Bollywood starlet Priyanka Chopra recently made an appearance on the hit American talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live to promote her television debut Quantico. All was going well until Priyanka was asked if she considered the show — which revolves around a group of young FBI recruits — to be feminist in nature. “It’s about empowerment,” she answered. “It has got very strong female characters but I don’t think it is a bra-burning feminist show where you hate men. We have strong male characters too.” Prior to this, the 33-year-old diva has time and again voiced her concerns regarding the gender disparity in Bollywood, even at the risk of her career. Despite this, however, the concept of feminism appears to be unclear to Priyanka.
You see, if there is one thing that women — irrespective of cast, creed or culture — can unite upon, it would be fighting for their rights. Throughout history, women like Priyanka have advocated equal opportunities for themselves in the social, political and legal arenas. They have waved the banner of feminism high so as to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts. And yet, many of them seem to operate from a minimal or incorrect understanding of the concept. In fact, some female advocates consciously distance themselves from the term feminist completely, lest they be dubbed as man-haters.
Judging from Priyanka’s unassuming statements, one can arrive at two main conclusions. Firstly, most people fail to understand exactly what feminism entails. This includes almost everyone, especially those who, such as Priyanka, identify themselves as feminists. The second finding would be that feminism is often confused for misandry — an ingrained prejudice against men. According to lawyer, political activist and self-proclaimed feminist Jibran Nasir, this is wrong. “I do believe in equal rights and opportunities for women. If that is how one defines feminism, then yes. I am a feminist,” claims Jibran, adding that no one deserves to be discriminated against based upon gender. The point to be noted is that just because a woman demands equal rights as men, it does not necessarily imply that she wants to snub them for it.
Interestingly, Priyanka is not the only celebrity who appears to be confused about the matter. Oscar winner and an equal rights advocate, actor Meryl Streep, was also questioned about being a feminist in a recent interview with Time Out. “I am a humanist,” she responded. “I am all for a nice, easy balance.” But how exactly is the balance titled?
The unfortunate ambiguity
The world-renowned Merriam-Webster dictionary defines feminism as ‘The theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes as organised activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.’ The definition, however, oversimplifies the concept. While most would agree for a world with gender equality, there exist different focus groups that specialise in particular objectives, ultimately related to feminism. For instance, the Young Doctors Association Pakistan can be credited for having the harassers of the lady doctors arrested. On the other hand, there may be many female empowerment groups working to eradicate sexual harassment in the country, but how often do these groups work together?
One of the main reasons as to why local society discredits feminism is because it is considered to be an alien, western concept. While it is indeed true that women from different parts of the world differ in terms of values, morals and culture, we must realise that no particular choice is right or wrong. What is essential is that feminism is about having the freedom to make that choice — something every woman should be given. “The problem with a patriarchal society such as ours is that we have put restrictions on women, both inside and outside our homes,” explains Jibran. “We make it seem like we are protecting them but we are actually stopping their growth. We have to let them step out, grow and learn their lessons. This is how men grow too,” he adds.
The negative connotations
Women may have paved their way into different spheres but feminism still has a long way to go before it is welcomed completely. The term ‘Feminazi’ has become the latest slang word, used to describe a woman who promotes gender equality. The term was once limited to radical feminists only; the kind who allegedly hoped for female superiority and hated men for unknown reasons. Now, it is used to disparage feminists in general.
According to Mehreen Syed, supermodel and Pakistani spokesperson for L’Oreal Paris, people perceive feminism as an extreme, without the right context. “It is not about treating one gender better than the other but more about giving a platform to an already suppressed gender to allow them an equal shot,” she says.
Unfortunately, although much of the negativity associated with the concept stems from men, a large group of women also share the same sentiments. In fact, there is even a popular community on the social media giant Facebook called Women against Feminism! Herein, women who think feminism to be degrading towards other women voice their opinions freely.
Here lies the problem: we do not see feminists as like-minded people working for our own betterment. A feminist, like any other person, has societal ties, past experiences and some cultural norms that they are accustomed to. “Most women are put down and since they are emotional, they let others dominate them. This takes away their self-confidence,” says 22-year-old singer, Alycia Dias. “For example, many women who drive are honked and yelled at, which makes them even more nervous,” she says, adding that this is what makes them feel less equal to men. Ultimately, this begets feelings of suppression and anger which manifest themselves in the form of radical feminism. According to Alycia, there ought to be programs which should help women get back their self-confidence. “Women are now riding bikes, albeit a few of them, and even rickshaws, which is a good thing,” she says.
What is Feminazi?
Feminazi by definition means a radical feminist. Initially it was used to describe an extreme or a militant feminist, giving way to the portmanteau of the nouns feminist and Nazi. However, lately the word is being used to describe all kinds of feminists as a more derogatory terminology. The term, however, was first used in the early 1990s by the politically conservative American radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and since then has gained much popularity.
Rush in his book The Way Things Ought to Be, referred to feminazis as unspecified women whose goals were to allow as many abortions as possible. Later in 2004, Limbaugh named feminist activists Gloria Steinem as a famous feminazi, belittling her efforts and struggles towards equal rights and opportunities. However, in an interview, Steinem criticised Rush’s use of the term by calling it cruel and ahistorical. Steinem went on to say, “Hitler came to power against the strong feminist movement in Germany, padlocked the family planning clinics and declared abortion a crime against the state — all views that more closely resemble Rush Limbaugh’s.”
Accepting For the Better
More often than not, women are at the receiving end of discrimination. But if we want equality for both genders, we need to identify the issues and start working towards solving them. “I want women to have the ability to succeed and pursue their dreams without the mere obstacle of their gender,” suggests Mehreen. Society must realise that feminism is for everyone — those who work for equal pay and those who are stay-at-home parents, alike. For Mehreen, her own vested interest makes her vouch for feminism, “I do identify as a feminist because I am a mother and I want my daughter to be given the same opportunities and chances as any other boy of her age,” she adds.
While some women might ‘hate’ men, there are others who respect the ones fighting for equality. There are women less accepting of others’ choices and also those who only want to give everyone a fighting chance. Feminism is not just a movement: it is a journey where we learn our way. As far as the argument between being a humanist over a feminist goes, women are half the world’s population. Working to empower them and addressing gender-based injustice is, therefore, a part of human rights activism. In this way, every feminist can be considered a humanist too.
Kanwal Tariq is a bio-technologist, a writer and a feminist. She blogs at Whirling Cosmos (kanwalmeghjii.wordpress.com)
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, October 18th, 2015.