real issues which do not allow equality and justice to prevail.
Point number seven. Because Patriarchy exists everywhere—in Religion, Education, Culture, in the Parliament, in the Panchayat, in the Courts, so Feminism and feminists have to be everywhere and they have been everywhere. We have feminist theologians reinterpreting religion; we have feminist academics reinterpreting theories from a feminist perspective. Feminist filmmakers, songwriters, poets have been giving voice to women. Wherever there is Patriarchy, Feminism will surface and will fight against it. This is hydra-headed Feminism to oppose hydra-headed Patriarchy. Feminists working on different issues need to network with each other to have a bigger impact.
Point number eight, the most important slogan of Feminism is “The Personal is the Political”. What is the meaning of Politics? Politics means looking at power- relations and challenging unfair, unjust power-relations. This slogan “Personal is the Political” has several meanings. Patriarchy divides society into two separate parts, domestic and public. In patriarchy women are supposed to be confined to the home and all family matters are declared to be domestic matters and they should not be discussed in public. For example, if one gets beaten up inside one’s home Patriarchy labels it as a domestic matter and no outsider has any business to talk about it. The Public domain is supposed to be exclusively for men. Women have no business there, especially good women should keep away from the public sphere, where all matters are debated and decided. Feminists do not accept this patriarchal division between domestic and public. We say that if inside many homes women face violence, it is a public issue, it is not a domestic issue and we have to fight against it. The other meaning of Personal is the Political is, that every personal decision and action of ours influences others, influences the public. If any woman among you gets married by giving dowry, it is not a personal matter. This malady of yours is contagious; others will get afflicted by it. If I am beaten up by my husband at home then this also is not a personal matter. My children get adversely affected by this. This has an impact on the husband; he continues to believe he is Lord and Master, pati parameshwar. If I grab the hand of my violent husband and declare, “No more”—this is not a personal matter either. It will affect my children and everybody else in my family and it will inspire others to challenge domestic violence. The third meaning of “Personal is the Political” is, that if I want to change things, I should begin with myself. I should change myself first and then expect others to change. I will have to watch myself. I will have to ask, do I really want to have an arranged marriage? Will that really make everybody happy? If I am not happy how can anybody else be happy? Will I follow traditions which are unjust? Will I do things which are wrong? So the very first struggle a Feminist must wage is against her own self. This is why friends, Feminism is a difficult and painful ism and I think this is why even women shun it.
And this brings me to my Point Number Nine. Feminism is a very dangerous “ism”. And if you people are not yet Feminists then I urge you to think seriously before becoming a feminist. Feminism challenges everything around you and makes life difficult. For example, Feminists cannot enjoy and laugh at most jokes because most of them are anti-women. We cannot enjoy Bollywood movies because most of these movies are replete with filthy songs containing lines like, “main tandooree murghi hoon mujhe whisky se gatka le” or “cholee ke peechhe kya hai” I do not blame only those who make sexist films or who compose such songs. We, the public, give such films crores of business. Once you become a Feminist your struggle starts with in the family also. This is the only “ism” which takes the struggle, and the politics into the family, into the bedroom. For example, if you are a Feminist you look at your brother and ask him, “Brother, you tell me that you love me, but you are taking most of the family property”. Similarly you start questioning your own mother, father, and your husband on so many issues. As a feminist you challenge religions which discriminate. For example, as a Hindu, when my mother expires, why can I not perform her last rites? Are daughters untouchable and impure and thus forbidden to perform the last rites of their own parents? Friends, along with my sister and brothers, I performed the last rites of my mother and I am confident that because of this act of ours she would not have gone to hell. Similarly, as a feminist I have had to redefine Bhai Dooj. I asked why is it Bhai Dooj and not Bahan Bhai Dooj when Bhaiya(brother) may apply teeka on his behen’s (sister) forehead and the sister puts a teeka on the brother’s forehead and both promise to protect each other? Will that not be much more beautiful and meaningful? I am sure each and every girl student of Kanoria College can protect her brothers. We have become competent enough to protect and we can protect and lacs of women of this country, not lacs but crores of women in this country are earning livelihoods for their respective families. There are Single Mothers providing for their children. Since women are doing all this Religions and traditions and customs have to be changed. Women also need to be celebrated. On Raksha bandhan it will be so good if brothers also tie rakhi to their sisters. Similarly, if there is equality, mutual respect and love in a marriage, on Karvachauth husbands should also fast. Words like pati and swami for the man one marries, are today against our Constitution. The meaning of pati and swami is lord, owner or master. In fact the English word husband also does not connote equality. It means manager, domesticator, etc. Remember the word animal husbandry? According to the Indian Constitution men and women are equal. Feminism makes us question all unjust, unfair, traditions and rituals and language. As a Feminist I feel the custom of kanyadaan is also against the Constitution. No daughter can be donated away, not even by her father, because she is a full citizen of India. For me, the most sacred text is our Constitution. If religious texts go against the Constitution, if they demean women, Dalits or anyone else, they need to be changed.
