Feminism and Gender in India

11/18/2015

The novelist and poet Margaret Atwood said, “Does feminist mean large unpleasant women who’ll shout at you or someone who believes women are human beings?  To me it’s the latter, so I sign up.”

If you consider yourself a meninist, all I can say is that I hope this post dispels your ignorance.  You may think that feminists are oversensitive and should learn how to take a joke.  “Sexism is over, women are equal now,” you might say.  First of all, let us begin with the premise of meninism.  The formal definition of feminism is belief in the equality of the genders, so by default, meninism is the belief in female inferiority–and that is itself sexism.

But America is full of ideologists who are often more likely to discuss the theory of feminism than its implications.  Feminism isn’t about insensitive jokes in the workplace; it’s about access to safety, health care, and education worldwide.  Millions of girls in the developing world are more likely to be raped than schooled, which perpetuates economic dependence and almost certainly contributes to extremism.  I highly admire journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn for highlighting these concrete issues in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

This should be enough to silence meninists, but that’s not the whole story.  Even the initial meninist argument doesn’t hold true: in an industrialized country like the U.S.A., women aren’t even close to being treated as members of society equal to men.  Women are not represented equally as executives and in government and still haven’t been granted equal pay or decent maternity leave by law.  And yes, thousands of women face hostile environments everyday because of their gender.  No, not all men see women as nothing more than objects.  But that’s the start of the conversation, not the end.

But all of this talk about equality warrants another counterargument: men are not the same as women.  No matter how much feminists argue otherwise, there will always be differences between them.  This argument has a few problems.  First of all, arguing that women are equal to men does not implicate that they are the same as men.  In the United States, the cost of car insurance is higher for male teenagers than it is for female teenagers–so how can men and women be the same?  There are some skills, talents, and strengths that women are more likely to have than men–and vice versa–and whether these differences are innate or inculcated on us by society is a question that remains largely unanswered.  But some innate differences between men and women cannot be denied: men are physiologically more likely have more muscle mass than women, and women are wired to have more emotional intelligence than men.  But in terms of academia, leadership, and politics, the differences between men and women are founded by nothing except tradition.

And as we make social progress as a society, we have also become more aware that the distinctions between men and women are not universal and, for many, truly confining.  In fact, some argue that gender does not exist at all.  In my opinion, the best way to address this is to settle for the idea that no qualities or skills are limited to men or women, but there still remain people who actually identify as full men and women.  The argument that gender is nothing but a deep-rooted fallacy is not very evidenced: a 2009 Emory University study found that without facing social pressures, male rhesus monkeys are more likely to choose “male” toys such as trucks and vehicles, whereas female rhesus monkeys are more likely to choose “female” toys like dolls and stuffed animals.  Yet, this does not warrant panic if a human child exhibits preferences that stray from the norm.  And even more importantly, it does not demonstrate a hierarchy; male tendencies are in no way, under no circumstances, inherently superior to female tendencies.  How does that translate to real life?

With the exceptions of being a mother or being a father and breastfeeding, I don’t believe any activities are intrinsically male or female.  (Note: this does not mean that a child will turn out better with both a mother and a father, because studies also show that children with two mothers or two fathers do not face any psychological damage or disadvantage.)  In a heterosexual marriage, I do not believe duties should be designated to either the male or the female–so it follows that I do not believe that women should be forcibly domesticated.  This does not mean that all housekeeping activities in a marriage should be split in half; it only means that the point of marriage is shared objectives.  I believe the ideal attitude of spouses is the following: “We have this and this to take care of, so let us collectively do it together in a way that makes sense according to each of our other obligations.”

In any case, at our stage as a society, logic is less likely to convince than example.  Many people can understand the points made in the previous paragraphs, so far more insightful might be instances in real life that depict our treatment of women.  In December 2014, I made a three-week trip to India, in which I stayed in Mumbai and in various parts of Gujarat.  The following entries are a few observations I made and thoughts I had on gender during the trip.

December 2014

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