Will the Real Feminists Please Stand Up?

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Will the Real Feminists Please Stand Up?

by Marisa De Silva

Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is by NO means an anti-Feminist rant. Quite the contrary actually. It’s more of a self-reflective piece meant to “check” our positioning, privileges and often even our ideology. I hope therefore, it will be read and engaged with, based on this fundamental premise.

Until sometime last year, I never really called myself a feminist. Sure, I believed in gender equality and justice, and I would mercilessly take down anyone who said otherwise, but, I never felt ‘deserving’ of the title myself. I had a certain ‘image’ of what a Feminist looked like and stood for, and I somehow felt I didn’t quite make the cut. This all changed last year. And whilst I can’t pin-point the exact time and place where I made the shift from not-yet-a-feminist, to a feminist, I do recall asking myself one simple transformative question – what makes a feminist? Below unfolds my revelatory journey in pursuit of an answer.

Revelation one: Not all women are feminists.

Revelation two: Not all feminists are women.

Revelation three and most important of all: There is NO one uniform standard for who or what a feminist must look, think or act like. I admit Revelation one and two are pretty basic, but, fundamental nevertheless, and therefore good to keep in mind. However, it is Revelation three that has made me truly reflect, critique and unlearn almost everything I know and hold true about being a feminist.

The stock image of a feminist I’ve always had in my mind, is this free, strong, empowered woman, who does not take any flak from anyone. Whilst my use of very loaded words to describe a feminist is deliberate, there is a very specific method to my madness. Most of us, at some point or another, are guilty of having dissected and deliberated on if or not someone/s was a feminist. Or on a scale of 1-10, just how feminist a certain someone was. Whilst on the face of it, there is nothing wrong in engaging in such discussions, there is so much that we leave out, or that simply does not get taken into consideration, that now in retrospect, it seems almost cringe-worthy.     

Tamil women have been leading protests against enforced disappearance and land occupation in the North and East for over 500 days. They have sat by the roadside, night and day, braving the scorching sun and rain, day after live-long day, with little or no thought to their personal wellbeing. They have organized. They have mobilized. They have met with politicians. They have spoken to the media. They have continued to non-violently resist and endure. They are also for the most part ‘house-wives’, ‘care-givers’, mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Yes, they cook for their families. Yes, they take breaks from their protests to go back home to help their children with their homework or revise for exams. Yes, they may not be the primary ‘bread-winner’ for their family. And yes, they may dress ‘conservatively’, might have agreed to an arranged marriage, and potentially partake in patriarchal religious and cultural rituals and practices. So what??? Does that somehow make them less feminist in the eyes of the so-called “empowered” women in our society? Do these parallel (often viewed as ‘subservient’) roles they play in their everyday lives, somehow undermine their indomitable spirits in the eyes of “true” feminism? Is feminism so fragile that it can only be viewed exclusively through one very narrow and self-deprecating lens?

Muslim women activists pushing for reform in the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), in the regions in particular, undergo regular harassment and intimidation at the hands of their religious heads and local communities. Many of these activists have their heads covered or/and wear Hijab. Now of course we could argue till the cows come home, on if there’s any actual “choice” given to Muslim women on opting to, or not to wear a hijab. But, that’s a separate issue. Many of these women activists do cover up. This, in the eyes of most feminists, is a clear embodiment of patriarchy and the oppression of women and their bodies etc., etc., Does this then mean, that the grass-root activism done by these courageous women, is somehow tainted or undermined by them having to, or needing to cover-up? Are we so narrow and ‘blinkered’ in our view of feminism, that we are even blind to our own class privilege?

Similarly, the Malayaha Tamil women who work till their hands bleed plucking tea on the plantations, many of whom are the primary bread-winners for their households. They also make up the back-bone of our economy, have little or no control over their finances, don’t get paid equal wages, and many are subject to the worst kinds of domestic violence by their spouses on a regular basis. Most of them don’t leave their spouses and remain in these abusive relationships, often because of their children, and the social stigma they would have to face as a result of leaving their homes. They somehow also manage their entire household and childcare related work etc., and also partake in many cultural and religious practices that perpetuate patriarchy. However, let’s take a closer look at how we view these women? Uneducated. Unable to articulate her rights. Disempowered. Abused. Often all of the above descriptions even. How about when she gets on the street to fight for equal wages? Or to increase women’s representation in politics? Does she seem a bit more ‘empowered’ now?

The problem as I see it is the politics surrounding the concept of being “woke”. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the significance of being woke in relation to many struggles across the world, but, I often find that at least in the Sri Lankan context, it’s used only by a handful of Colombo-based, middle and upper class feminists. This to me is deeply problematic. One, because it only creates more division and exclusivity within an already deeply fragmented movement – a movement which could use all the allies it can! Two, because, being “woke” can be tremendously subjective and context specific, but, often considered only through one narrow frame. Three, it runs the risk of becoming a ‘badge of honour’ of sorts, handed out by the “enlightened ones” to the select few who have successfully attained ‘feminist Nirvana’.

I’m all for diversity and dissent even among dissident movements, and the feminist movement should be no exception. It is what makes the discourse so much richer, inclusive and multi-dimensional. However, there is a fine line between embracing dissident views and embracing self-righteousness.  I have little patience or tolerance for the latter. Whilst in most cases, fundamental principles can be agreed on, I don’t think anyone who considers themselves a feminist, should stand in judgement of another woman’s lived experience or reality. Every woman should have the right to pick and choose the battles she takes on, both in her individual and/or collective capacity. Not everyone need subscribe to the larger, more “politically correct” cause, and that should be alright. We must be able to have these difficult conversations, understand and respect each other’s choices, and learn how best we can support and be involved in one another’s struggles. It should not be the space to undermine, disregard or cast judgement on anyone working within the movement, just because we may not consider the approach to be “ideal” or beneficial.   

I think the most important thing we all need to keep in mind, is that no matter what shape or form our feminism takes, we all live within the same patriarchal system. The same ‘glass ceiling’ to shatter. None of us can shy away from this reality. Patriarchy is very all inclusive that way! Nobody is immune to it. Nobody can get away from it. All we can do is chip away at it, in any, and every way we can. So, whilst it’s full within our right to not work with or constructively criticize each other’s modus operandi or politics, what I’d sincerely hope is that, we do it from a place of wanting to genuinely engage, and work alongside one another, and not for the mere validation we might derive or receive for calling out a fellow sister. Surely, that shouldn’t be too much to ask of a ‘sisterhood’, right?




This article, reproduced here with the author’s permission, was originally published on Bakamoono, Sri Lanka on August 27, 2018





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