Two books that I teach in courses on gender and feminist theory – and that have influenced me personally – are Feminism is for everybody by bell hooks and We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Adichie. Written a decade apart from each other, both are united in their belief that ‘feminism’ is not just something about or for women alone. The primary rationale that the authors forward for this expansive definition of feminism – apart from its usual and tedious association with ‘male bashing’– is rooted in their belief that sexism is a problem that effects everyone and one that everyone is implicated in. Feminism is not anti-male, the African-American scholar and activist, bell hooks says in the introduction to her book. She defines feminism as ‘a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression’. So, she very consciously shifts our focus from men to sexism, and from individual gendered identities to gendered relations to power in society.
What hooks also implies is that women can be just as sexist as men. When I taught Feminism is for everybody in my undergraduate class in Johannesburg recently, some young women struggled with this idea. They were sympathetic to feminist ideas. Some even identified as feminist. But their discomfort with the proposition that women can be sexist reflects popular – even antifeminist – understandings of feminism as an antagonism between the sexes.
But the problem is this: if we tend to think that only men can be sexist then we also tend to think of feminism as a movement that is against men and for women. Popular ideas about feminism as being anti-men is one of the primary reasons why young people – especially women – choose not to identify with it.
Like hooks, award-winning Nigerian author, Adichie moves beyond such narrow ideas of feminism to argue for its potential to offer greater freedom to everybody. In her Ted talk that became the book, We should all be feminists, Adichie provides a set of stirring personal reflections to show how gender is a problem that men and women both share insofar as it denies them their right to humanity. Men need feminism as much as women to free them from the burdens of gender.
It is surprising that any of this needs saying in 2016. The US elections have just shown us that women are not natural allies of other women. Women tend to have common interests with those belonging to their class or race group more so than with other women. Not only did 53% of white women vote for Donald Trump but they also made statements like: ‘I am not worried that Trump’s misogynistic language and sexist behaviour will have any interference with the reasons I want him in office’. The election thus – sadly – revealed how women are not immune to propagating or at least condoning sexist views.
The 2016 US elections confirms everything that black and ‘third world’ feminists have been saying for close to five decades now, namely, that women are not one homogenous group with unified interests and feminism is not simply a fight of the sexes. In India, feminism has rarely been understood – amongst academics and activists, at least – about gender equality and justice alone. Given the range of multiple and intersecting inequalities in ‘developing’ contexts – whether to do with race, class, caste or religion – women’s movements have always allied with other struggles, be they around ecology, state violence or militarisation. Likewise, black feminists in the US and US were the first to ask, back in the seventies and eighties, ‘since men are not equal in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to’.
So, today, in the immediate aftermath of the US election results, they are not surprised that white women voted overwhelmingly for Trump based on their loyalties towards race and not gender. In India, dalit feminists are making similar criticisms of savarna feminists – of privileging their caste affiliations over any gender-based solidarities.
Deep fractures have emerged along these and other lines in recent times. hooks finds it difficult to celebrate someone like Beyoncé whose brand of popular feminist – or what Adichie calls ‘Feminism Lite’ – is fully compatible with capitalist values. In the Indian context, some feminists worried about a popular feminism that seemed to uphold the status quo, post the rape and murder of Nirbhaya in 2012. In particular, they worried about women’s support for the death penalty as a way of addressing violence against women. Such a demand cannot be a legitimately feminist one since – as we know – the death penalty simply enhances the repressive force of the state that is disproportionately directed towards lower class and lower caste populations in India. There is also no evidence to show that its usage actually lowers violence against women on an everyday basis.
The key lesson from the long tradition of feminist organising amongst black and third world feminists is this: feminism has to be more than ending male sexist attitudes. It has to be more than ending sexism. It has to be committed to an entire overhaul of society as we know it, along the intersecting lines of class, caste, race, gender and sexuality.
If feminism is then about everything and for everybody, is there any value in using the term at all? Why not just use terms like ‘humanist’? ‘Because that would be dishonest’, Adichie explains, ‘Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded’. It seems, then, that we need to hold on to the specificity of gender as a social problem and as the locus of a particular type of injustice without obscuring the differences in gendered experiences that are shaped by the interconnections of sexuality, race, ethnicity, nation, caste and class. A concrete example of such an awareness can be seen in the manner in which the rural dalit run newspaper, Khabar Lahariya is carving out a non-metropolitan feminist voice that provides global coverage of gender-based issues.
So, why feminism? Because it ultimately promises a world that is not just better for girls and for women to inhabit but one that is more habitable by everyone.
Opinions expressed are personal. Srila Roy is an Associate Professor in Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and the author of ‘Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement’. She can be reached @srilaroy