What Feminism Ought To Be?

There is no reason why one shouldn’t be a feminist in this day and age. Any suggestion that is contrary to the notion that women’s rights ought to be protected and that patriarchy ought to be completely dismantled is, ipso facto, foolish and thoroughly immoral. But, post the #metoo movement and torrents of online rage from ‘feminists’, one is bound to ask: is this supposed collective expression of anger against societal discrimination, sexual harrasment and patriarchal structures, well-intentioned as it may be, leading to a material change in the status of women in society? To answer that question in the affirmative seems disingenuous at best and nefarious at worst.

The #metoo movement has been both shocking yet brilliant in exposing the rot beneath the veneer of equality. But has this exposition led to meaningful change? Or, for that matter, do passionate supporters of the #metoo movement really seek to bring about changes in, say, sexual harassment legislation?

In a recent seminar organised by the Calcutta High Court and American embassy in Calcutta, I was woken up to the reality of how precious little had changed with regard to America’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 or India’s Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 in the wake of the #metoo movement. There are umpteen criticisms that can be made of both these laws, but one with regard to each should suffice to illustrate why these laws are programmed to protect the Harvey Weinsteins of our age.

The Indian Act contemplates an Internal Complaints Committee to function as a redressal mechanism for aggrieved women in a workplace of more than ten employees. The Committee does require an external member who is familiar with issues relating to sexual assault or from an organisation committed to the cause of women, but the nagging sense that this is a mechanism where the “fox is guarding the hen’s house” disturbingly remains. In the case of the American Civil Rights Act, the same ends up happening even though complaints are supposed to be filed with the external US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is because of two American Supreme Court decisions in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington v. Ellerth. While both these decisions attempted to clarify the law, they inadvertently laid down a point of law that has, in the words of Time magazine, “contributed to a key reason why workplace sexual harassment lawsuits are still hard to file today”. The Supreme Court ruled in these cases that an employer may not be liable under the Civil Rights Act for sexual harassment if, inter alia, the complainant fails to take advantage of any internal mechanisms for redressal of the complaint provided by the employer. In other words, we have a situation not dissimilar to the state of the Indian law, where a potential victim of sexual harassment must reckon with the fox before she can truly reach the hen’s house. This, quite obviously, means that numerous sexual harassment claims simply go unnoticed and are, quite simply, suppressed in America.

That these and other legal issues have been significant contributors to the extent of harassment and abuse exposed by the #metoo movement ought to be apparent to anyone with a brain. However, a call for reforms to such laws is hardly the defining conversation of today’s feminist movements. Indeed, one can appreciate that perhaps the nitty-gritties of legal reform cannot form part of an exoteric conversation. But one cannot deny that if feminists engaged in advocating meaningful legislative reform with half the passion that they use to ‘destroy’ incels and dudebros online, we would be living in a better world. This is not an anti-feminist rant from a privileged little boy, it is a Greta Thunbergesque (bless her) “how dare you?!” to all those who claim to stand for women’s rights but are so pathetic at delivering those rights to women. Of course, it is important that society evolves to develop zero tolerance for misogynistic bigots, but to pay more attention to a hurtful tweet instead of the silent suffering of so many working women is rather dystopian.

Speaking of misplaced priorities, we must address the representation of women in the workplace, and, of course, the feminist’s refusal to do anything real about it. As was pointed out by Baroness Arden of Heswall, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, in a guest lecture at the University of Bristol (which I had the privilege to attend), the percentage of women who were partners in London law firms in 2019, 100 years after women got the right to practice law in England, was a mere 29%. What’s more, Lady Arden stated that when she, as a Judge of the English Court of Appeal, proposed that a daycare centre be set up for women barristers near the Royal Courts of Justice, the other male Judges simply dismissed her by stating that this would be a nuisance to male barristers. That Lady Arden was a Judge of the Court of Appeal from 2000-2018 should serve to indicate that such horrendous attitudes are definitely not from some distant age.

The modern feminist’s response to these facts and realities is not very different from the dialogues delivered by Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, they are expressions of “furious anger” that seek to lay their vengeance upon men. But these responses are, to quote The Merovingian from the second Matrix movie, “so boring, so obvious, so bourgeoisie.” They very simply ignore the import of Lady Arden’s arguments: that the next step towards a greater representation of women in the workplace requires some important tangible changes. For instance, one needs to ensure mandatory maternity leave as well as paternity leave is a reality in all big organisations—something that is far from being a reality in a country as developed as America. Secondly, one needs to concentrate on making daycare cheaper and more accessible to women so that the beauty of becoming a mother doesn’t end up penalising a booming career. Thirdly, one needs to change office culture and, sorry right-wing crackpots, that includes ensuring that air conditioning is not set in accordance with the metabolism of middle-aged men.

However, battling against the patriarchy to implement such changes sounds awfully hard, it is far easier to just obsess over cats (okay, fair enough, they are amazing) and share disgustingly bad feminist slam poetry. Why challenge patriarchs to be better and to do better when one can simply raise one’s hands and declare that they’re trash. And not to mention, how could we possibly change attitudes surrounding women without changing the colour of people’s toys. All of this is not for some comedic effect, it is to expose the Goebbellian lie that is modern feminism, a movement (if it can be called one) that concentrates less on change and more on empty expressions of supposed solidarity with the numerous problems faced by women.

The most dangerous effects of this is borne out by the feminist’s treatment of rape culture. Speaking logically, one would presume that the only way to destroy an oppressive social construct like rape culture is to teach people to know better. But that definitely is not what today’s feminist does. Today’s feminist hardly seeks to bat for rigorous consent classes in universities and schools. They rarely seek to educate people on understanding the humanity of women and they are loathe to contemplate on how men can be used as allies in combating rape culture. This not only fails to go to the root of the problem by dealing with the cultural rot that a priori drives men’s most problematic behaviours, it has far more nefarious effects. This misandry-is-feminism attitude of so many feminists incentivises a lot of men to simply pretend to be feminists in a bid to get sex. And it should go without saying that this is a most poisonous kind of objectification that relies on its antithesis to survive and grow. This verily means that feminists end up giving traction to a very fundamental sabotage of their own movement by refusing to actually deal with a problem and by stooping to lowly instinct.

All of that being said, credit must be given where credit is due, modern feminism has been very sharp in changing broader culture to simply not be accommodative of abusers and bigots. It has created a rightfully hostile environment for those who would dare say that women are lesser than men and it has clarified that sexist attitudes are simply not going to fly anymore. However, that is simply not enough. One has to go beyond a great grand shriek about how sexist and patriarchal the world is to actually contemplate upon how it could look better. And one has to understand that without such a constructive contemplation, one is going to have a world with a smokescreen of verbose activism but with a ground reality of festering oppression.


Harsh Tiwari

I am a law student with wide-ranging interests who founded this newspaper with his friends to grow and be a better twenty-something.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.