In our intricately connected world, ideas and movements can often blow out of proportions, sometimes even digressing from what they had initially set out to achieve. The current feminism movement is a good example of a struggle that has come to belie its true motive in widespread perception. The word feminist is heavy with negative baggage and it is not uncommon for us to see feminists as people who are angry, who bash men, who hate bras, who don't shave/wax and who can be found holding placards at left-wing protests.
There definitely are people who do that. But that is not what feminism stands for fundamentally. The reason why the entire movement's identity starts aligning with such people's characteristics is that they are the ones who shout the loudest on traditional and social media. It is a common human bias to mistake the popular for the truth.
Feminism, as defined by the Oxford dictionary is,
The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.
The terms “rights” and “equality” form the premise of the definition and it is very important to understand their importance. If you believe in equal rights for all sexes, you're a feminist. It is as simple as that.
To put things in some historical and biological perspective, men and women are different. Men, in general, have more physical strength whereas women have the unique ability to have babies. As we were evolving, physical strength was the primary attribute to signal dominance and hence gender roles got defined in a way where men led and women took care of the household needs. But we have come a long way since then. Today, most of the world's population is comprised of knowledge workers. People who lead are the ones who are creative thinkers, who can understand the complex interaction of systems and have the courage to innovate. This has got nothing to do with biology and the inherent differences between men and women. Yet there remains a disparity. We don't find a lot of women in the more influential positions. It is not because of lack of ability, but because of the conditions not being favourable for women to grow and be themselves. That is the big question that feminism should concern itself with—how can we create equitable conditions for women to thrive?
As a developing country with a fairly conservative societal setup, we face problems such as the practice of female foeticide, lack of support for continued education, limited access to proper health and hygiene facilities and absence of frameworks for financial freedom. On top of that, there are deep-lying concerns around women safety in general. These are some very basic issues that the feminism movement needs to focus on.
It should talk about gender sensitization from a very early age. While ensuring the necessary support for girls is important, moulding their mindset in a way that they believe that they can do anything is as important. Boys, on the other hand, need to be taught to pay attention, question and develop empathy. Most of our actions have been normalised due to repetition and men without meaning to be insensitive do or expect things a certain way because it is all that they have seen. For instance, housework is as much a man's responsibility as it is a woman’s but men grow up seeing only women doing most of it and hence develop this subconscious notion that it is not their job. In the previous generation when our moms were housewives, it could have been partially justified but now with predominantly both partners working, having such expectations is unjust. This further extends to feminism championing the cause of promoting work-life harmony at workplaces and encouraging the placement of equal value on the role of men and women as parents. That's how we'll be able to build a truly equitable society.
There's a lot that is happening and we are making tremendous progress but these are primarily macro changes that'll be a result of several steps we take as a society. As individuals though, causing large scale systemic change in a short period is very difficult until we find ourselves in positions of influence and power. What can you and I do then that can start having an immediate impact? I feel that the single biggest lever that we have control over is our attitude over gender roles. If we simply ignore the societal prescriptions of how people belonging to a certain gender ought to behave and allow people around us whether they identify as a man, woman or any other gender the freedom to just be, I think that can be our biggest contribution to the movement.
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