You press ‘enter’ on any search engine writing ‘women’s web-sites’ and you’ll get a long list. womensenews, feminist, jezebel, takepart, feminism.suite101, onedatatime – the list is endless.
When I tried to study these websites, I realized that a website does not become feminist just by self proclamation. We’re often cheated by names. The features of the website are more important than its name. A website may actually proclaim to be feminist, may sound and feel like a feminist website but in reality may not at all be gender-friendly. For example, it’s my considered view that the stuff many women in India read, ‘Grih-Shobha’, ‘Sakhi’, or ‘Saheli’ – this stuff is not only non-feminist; it’s even anti-feminist. All these magazines and similar websites also reinforce gendered identity. Fashion, accessories, cuisine, emotional crises – these are the usual columns. Now, obviously enough, there can be and there are women interested in the stock market, or crime fiction. But the popular stuff typifies women. It encases women into rigid categories.
Therefore, in order to be called feminist, a website does not have to claim anything. The position taken by editors on various issues, selection of comments, editorial policy, past literature of the website, participation and projection of women – these factors decide the status of the website. A website ‘grows’ into being feminist.
I wish to say a word on internet before proceeding to other details. Net is a great leveller. It’s a vast frontier for a social utopia. People are ‘locating’ themselves in all new ways. It’s a place to share, flourish, and identify oneself in desired ways. Your background, colour, caste, creed, race and gender won’t come in the way of your fresh identification. Of course, there’s a dangerous side to this tag-less identity; nevertheless, it’s revolutionary and immensely equalizing.
It’s difficult to say as to what makes a site feminist simply because it’s difficult to decide as to what exactly is feminism or who is a feminist, for that matter. Leaving militant idiom aside, I say that feminism is presenting everything and anything from the point of view of women. Naturally, there can’t be one women’s view but I’m speaking in general, broad terms.
It’s generally accepted that there have been three waves of feminism. The last part of 19th century saw revolutionary steps in terms of the making of gender-equalizing law. All important social and political domains were opened for women, be it marriage, education, voting, socializing. The second wave of feminism during the 20th century addressed wider range of cultural and legal issues. The stress was on political activism; the end goal being acquisition of political power. The second wave exposed the politics of all kinds, lingual, religious, social, political and so on. However, the second wave had huge drawbacks as well. It was led by white, developed, educated, middle-class, Western women. It alienated women of other races, and other backgrounds.
Beginning from 1990, the third wave feminism essentially stresses on individual empowerment of each girl and each woman. It suits our present day individualistic tendencies, ‘I speak for myself and you speak for yourself. This is my reality, my truth; you go and talk about your own truth.’
No one has been given a contract to speak for others and thereby promote oneself. People often start speaking for Dalits, or the marginalized, get the desired name and fame while the condition of the concerned group remains the same. We in India know this very well. Among innumerable crusaders, India remains to be the same.
Anyway, to come to the point, the starting point of the third wave feminism is the empowerment of the individual. ‘Education, financial independence, and family’ – any person with these three essential support systems can never be exploited.
Any website that reflects any aspect of the three waves of feminism can be called a feminist website. However, as clash exists in the approach of the three waves, clash will exist in defining a feminist website. Another important pre-requisite raised by many netizens is that we should judge a site member not only by she or he says online but also what she or he does offline. Selection of gender-friendly staff is another important step.
In my study, I found that the general ‘happening’ issues on women’s web were domestic violence, maternal health, women and poverty, women in turbulent countries, dynamic Diasporas, women in India, and women and Islam. These are broadly the major concerns of the feminist websites.
Dong Shanshan, a 26 years old Chinese died of domestic violence, creating commotion on net. Now, they are talking about changing the Chinese law wherein the police can enter into domestic affairs. Horribly enough, surveys revealed that every third Chinese family suffered from some kind of domestic violence.
We fully understand the severity of the issue in India where in many cases the victim herself is likely to oppose any intervention from outside.
I’m reminded of Tony Morrison who says that the cycle of slavery is complete when the slave starts speaking the language of the master; the slave accepts the mindset of the master. Morrison goes on to call black women ‘double’ slaves because blacks are mental slaves of the white and then women of the community are slaves of the men of the community.
Lack of awareness, indiscriminate use of hormonal (carcinogenic) therapy, lack of nutrition, insurance and child care support system are some of the points related to maternal health care. While the number of black women dying at child birth is eight times higher than white women in New York, India tops the chart child birth deaths. Several websites highlight the feminization of poverty due to occupational segregation, lower educational expectations, and minimal participation in the decision-making process.
