I’m a Feminist

If you’ve been following my blog over the last few weeks, you know that I traveled in India, where I ate a lot of food, visited a lot of forts, ate more food, and picked a few fights. I also did a lot of thinking. There’s nothing like a long train journey to trigger introspection. One topic that occupied my thoughts throughout the trip was the brutal gang rape that occurred in Delhi in mid December. If you haven’t read about it, check out this link. We didn’t hear about the case until we arrived in India –  we actually (unknowingly) drove by a protest on the way to our hotel. The case was covered extensively in the news throughout our two-week holiday, and the papers were also full of other rape cases. I don’t know what the long-term societal outcome will be, but in the short-term, at least, the case has blown the lid off a cauldron of rage fueled by ongoing violence and discrimination against women.

I first traveled in India when I was 19. I spent part of the 6-month trip traveling alone, and I was invariably harassed by Indian men. I rarely felt that I was in danger – it was more irritating than anything else, and I knew that other Western women experienced the same thing. I was so focused on my own experience, though, that I didn’t spend much time thinking about the experience of Indian women in their own country. This time, however, I was more aware of the women around me. This was in part because of the rape case in the news, and in part because I was accompanied by a man, which made me more socially acceptable, and thus less afraid for my own safety.

On such a short trip, my experiences were purely anecdotal, but I did notice a few disturbing public trends. If you look at the streets of Delhi – a massive urban center – after dark, for example, you will notice only a handful of women. You might see one female for every twenty males, and half these women are accompanied by men. Delhi’s modern subway system has cars that are reserved for women to keep them safe from harassment that might occur in mixed-gender cars. Some women travel in the mixed-gender cars, but they are outnumbered 30 or 40 to 1. The newspapers reported women being harassed in the mixed gender cars, and when other men jumped to their defense, the women were blamed for starting fights – “they should have traveled in the women’s only car.”

These are only a few of the more public examples, but they are by no means the worst. Dowry deaths – in which the husband or husband’s family kills a new wife because the gifts and cash she brought to a marriage were considered inadequate – are still commonplace; the birth ratio of girls to boys is incredibly skewed in certain areas (indicating gender-biased abortions); women and girls are raped and abused by husbands, tutors, teachers, and bus drivers, and when they go to report the case, they are sometimes further assaulted by the police. Untouchable (caste-less) women have perhaps the worst lot in life – newspapers report that they are commonly raped when they go to the forest to use the toilet.

These horrific stories are the most blatant signs of the widespread sexism in Indian society. It touches every element of life: the working world, universities, schools, religious and cultural institutions,  and home life. It is not my intention to specifically bash India – other countries certainly see their share of gendered violence and abuse – but when 50% of the population of the world’s largest democracy do not, in fact, fully benefit from that democracy, serious reforms need to take place.

When I was an undergrad, I thought that being a feminist involved not shaving your armpits, fighting to have gendered language removed from textbooks, and viewing political events through a feminist paradigm. I had no interest in calling myself a feminist. It’s not so much that I disagreed with the feminists’ arguments: I just thought they came across as petty and angry. Perhaps I arrogantly thought that I was “above all that.” Traveling in the developing world, though, has made me see that women face issues that are nowhere near petty, and that I cannot ignore. Maybe the feminists in university were hung-up on silly semantics. Or maybe they sensed that women throughout the world have not been given a fair deal. I don’t know. What I do know is that India has made me a feminist.

22 thoughts on “I’m a Feminist

  1. Pingback: I’m a Feminist | The Facetious Farang

  2. Thanks for your insights, Ruth. I heard about the Delhi rape case you are talking about, and it sparked me to do a lot of reading into the situation for women in India. Rape is possibly the most personal form of torture & abuse a woman can endure. I know I have been uncomfortable in a few situations, but that is nothing compared to what these women face on a daily basis. I think one of the hardest things is the culture of blame placed on the women for “encouraging” the man to rape her. I agree with you that some feminists in Western culture seems to be focussed on a few petty first world issues rather than global equality and respect for women. I don’t really care about changing high school text books to being more gender neutral, but I believe that every woman – and man, and child – has the right to feel safe.

    • Thanks for your comments, Laura. I think you’re correct in arguing that a huge problem is the culture of blame placed on women – it is unbelievably unjust, and detracts attention from the real problem. It was illuminating to see the some of the comments about the rape case that arose from the Indian press – reporters stated that it was a relief that the case was so bulletproof. The woman was modestly dressed, was travelling with a man, and was a middle-class student. In other words, she didn’t do anything to encourage the incident. This is part of the reason that it has become such a catalyst for change – no one can pass blame. On one hand, I agree with the reporters (it is a relief), but on the other hand, it makes a pretty tragic statement about Indian society. Like if she’d been wearing a miniskirt, she would somehow bear part of the responsibility for the brutal attack.

