This past year, I have been growing into my feminism, and being comfortable as it grows to become a much more prominent part of me.
This past year, I am re-discovering what being feminine means to me. It isn’t the yin to your yang, and it certainly isn’t the dainty and delicate version of soft. I am re-claiming what “soft” means to me. For years, I have passionately pushed back against the term “soft”-skills because of all the connotations it has carried about being feminine, and thus something not as serious, and somehow lower on the hierarchy of skills. I am learning instead to find the fierce, passionate, vulnerable, confident version of “soft”, and nourish that powerful kind of feminine as a strength instead.
This past year, I have suddenly become acutely aware of the “masculine” language around me, which has so long been my lens to see the world. I find myself wary of the misleading masculine rhetoric that I seem to have imbibed through the years, and disappointed with how much mediocrity I was taught to accept and admire from powerful charming men through the years through that lens. I am learning to hold the men I admire and love to higher standards, and not feeling guilty about it. I am reminding myself to allow my non-male heroes more leeway to falter sometimes, as I have with the men.
This year, I am learning about a leadership that is ferociously feminine, and learning to practice this kind of a leadership that enables, and take responsibility for that power without the hierarchies and designated positions that I seem to have been taught are essential in this “tough macho world”. I am resisting that conditioned voice that constantly measures my own styles against the inherently masculine standards I have inherited. I am allowing myself the opportunity to live my version of feminine as I carve my way into the world instead.
I am angry, I am grieving, I am frustrated, and I am allowing myself to feel those things without judging. I have been raised to glorify silence as graciousness, and I am learning to find grace in my voice instead. I am remembering that there is a zero between the positive and the negative, while also becoming aware when my “rational objectivity” is a way of masking my complicity, and finding courage to speak up then. I am learning not to mistake assertiveness for aggression, and resisting the politeness that I have used as an excuse for my fear of confrontation. While at it, I am searching for forgiveness, kindness, compassion and love – things I stand for – amidst it all, without compromising on accountability and responsibility I have come to expect.
This year, I am growing into my femininity, and learning to embrace all forms it takes. Sometimes I will be wrong, sometimes I will make mistakes and sometimes I will falter into my old habits. Sometimes this will seem too loud, and often I would have to keep working on unlearning all the images and standards I have been taught and finding new ones for reference. This Women’s day, despite all my skepticism about it, I am reminding myself to allow for the space to blossom and learn and evolve through all of that.
In between the flurry of conversations about the Republic Day and all the crap going on in our country(ies), read an unsettling conversation today that reeked of “I told you so” and skepticism (and fear) about the #metoo movement this morning. I have had my own struggle with despair and cynicism (and anger and frustration) these past few months, and found myself reaching out to several people for wisdom. I wrote it all down as a reminder to myself a little while back – and it felt appropriate to share a part of it today:
The #metoo movement, or any movement for that matter, is not perfect. Changing the status quo never is. It requires challenging years of conditioning. Challenging that conditioning in itself is like setting off the trigger – it brings out all the fears and insecurities that we have picked up over the years. Challenging the conditioning also means giving up the security of the known and starting to think of possibilities within a space that we actively participate in and create when we start this process. With that responsibility comes the definitions of fairness and justice we carry, the definitions that in themselves come from the conditioning and fears and insecurities we are fighting. It is a long process and it’s hard. And damn, it’s easier to justify hopelessless on some days. But maybe, just maybe, the hopelessness also stems from perfectionism, that darned belief we have all inherited about the perfect answers. The need for the change-makers to know the very perfect answers before they ask for it is yet another way the status quo maintains its power.
Stop asking the movement to be perfect. It’s about baby steps. It’s about noticing that there needs to be a movement and standing by it. It’s about then doing your very best to figure out the best way to do it. Allow the making of mistakes while holding high standards – remember that by asking for change we are venturing into a world that is new to all of us, with new questions, and hierarchies and outcomes we might not be able to predict. That’s the difference between blind idealism and believing in possibilities. Be the latter, and then set high standards of integrity and kindness while you are at it. Remember the things you felt when you experienced injustice, and let that be a reminder of what you shall not take anymore for/from anyone, even as the one asking/fighting for a little more power. And while you are at it, take the time to think, to consider, to reflect on what it is that you are fighting for and with, and that that is good enough to stand for. And then, stand for it.
Despite all my skepticism for social media campaigns, this one felt important to participate in. To acknowledge the fact that I have struggled to say “me too” in the past, and never quite known how to.
9 years ago, a security guard groped me and pinned me against the wall before I could run away. Accordingly to the “morality” that had then been imposed on me, I had technically been somewhere where I shouldn’t have been, at a time I shouldn’t have been at with someone I shouldn’t have been there at. A fact that the guard pointed out before he used that situation to find me alone, and all of us, in that fear, had given in. I did not remember the face of the guard: I was in shock.
That night, I told one of my closest friends I had been molested. He was standing on the step lower than the one I was standing on, still taller than me, and with his body suddenly tightened, he asked me kindly: “what exactly happened?”. I described the event to him, still shaken up. “Oh! I thought it was a lot more when you said molestation. Thank God! That was just groping. I am sorry that happened to you, but it happens to women all the time. You will be fine”, he said. I liked to believe then that he was trying to make me feel better, and swallowed the “don’t be too dramatic, you will be fine” suggestion he gave, and shut up.
Thankfully, I had other friends who did not feel the same way. The friend that I was with remembered the face of the security guard and they complained. The guard was fired, and the issue was closed, right?