My tenth point is, there are several rumors related to Feminism and I would like to pick the most common ones and refute them. The first rumoris that we feminists are anti-men. I have already said that Feminism is not anti-men. All equality-loving men will be and have been our partners. For those who do not know. Mahatma Gandhi was a man and he fought for us. Ambedkar was a man and he fought for us. Martin Luther King was a man and he fought for us. And I can give you names of thousands of such feminist men. They are against the system called Patriarchy. The struggle for women’s equality is not at all between women and men. It is a struggle between two different ideologies. One ideology says Patriarchy is better. The second one denies this and says that Equality is better. One mindset says that Patriarchy is better. The other mindset says that Equality is better. And on both sides we have men and women. There are many men who say Equality is better and there are many women who believe that Patriarchy is better. Many women perpetuate Patriarchy in homes and they socialize children in patriarchal values, attitudes and behavior. Feminists do oppose men and women who perpetuate patriarchy; we do oppose men who are violent, who harass and rape women and girls.
The second rumor that is prevalent against us is that we are hostile to religions. No, we are not against truth-incarnated, equality-personated and justice-embodied religions. According to what I have seen, read and understood, all present day religions all have been created by men, defined by men and interpreted by men and all of them consider women to be subordinate to men. No religion today allows a woman to be its head. By definition, a woman cannot become a Pope. A woman cannot be a Dalai Lama, although the present Dalai Lama has said she can be. Let us wait and see. A woman cannot be a Sankarachary, by definition. And we do not accept religions who define 50 percent of humanity as secondary and no-good. A God who makes 50 percent of the people no-good is quite an inefficient God, in my opinion.
In most languages we speak of God in the masculine, He. Most, if not all, Prophets, Disciples, have been men. A feminist has very rightly said, if God is He, then he is God. And we do see that in all religions men are local Gods, Pati Parmeshwar,Swami, Majazi Khuda.
So Friends, we feminists are not opposed to religion per se, but if religions create and perpetuate inequality, then we do oppose them. We want equality in the domain of religion too. We are not hostile to that culture which is based on Equality. If Indian culture regards Dalits as lowly then in order to defend and support my Constitution I will go against this culture. If my culture treats me as an inferior then following the Constitution of India and my inner conscience, I am strongly opposed to that culture and I will speak against it. A culture which denies Human Rights to people needs to be opposed not just by feminists but by all.
The fourth rumor is that we split peaceful families. Give me a break people. First, show me some peaceful families. Is there any peace in most of our families? Are women treated equally every where? Do they have freedom? Are they given property or sent away with some dowry? Are daughters provided equal opportunities? Isn’t there violence in more than fifty percent homes? I can give you government statistics to show how much inequality and discord exist in our so called peaceful families. So Friends, we do not break peaceful families. In fact, we are striving hard to establish peace and harmony in each and every household.