      • In my mind, they are the same thing. I’m “for” women – I’m not against men. I believe in gender equality, but throughout history, one gender has been a little more equal than the other. And that’s where feminism comes in.

      • You don’t magane her but you can magane to stay married to her making sure you both maintain your freedom and independence and don’t become too emotionally, mentally, or financially dependent on the other. Keep your finances separate but cooperate on joint expenses so that everything is as equal as possible. If you owned property or investments prior to marriage, keep those out of the marriage. It muddies the waters and erodes equality if one had more than the other.Encourage her to keep her married name if she wants to, and continue working if children come along so that both participate equally in funding a shared home and caring for childrenEncourage her to excel in her career as much as possible and you do the same. You each should find fulfillment in things independently not just together so that marriage doesn’t define you. Don’t coddle her and treat her like a girl/lady , which often is in a protective manner that she doesn’t treat you in. Rather, treat her like an independent, strong, just as capable of: cutting the grass, fixing the toilet, killing spiders, patching the roof, or anything else person as you are, if not more capable.That’s how you magane to stay married to a feminist wife.

  3. Lack of modesty, ‘though not unimportant as an issue in itself, is used simply as an excuse to brutally violate a woman. Of course there is no justification for rape.
    I had never been interested in (perceived, Western) feminist concerns, but incidents like this have “made me thinking too”! We, in more privileged circumstances, have no idea what it is to live in such frighteningly repressive environments.

  4. I was not aware these issues existed at all in India until the rape case made international media, and I also was unaware of the issues you have mentioned in this post. It is truly shocking. Thank you for sharing awareness

    • Thanks for reading! I’m not that surprised that you were unaware of the issues in India: a lack of proper press coverage for women’s rights and abuse cases is part of the problem. Not that it is great to read about these cases in the newspaper, but at least it seems to indicate that they are being taken more seriously than they might have been previously. I also think that India has perhaps hidden behind the fact that it is the world’s largest democracy. While it has certainly made progress in certain areas, it clearly has a long way to go before the issue of women’s rights is properly addressed.

  5. Ruth, I am so pleased to hear you have come to see sense! after writing a paper on radical feminism, I realized I am without a doubt a feminist, and I want to help women in developing countries fight for…JUSTICE! sista powa

  6. Very powerful stuff.I was tikinhng along those lines while watching Insight on SBS last night, which was about sexual assault and the way that it’s perceived. There was a lot of talk about a woman’s responsibility to assert herself even though it was clear that the survivor who was speaking out had simply been too terrified to talk during her ordeal which is so typical of the way women are supposed to be around men anyway.

    • You make an interesting point, Taylor. I do think that it is important for women to learn to protect themselves, but I think it should be from a standpoint of “no-one EVER asks to be sexually assaulted, but since there will always be sickos out there, let’s give you some tools to protect yourself.” Anything that smacks of victim blaming/shaming has it all wrong.

  7. Bear in mind that Delhi is one of the worst places in India for women’s rights. I am not sure why that is. Perhaps it is due to the Muslim vestiges in their culture. Other parts of India are MUCH more female friendly, where women walk late at night even alone.

    Heck, Kerala is almost a feminist paradise (hyperbole). According to anecdote, the women are better educated, are often the primary breadwinners, and pretty much rule the household.

    I would not bring my wife and daughters to Delhi, certainly not alone. But I would to Kerala.

    • I agree with you on this, SAT. I have also travelled in Kerala, and it almost feels like it is in a different country than Delhi (actually, the whole South feels different). I also traveled in Delhi alone as a 19-year-old, which seemed like a good idea to my teenage brain, but horrifies me now (a decade later).

      • One of the big ‘things’ here that you hear OUTSIDE of India is about ‘Eve Teasing’, i.e. random gropings from strange men. I’ve lived in South India for 2 years and I NEVER saw it or heard about it.

        Much like dowry murders, a lot of these things seem to be more of a Northern Indian Thing and frankly, it is as horrifying to most Indians as wife beatings are to the average Westerner. Yes, it happens. No one is exactly defending the practice or claiming it as a ‘cultural heritage’ except for whomever actually DOES it, I guess.

  8. And additionally, instead of the semantic navel gazing that Feminist Academia engage in, their efforts might be better served in dealing with these kinds of problems. A little extra scrutiny and disapprobation by the International community might help make MAJOR changes in the lives of millions of women, instead of using these same efforts to add a few pennies to hypothetical salary disparities.

    • Yes, “women’s rights” means very different things, depending on the country. That being said, while I’m sure that the international community can play a role in encouraging change for women in India, I think the real impetus must come from within the country. Real change requires a massive cultural shift. I think the Delhi rape case of a year ago at least started a dialogue in India, but it remains to be seen whether it will trigger long-term change.

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