The other day, my mother and I were in the middle of an arbitrary argument which came to an abrupt end when she interrupted me by saying, quite exasperatedly, “Oh, now don’t go and get all ‘feminist’ on me.” I sat dumbfounded for a minute. Maybe my mother just said this because she knows how sensitive I am about this subject and she wanted to get to me, but regardless of her ulterior motives, it got me thinking about the other instances, especially on social media, when “feminism” was used as an ugly, shameful term. “Feminism,” said with lips curled, seen as a movement for the bra-burning women that are too wild, too degenerate for regular society. Not all of social media has this perception, of course, perhaps only a small percentage does. But the term does evoke a guarded glance here, a sour expression there – and if you’re lucky, an eye-roll – when brought up in day-to-day conversation. Since when did feminism become a slur?
I recently read about the backlash Emma Watson received for the Vanity Fair shoot she did. Her somewhat revealing photograph led to her being dubbed a hypocrite. Because of course, a woman’s breasts have a direct relation to whether or not she deserves rights equal to men. The aforementioned Vanity Fair shoot, quite unsurpringly, was soon used as leverage to discredit Watson’s contribution to the movement and also to, yet again, tell women what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
For anyone who still has mixed feelings about this shoot, please do take a look at the photographs. Unlike news magazines that usually have large male audiences, Vanity Fair‘s consumers are mostly women. Therefore, even if Emma Watson decided to pose for the magazine in the nude, it wouldn’t have been with the intent to sexualise her own body to the male gaze or for male consumption. The same way it definitely wasn’t done to make some sort of a feminist statement. It was done, quite simply, for the aesthetic of the photo shoot.
Maybe feminism is considered a slur because, even today, it’s perceived as a notion nurtured and practised – and in some cases, unfortunately abused – by only women. And as the ban on the release of Lipstick Under My Burkha has taught us, anything that’s too “lady oriented” is repulsive to the masses. Is a woman who expresses her desires, and in turn herself, freely so threatening to society?
So, just for my own comprehension, let’s go over what women are and aren’t “allowed” to do. We aren’t allowed to go all “feminist,” we aren’t allowed to create art that’s too “lady-oriented” (and let’s be honest, both of these are pretty much the same thing), we aren’t allowed to choose what to wear, and we certainly aren’t allowed to express our political views. You do any of these things, and you will be seen as either a slut, a hypocrite, or in Gurmehar Kaur’s case, an inadequate entity that is neither entitled to nor can possibly possess an informed opinion.
So what can we do? We can, for starters, all agree to call bullshit on men and women both who believe they can tell women what to do. And if we have some time left on our hands after this arduous task, we can start by not being afraid to identify ourselves as feminists. Look, I’d love to live in a world where we get to replace “feminism” with “egalitarianism.” Where you could oversimplify equality to “everyone is equal and that’s that” and it would be enough. But, unfortunately, we do not live in that world. Not yet. We can also speak up against daily prejudices that take place around us, and educate older generations about this blasphemous concept we call feminism. As Alankrita Shrivastava, the director of Lipstick Under My Burkha says in this inspiring post she wrote for The Guardian, “I have decided that I will not shut up. I refuse to be silenced. I will not be discouraged,” – and neither should you.