For days I’d been thinking of writing a long post on feminism and it’s about time I finally wrote it. Like I’ve said before, I’m constantly having a heated debate on the topic with some imaginary people in my mind, trying to explain to them the meaning of feminism and its various dimensions. It’s a crazy fantasy (and also helps me rehearse speaking in English), but it’s also a way to know myself what my thoughts on the issue are, what type of a feminist I am.
Before I begin, let me clarify that most of my views on feminism have been originally others’ and those that I’ve come to agree with. When it comes to just me, I don’t think I have anything original to say about it. The feminist in me has been shaped by other feminists.
When you sit down to talk about feminism, you realize there are so many issues contained within it that one conversation or one essay is not enough to talk about all of them. So today I’ll just discuss one thing that bugs me a lot about women empowerment. It seems like it doesn’t make a hell lot of a difference, given the severity of other, more pressing issues, but it’s important nonetheless, and one that plays a very crucial role in shaping people’s minds, especially that of young girls’. I want to talk about this term that I’ve seen around a lot and which, in a way, led me to discover the wide, colorful world of feminism: strong female characters.
It was while reading reviews for books recommended to me by Goodreads, back in 2014 or 15, when I discovered the wave of ‘strong female characters’, especially in YA literature. Everyone wanted books with tough heroines and praised the ones that had them. For a while I was in love and complete agreement with this idea, what with the increasing frequency of crimes against women and girls. Like almost everyone, I too believed that women needed to be strong in order to fight those who try to suppress them. I believed in it so much that I wanted to be like them: women who are physically, mentally and emotionally strong.
The months that followed this discovery were quite eventful: my mother had a major brain operation that almost killed her, we moved back to New Delhi to our joint family, I traveled inter-state every day to go to school and I was no longer my best friend’s best friend. On almost all occasions, I cried. I cried and I hated myself because it meant that I was weak, that I was failing to be the strong woman I wanted to be. I hated the fact that I was sensitive, failing to realize that it was okay; I was a human and I was allowed to cry.
It was in one of the reviews of yet another book with a strong female lead that I read one particular statement that I’ll never forget. The author of the review, though liked the book and gave it a high rating, had a problem with how the heroines, not just in that book, but in almost all YA fantasy these days, are portrayed. Every one of them fights – with swords or with guns or with kicks – every one of them is confident, level-headed, sarcastic, and every one of them prefers to be and look masculine.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with women who literally slash their enemies’ throats in a battle, or women who are always confident or women who prefer to look or be masculine. There’s nothing wrong with doing all of it at the same time either. What’s wrong is that all female characters are a combination of these three characteristics only. You aren’t strong if you don’t have all three, or at least, that’s what I supposed it meant. That’s why my diary of those months is filled with desires to be the ‘ideal’ strong female character. Most of what I did those days was guided by this image I had in my mind. I believed that a woman should be strong, but naive as I was, I did not understand what true strength meant.
Until some months ago. That was when I realized how screwed up this idea was. It made femininity look wrong, it made sensitivity looked wrong. It completely defied the idea of women empowerment while claiming to influence young girls to be strong. I was one of them too.
Some justified that idea by saying that crimes against women were increasing and the only solution for women was to dress properly and learn self-defense. It’s a good idea, but its limitations outweigh its benefits. Firstly, it’s not possible for every woman to learn self-defense for n number of reasons. She might be a full-time mother or a working woman or both. She might not have the means to learn it. She might want to prioritize other things over karate or kung-fu or whatever to prevent being attacked any time.
Secondly, what about disabled women? What about babies? What about old women? They all get raped. You cannot possibly expect two-month old babies to learn self-defense. You don’t expect volunteers to go to old age homes, take all the women there, some of whom cannot even walk without support, and teach them to punch a man.
Thirdly, why must it always be women who have to protect themselves? Why not, instead of encouraging women to defend themselves, teach boys to respect women from a very young age? Respect has to be taught like everything else. Why not teach boys that they don’t have a right to anyone’s bodies? Why not stand up for women when you see them being attacked publicly? Women have been standing up for themselves, even before feminism was a word. How long until this continues? How long until we get blamed for someone else intruding on our privacy?
I’d written a short post on Facebook about this topic last year, not long after the release of Akira, that starred Sonakshi Sinha in the lead. The movie was praised by viewers because it had a female protagonist who literally fights the bad guys with kicks and punches. People said it gave an important message – that all girls should learn self-defense, and never has anything pissed me off so much, for reasons I’ve explained above. Then again this year we had Naam Shabana, starring Taapsee Pannu. Shabana, Pannu’s character, had a small role in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Baby, and the audience was so impressed by the stint that the makers dedicated an entire film to her character. It’s one of the many women-centric films coming out in Bollywood this year, but I was again disappointed, because apparently another movie with a female lead who can pack in some punches and has had a dark past shows that people have got the whole idea of women empowerment wrong.
Women do not have to have had a dark past to be strong and empowered. They don’t need to know self-defense, they don’t need to look masculine, they don’t always need to be CEOs to be strong and empowered. Women empowerment means encouraging women to choose their own lives, whether it’s being a full-time mother, or a politician or an adventurer. We don’t need books and movies that portray women empowerment with a particular dress-up and a specific behavioral pattern. Women can be empowered in a thousand different ways, the bottom line being the freedom to choose and not being judged for the lives they lead.
People have made a stereotype of women empowerment, and for a couple of years, I was influenced by it too, hating myself for simply being human. I tried to mold myself into the ideal empowered woman. I was obliging to a society that indirectly held women responsible for the crimes against them, who refused to look at the root cause: gender inequality and a lack of respect.
Now, though, I no longer hate myself for being sensitive, that’s just how I am. I no longer believe that I need to be physically, mentally and emotionally strong. I get tired, I get lonely, I lose focus and I’ve learned that it’s perfectly normal. The more diverse viewpoints I read about feminism, the more I realize how my parents have always encouraged me to make my own decisions without ever knowing the term women empowerment. They’ve empowered both their daughters, and never once have they told me that I need to learn self-defense in order to be safe from the monsters prowling outside. They’ve never manipulated my thinking and have let me learn from my mistakes and experiences. They’ve never told me to pursue a particular field and have left it to me to decide what kind of a life I want to lead. They advise me when they feel like they need to, and have stood behind every decision of mine.
And that, I think, is true women empowerment: it’s the liberty to choose. It’s not always being a tough, kick-ass girl. That’s just another way of being empowered
It’s not the only way to be empowered.
“Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” —G.D. Anderson