Let me say it in the words of a poet, “Sirf hangama khada karna mera maqsad naheen, meri koshish hai ki ye soorat badalnee chaahiye”. My purpose in not to create mere hullabaloo, my endeavor is to change that which is wrong and unjust. Feminists strive for equality; we strive for establishing democracy in every family. Feminists want Love to rein in every single household. Feminists desire for a jeevansathi (lifepartner) instead of a pati, swami, majazi khuda or a husband (master, owner,domesticator). Feminists want not just sons but both sons and daughters to flourish and become strong, compassionate, loving human beings. We feminists do not want a single wife beater, women harasser, rapist to be nurtured in any home, but unfortunately all such men do not come from the moon. They come from our families. While protesting against gang rapes, most people are demanding changes in laws, police etc. I am saying bring changes in ourselves, in our families which train men to be masculine, aggressive, and violent. Friends, if our families do not challenge patriarchy, where will better police men, lawyers and judges come from? Our leaders make shameful, anti women comments. Our God men are in jail for rapes and murders. This mindset needs to be changed and all of us, including us feminists, need to look inside, need to introspect. This is what is Personal is the Political, and it is indeed most challenging even for us feminists, none of whom are perfect.
The fifth rumor against Feminism is that the very concept of Feminism is a Western concept; it has been derived from foreign lands. In India whenever people do not like anything or anything is wrong, we immediately see a foreign hand, a foreign conspiracy. Friends, even if Feminism wasWestern, if it was a good idea, I would accept and own it. Political ideology of Marxism has come from the West and we have adopted it. So much of science and technology has come from the West. However, Feminism is not Western, it is local. It is born locally in response to patriarchy. Fourteen hundred years ago, Prophet Mohammad took up the struggle against Patriarchy. Where was the West then? People who say Feminism, Human rights etc. are Western, either do not know their history or they have an inferiority complex. According to us our Feminism is very much Indian, very much local.
During Mahatma Buddha’s time women heard that the Buddha had invited Dalits to join the Sangha. Thinking that if Dalits were allowed, women would also be allowed to join the Sangha, a large group of women led by Buddha’s Maternal Aunt, went to Lord Buddha and said, “Buddha we also want to join your sangha.” Buddha did not accept their request initially. He must have realized that the patriarchal society would not accept this easily. Those women did not go back. They went to Ananda and said, “See, your boss is saying we cannot join. This is most unfair.” Ananda understood what the women were saying and demanding, and so he went to the Buddha and told him that the women found His answer unacceptable. Ananda suggested to the Buddha that some more thought should be given to the issue. The Buddha called a meeting of all the senior monks to discuss this issue. Imagine friends, two thousand Five hundred years ago in India this debate taking place for Women’s Rights in the domain of religion. Hinduism had not given women these rights so they went to the Buddha and after this debate the Buddha agreed to have women also in the Sangha. However, the Buddha made eight rules which made Buddhist Bhikkhunis (nuns) lower than the Buddhist Bhikkhus (monks). Because of this some people say that even the Buddha was not fair, but I do not expect the Buddha to make 100 percent changes two thousand and five hundred years ago. He took a revolutionary step of allowing women to come in to the Sangha at a time when in the prevalent Hindu religion this was not allowed. So for me Buddha and Ananda stood for women’s rights and so they are Feminists. The women who went to the Buddha with their demands were, according to me, definitely feminists. They were demanding their rights. I have a lot more to say friends but I have already taken too much time. If my friends will allow me, we can sing a song and if they do not allow me I will shut up and say, “Good Bye”. Okay. We are allowed.
In this song, written by me many years ago, a young girl who could be from Rajasthan, U.P. or from Pakistan is telling her family all the things she will NOT accept anymore. Please sing with me.
No more will I live with my lips sealed. Please tell everyone
No more will I drink the poison of discrimination. Please tell everyone
Mother says, daughter bow your ahead
I am now going to raise my head high. Please tell everyone
No more will I bow my head. Please tell everyone
Father says, daughter do not go to study
I am going to educate myself. Please tell everyone
I am going to raise my status. Please tell everyone
Brother says, sister do not go out
I am going to free myself of all cages. Please tell everyone
I am going to break these four walls. Please tell everyone
Religious texts say father and husband are your Masters
No more will I accept slavery. Please tell everyone
I will now create equal relationships. Please tell everyone
The world says, child do not follow your desires
No more will I suppress my desires. Please tell everyone
I will now follow my dreams. Please tell everyone
LONG LIVE WOMEN’S EQUALITY AND POWER