Why do we fear being labeled as a Feminist in India?

The discrimination faced by the girl child in the Indian subcontinent has a long history and is a reality in the lives of the majority of Indian women today. It is evident in the selective elimination of the girl child through infanticide and feticide, in violence against women as reflected in dowry deaths and rape; in discrimination faced by the girl child in terms of nutrition and access to health care.

 Yet, how many of us accept this discrimination to be a reality in our lives? How many of us are afraid of being being labeled as “feminists” for fear we will be refered to as ”anti-male”, “destroyers of family life”, “a negative influence on young women.” I am a researcher who works passionately on bringing forth women’s voices in history. To tell you my own story, I was born as the second girl child in my family, five years after the birth of my elder sister. Being given the right to be born, I was also provided the best of education and opportunities by my family; something which not all girls born in India can lay claim to. My parents, both well-educated teachers; candidly shared with me that they were happy at my birth but faced some negative comments from their relatives and friends.  My mother proudly shared that when her aunt expressed sympathy that my mother has given birth to a second girl child , she retorted - ‘meri beti mera beta banegi’ (my daughter would prove to be like a son for me). As a child, I would hear this story again and again and feel proud that I was born a girl who would be like a son for my mother. However, as I grew up, I started questioning what this meant. Does that mean that as a girl, I am inherently inferior and the only way I can lay claim to equality is by imbibing the qualities of a boy? Did it mean that I should go beyond the traditional role of being a wife and mother; to aim at economic independence and support my parents in their old age? Did it mean that my mother took solace in the belief that her second child might be female by sex but would prove to be a boy in fulfilling the roles traditionally assigned to a boy in Indian society?

As I started my journey to adulthood, I became more aware how my parents and I constantly had to grapple with societal constraints enforced on me on account of my gender.  My parents endlessly worried about my safety while travelling alone, of me coming home before dark; the fear of being sexually assaulted in an unsafe city like Delhi. Travelling alone in crowded public buses, being pinched and touched inappropriately by strangers as an everyday experience, I too sometimes lamented having been born a girl.  Despite being educated and economically independent, constant pressures on getting married by my family and community made me wonder if economic independence could bring me freedom as far as my marriage partner was concerned. As I came across women who were forced to or desired to produce only male offspring, I wondered about the strength of the hold of patriarchy on women today.

And this is a question that I wish to ask all of you today - how many of us face the pressures that I have described above? How many of us fear being called a feminist? Does my claim to be feminist, passionate about raising the status of a girl-child make me anti-male? My answer is - no. I am a feminist because I believe both men and women can work together to raise the status of women in India. I am a feminist because I don’t wish to “other” the pressures I face as a woman. Rather, I embrace them. I do not believe that all women are united in their struggle against men. I acknowledge that women perpetuate patriarchy as much as men. I believe a man as well as a woman can be a feminist. The nobel laureate Amartya Sen called himself a feminist!! Interestingly the organization Salt Initiatives which runs the campaign - “Let her live” addressing the issue of Gendercide and Gender Justice had all male members in their team when they began!!

Let all of us who embrace feminism, who believe in espousing the equality of rights of both men and women, come together.  Let us all share our experiences with each other across race, class, religion, sex and ethnicity. And this is what I hope to achieve through this blog. Please come forward to tell us your experiences, of your journey to stand up for women’s rights. Don’t silence your voices, make them heard.  Let us all be feminists!!

About the Author: Mahima Manchanda is pursuing a PhD in History from the University of Mississippi, USA. Previously, she studied history at St. Stephen’s college, University of Delhi. She did her M. Phil. in Gender Studies from the University of Birmingham, UK and explored the issue of female infanticide and feticide in colonial and postcolonial Punjab.  She is currently researching on colonial girlhood and seeks to understand how colonial rule and violence of partition affected girlhood. In her spare time, Mahima loves to read, watch movies and go on long walks with her six-month-old baby boy. Mahima can be reached at mmanchan@go.olemiss.edu.