Whether you answer yes or no, there is no denying the debt every woman owes to those who went before
I am always baffled by young (and not so young) women who proclaim proudly that they have ‘no time for feminism’ or who declare when prodded that they wouldn’t really describe themselves as ‘feminist’. Women like this tend to say things like, “I am not really one for all that bra-burning nonsense’. Or even the risible, “I am not a feminist; I am a humanist.” And then there are those who misunderstand the concept completely and protest that they are not into all this ‘man-hating’ business.
This column is written for the benefit of women like these. Women who live in a world that grants them rights that the feminist movement fought for and won (and which they now take for granted). Women who need reminding what their lives would be like if generations of feminists before them hadn’t fought for their place in society.
So here, in no particular order of importance, are just some of the things that feminism brought us. Just so that these non-feminist ladies know that whether they acknowledge it or not, they owe a huge debt to ‘bra-burning, women-lib types’.
• The right to exercise control over your own body. Hard as this may be to believe, there was a time when women had no say in whom they were married off to. They had no control over their reproductive lives. And while this may still be true of millions of Indian women in rural households, middle-class educated women in our cities today have the right to marry according to their own choice; choose the contraception of their choice; and have an abortion if it fails. The law now recognizes the woman’s right to her own body. And we have feminism to thank for that.
• The right to property: While women had limited property rights the world over (control was effectively exercised by either her father or her husband) in India women who inherited property were effectively barred from disposing of it on their own. This ‘limited interest’ was abolished only in 1956 by the Hindu Succession Act, which made women the ‘absolute owner’ of any property they owned, and gave daughters an equal interest in the estate of their fathers.
• The right to your name: No longer is it taken as given that a woman has to change her surname when she gets married (or even her first name, as happened with some traditional households). She gets to decide what name she is known as; a symbolic victory but an important one nonetheless when it comes to establishing her own identity. What’s more, thanks to a long legal battle waged by author and editor Githa Hariharan, women also have the right to be named as the ‘natural guardian’ of their children, a prerogative earlier restricted to men.
• The right to vote: We tend to take this right for granted in India, because women have had the vote ever since we gained independence in 1947. But this was only possible because of the suffragettes and suffragists movements – run entirely by feminists – that campaigned for years on end in Western democracies to get women the right to vote.
• The right to work: Outside the home, that is. No longer do women have to be chained to the kitchen stove – unless that’s where they want to be. They have the freedom to go out into the world and earn their own living, using the skills they have developed in school and college (and there too, it is feminism that has made it possible for women to be educated at the same level as their male peers).
• The right to equal pay for equal work: You know all that brouhaha about Jill Abramson being fired as executive editor of the New York Times because she asked to be paid the same salary as her male predecessor? The story was quickly denied, but the controversy would have been a non-starter if it wasn’t for feminism. Not only would a woman never have been appointed to one of the top jobs in an organization but there would have been no question about paying her as much as a man would earn. You want to know what a pre-feminist workplace would look like? Just watch an episode of Mad Men. Do you really want to live in a world in which Joan Holloway reports to Roger Stirling and Peggy Olson to Don Draper? And all the while, combatting casual sexism – and the odd grope and grab – at the workplace? No, I didn’t think so.
So, all you ladies describing yourselves as non-feminists, unless you actually prefer being bare-foot and pregnant, slaving away all hours in the kitchen, with not a rupee (let alone a salary or a house) to call your own, and with no rights over your bodies or your children, maybe you’d do well to acknowledge the debt to those that went before and fought the good battle so that you didn’t need to.