Feminism – A Rose by Any Name? by Susanna George
Of Rose Chan, the country’s “undisputed queen of striptease,” Cecil Rajendra, her lawyer and biographer says: “She was probably the country’s first feminist because she never let any man control her and did not look for some rich man to sweep her off her feet – she earned good money herself.” The Star, 20 June 2013, pg. 16
Whenever I read statements like the one above, a strange sensation passes over me. A part of me thinks, well, at least the person quoted is trying to engage with the concept of feminism. But the other part of me cringes slightly when I ponder upon what has come to be the street understanding of feminism today. Rose Chan, a performance artist, philanthropist and cancer survivor, undoubtedly cut a courageous image of a woman who knew her mind, and as she went through her different husbands and romantic liaisons came across as someone who was not a “kept woman” and “earned good money herself.” But is that now what being a feminist has come to mean? Being able to hold your own in any situation, pay your own bills and do it (“it” can be substituted for any imaginable number of actions) as well or better than a man?
The joke goes that there are many interpretations of feminism as there are feminists – and certainly through my many conversations and things that I’ve read over the years, this does seem to be the case. While I think that diversity of thought and expression is the rich field from which ideas and creative action emerges from, I do worry about the lack of a common agreement on what feminism is and what we feminists are about. See, for me, feminism is NOT “the radical idea that women are humans,” and so many other clichéd sayings that we’ve become familiar with. It’s for me an ideology that forms the basis of a political struggle to end patriarchal oppression and domination, exploitation and control on the basis of gender. It’s not just about women battling men, male privilege and sexism in individual men, and becoming “equal” to men. For me, it is about getting at the roots of patriarchy and how it has become deeply and systematically embedded throughout all our institutions, from our governments to our families to our perceptions of ourselves.
If we imagine patriarchy to be a huge banyan tree that is able to shoot roots down from its branches and keep creating ever more trees over centuries, then we cannot simply address the way in which all of our lives are affected by chopping at a couple of branches of the ancient patriarchal tree. The first thing we need to do in order to actually end this system of oppression and domination is to be able to see the whole tree with all the other trees that it has given life to. Seeing the whole picture of the entire system is critical, because without that, any campaign we launch may just end up with a bunch of us sawing away at a minor branch while the main branches of patriarchy remain intact and strong.
And what are those big branches of patriarchy that we have yet to address? Well, one branch that is like a giant is neo-liberal global capitalist systems of economy and governance which have us all completely in a bind. We can’t address this branch if for us feminism is about achieving gender equality, because what that has meant is women of the middle and upper classes focusing on achieving “equality” with men of their own class without challenging the system of oppression that continues to enslave and leave impoverished the vast majority of poor and marginalised women and men. When the UN, national governments and multilateral institutionsadopted “gender equality” and mainstreamed it into all of their programs, they took the revolutionary intention of the global feminist movements’ assertions for gender equality and social transformation through development, and turned it into a toothless tiger that has done little to change the real equation of power globally. Power today still lies in the hands of the richest few, an elite set made up of men AND women, whose desires and greed continue to rob the world of its finite resources – and nothing that has been done in the past decades of “development” has fundamentally changed this.
And in the meantime, we have today a sort of “feminism lite” minus any revolutionary intent that has sprouted in every imaginable form and popularised through global (pro-capitalist) media….focusing women’s attention on their personal, preferences, desires, bodies and individual human rights. In these diverse versions of feminism, if a woman exercises her choice and accesses her personal human rights, she is being a feminist. This sort of interpretation of feminism makes it possible for magazines like Oprah Winfrey’s “O” to allude to cosmetic surgery (for women with no major physical or facial disfigurement) as being about feminist choice and expression. Once feminism becomes about personal choice, expressions and liberties, then absolutely anyone by simply exercising consumer, social, or political choice is deemed as “feminist-minded.” There are many who would assert that they are “liberated” as women because they exercise choice and freedom, even when they are choosing between options that patriarchal-capitalist norms and priorities have been pre-chosen for them.
I know, I know…I hear the deep inner groans from many of my contemporaries who are doing their best to not alienate women and create space for whoever shows a desire to engage with feminism in any way at all. In a context where it’s increasingly hard to find women willing to identify as with feminism at all, my GD (grim and determined) views expressed might be a turn off to the young and eager. However, I’ve understood over these past so many years of working with the women’s movement that a feminism that focuses on personal autonomy and freedoms, and the attainment of equal opportunity with men, will not get at the roots of sexism and patriarchal domination. Our wheels will just keep spinning in the mud.
We will not actually move forward unless we stop focusing on men as the enemy and look at systems of domination and oppression and do a mapping of where actual power lies in every single context we work in. Advocating for women to take positions of power within the political, economic and social system and to be equal with men will not fundamentally change status quo. As we have seen, there is room at the top for a small handful of women to join the small handful of men of their class. Status quo is undisturbed, and all is well in Master’s house.bell hooks, whose writings inspired in this piece, writes about how the focus on feminisms a set of lifestyle choices and identities is reflective of the class nature of the women’s movement. While her thoughts are more reflective of the women’s movement in the United States two decades ago, some of what she says could also apply to our context. She notes: “It is not surprising that the vast majority of women who equate feminism with alternative lifestyle are from middle-class backgrounds, unmarried, college educated…who are without many of the social and economic responsibilities that working class and poor women who are labourers, parents, homemakers and wives confront daily.”
Many of us who seek out women’s movement organizations and spaces often long for a sense of community, and find “safe spaces” in women’s organisations where we believe we are understood and belong. Undoubtedly, the “feel good” factor of belonging and being amongst kindred spirits make it hard for us to actively question whether what we are about as a group actually makes a fundamental difference to the lives of women and men on the socio-political margins. bell hooks describes it this way: “Often emphasis on identity and lifestyle is appealing because it creates a false sense that one is engaged in praxis. However, praxis within any political movement that aims to have a radical transformation impact on society cannot be solely focused on creating spaces wherein would-be radicals experience safety and support.”
Susanna is currently testing her wings to take flight again…she’s convinced that the more liberating, flexible and truly democratic our meetings and conversations are, the closer we get to the heaven we want to see on earth. Susanna plans to change the world one meeting and one conversation at a time! This piece is written to start a conversation…she’d be delighted to continue it over idlis and chai.
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