Women and Diasporas is an interesting area where the problems of women are also coupled with stories of rare tenacity of women in difficult situations. Immigrant women face multiple constraints of language, vulnerability, ethnic hatred, low wages and lack of basic human rights like the right to work, to be heard, to be documented; still the web is full of heartening tales of how these women have paved their way in very challenging circumstances. The tales of women in turbulent nations are another underlined area. The recent shouting of the Lybian woman before TV cameras became the worldwide headline.
When it comes to women in India, the net gives mixed responses. ‘Indian Women Seize their Moment of Glory’ is one headline while the other is ‘Gender Selective Abortions in India’. This is how it is with India. India always comes in a mixed package. While CNN heroes, the small scale industry papad business has captured the attention of netizens 250 million illiterate Indian women equally baffle the net-watcher. While on one hand, there are news items of woman priests and performing of last rites by girls, on the other hand, there are reports of big salary disparity in the unorganized sector. Overall, I feel proud when I read net headlines like ‘Indian Women Take their Destinies in their Own Hands’, or ‘Cautious Indian Girls Go More and More for Sleuths for inquiring about the Fiancé’.
Women and Islam is one huge area of controversy. Many websites like asmasociety, isna, or imana are exclusively run by Muslim women. The mood that I read on these websites is that of carving a niche within the Islamic framework. These women are trying hard to change the image of veiled, weeping, stoned, powerless, and ghettoized Muslim woman. They seek equal rights, civic and spiritual leadership within religious doctrines. As one website prominently read, - The Holy Koran says, “Every age needs its own book.” Such are the sentiments on these websites. However, several tricky issues like fasting during Ramazan, consumption of hormonal tablets by ignorant girls and woman to postpone the natural biological cycle in order to keep fast, and fasting of feeding mothers keep cropping up. Daisy Khan, Executive Director, American Society for Muslim Advancement in New York says that the provision to make up for lost fast days by keeping rigorous fasts on other days is ‘more hardship than relief’. These women are really grappling with several layers of dogmatism.
Studying these websites, I realized that the abstract ideas are more important than concrete realities because ‘the abstract creates the concrete’. First, an idea is born and then it slowly takes material shape. There is an immense tendency to inculcate slave mentality among women in the name of culture, tradition, even God and religion. The systems of the society have been sustained by the tears of women over the centuries. If the family is held together, it’s because of the suffering of the women of the family. Happy women will make happier families. We should take a step in this direction. We should stop using noble words for subjugating women. Women themselves need to free themselves from gendered perceptions.
Over the centuries, society has given women the sense of completion of attraction. Among women, there’s the perpetual war as to ‘you are more attractive or me’. It’s a strategy to nurture competition among slaves to please the master. The fact of the matter is that every single human being is unique and beautiful, full of potential and specific qualities. There’s identification away from the body. Qualities, hard work, sincerity, tenacity- there are any number of identifying points away from the body. This is the first lesson, in my opinion.
Every woman, like every man has a right to get old gracefully. She’s not a commodity, which would get ‘useless’ after some time.
The second and the last point I wish to make for this limited discourse is an urgent need to redefine the concept of freedom. Going through different websites for girls, I came to know that drinking and multiple ‘romantic’ partners were the two absolute parameters of freedom. Related to these two ‘mandatory’ parameters are dictates of Western attire, language, and manners. This is not freedom; this is tyranny. A college-going girl in Bangalore or Mumbai cannot put on salwar-kameez. She’ll be butchered and dumped as ‘behenji’ or even ‘mataji’. Is this freedom? If I have the freedom to go for multiple partners, I also have the freedom to lead a single partner life. You cannot kill a person who doesn’t want to party at night or does not want to drink or wants to remain with one partner. This is the biggest constraint for women’s liberation today. They are moving from one shackle to the other. Many feel that the old shackles were better. Nothing can be more disastrous that that. The system creates such an environment, there’s peer pressure, the whole atmosphere is that of tyranny where you are pushed into one behavioural mode. This is not freedom.
Freedom is when you exercise your mind. Freedom is when you choose from different options using your own discretion. Women will be really liberated when they create an environment for themselves where they use their minds. In my opinion, that will be women’s liberation. Indulgence of senses is basic human nature but abstinence is also equally basic to human nature. Women must learn to exercise their instincts in both directions according to their own individual wishes.
The above is a Lecture delivered by Prof. Shubha Tiwari, at ASC, BHU, Varanasi on August 17, 2011