A gnawing feeling followed me though. Although still not sure of the nuances it entailed, I still called myself a feminist and had been for a while. When this incident, I was ashamed, more than anything else – this wasn’t how a feminist was supposed to react, right? The story of what happened was muddled with so many other stories that I wasn’t ready to own up to yet. I wasn’t ready to tell the story of why I was where I was. I didn’t want people to know that I was actually a coward who had not come forward to take action. I wasn’t even sure this was molestation (“groping”, as I had been corrected, remember), and I liked to believe I was strong for not letting that incident be important. I liked to believe I had “moved on”, because at 18, that’s the version of the stories I had heard.
A little more than a year later, I did tell the story though. On stage, as a part of a play. Something about telling the story again and again made me feel like I had owned up to it. Another friend came up to me after one of my performances and said “it was such a nice light-hearted play. You had to add your melodrama, no? Why can’t you deal with your crap in your own time?”. He then laughed. “Attention seeking” and “drama-queen” was squeezed in somewhere in all the mockery that followed. Guessing this was yet another social memo I had missed, talking about it felt less cathartic and right. There had been women who had hugged me for that piece, but it was this voice that continued to pierce through. I decided to “move on” again and not talk about it. After all, it wasn’t a big deal, being dramatic wasn’t cool and this happened to everyone all the time, right?
I grew up, learnt how to say no more strongly and fiercely, and said so in the coming years. I evolved to find friends who didn’t think there was something wrong with it. I forgot this had happened and assumed that meant that I had “dealt” with it, right?Or so I thought until a few years ago. It was the day after my birthday, and I intended to recover from the last night by treating myself to a late morning and a beautiful brunch. I was woken up instead, early on a Saturday morning, by a friend calling me to tell me that he had been molested. By another male friend. Who I didn’t know was in the process of coming out. As I heard his side of the story of impulsive lack of control that he deeply regretted, sitting with all the other male friends who were present when this had happened, I struggled to find my objectivity and “balanced view” – how does one begin to reconcile the images of the “kind of people who do this kind of stuff” with someone I deeply respected? I was driving the friend who had been molested back to his house when he, still shaking, looked at me baffled and mumbled, “this wasn’t even a big deal, women go through much worse. I am terrified for my sister who goes through this all the time. I don’t even know why I am so affected! I just don’t know how I am supposed to respond as a man”. I tried to push behind all the triggers that were pounding at me then – all the other chauvinist comments he had made in the past that had pissed me off, and all the layers to what he was saying right now. I don’t remember what I told him. I knew I had to tell him he had every right to speak up, to feel everything he was feeling, but given how I had responded in the past, I remember feeling hypocritical. I remember trying to find, once again, the right language to help him describe what had happened – (“grabbed?” “squeezed?” “groped?”).
I work with stories, and thus, by default, I am hyper conscious about how we tell our stories: the language we use, the images we paint, and what that means in how we understand the world. Recently, as I drafted this story as a part of another speech that I was writing, I struggled to find the right words. On one hand, my speech needed to be powerful, and there were certain ways that stories like that become powerful; I had learnt enough of that. At the same time, I also needed to make sure I wasn’t painting myself as a “victim” – I needed to retain my credibility. I remember poring over the words again and again – would saying “groping” be too graphic? “Molestated” sounded vague enough but powerful enough. Am I coming across as less of a “feminist”? Is it too “dramatic”? And as I pondered over what all of this meant, it also hit me that for such a long time,I was so busy with not being the victim, so concerned with making sure the story fit into my larger narrative, that I hadn’t given myself the time to hurt, and thus, heal. I hadn’t forgiven myself for not remembering the man’s face. For not being careful enough. For not finding the courage to complain. I mean, if I had been scared then, couldn’t it be possible that I wasn’t as courageous as I thought I was? Every time I had visited what had happened, I had found ways to make myself worse, a skill that they teach the girls so damn well.
Like I said, I work with stories, and in working with people on drafting impactful stories and building toolkits for people to do so, I find myself coming back to these questions again and again. How do we narrate these stories of what we go through? What does it mean to share this, in a context where we know “powerful” to be only in a certain way? What happens when what is powerful isn’t that easily true for the self (not just in terms of what happened, but also how one tells that story) or worse, vice versa? What does it mean to be a “victim” of sexual assault, across the spectrum of that (I cringe as I type that)? Can I not be a victim and still allow myself to hurt and grieve and heal (and cope)? Can I allow myself to be “a victim” and still be empowered? Does changing the language from “victim” to “survivor” help, or do the connotations follow? How can I forgive for my healing, but still be angry enough? When does this constant portrayal of “powerful” stories that look and sound and end only one way normalise it, and what does that normalisation look like?
I find myself struggling with these questions again as I type “me too” into my facebook box (which I must also say, I did do, for I think it is also important our fact-obsessed culture to “empirically” see what this is): What does it mean to say “me too” ? What does it mean when our entire timeline “outs” themselves as survivors? What are nuances of the normalisation that it beings about? What kind of solidarity does it stand for? Who gets included and excluded in this narrative? What does it do to how I, too, experience it and thus, how I, too, respond to it?
My friend arrived for dinner visibly agitated. In one of his leadership classes, one of his classmates had shared an example of sexism at work – as an intern in a fancy firm, she was apparently kept out of the conversation in her first week by all the men she was working for. “That’s not a gender thing. Every intern goes through that”, he had protested, and had subsequently been, in his words, attacked by the other women in the class. “You feminists”, he started narrating the incident to me in anger, “so conveniently turn your weaknesses into a complaint about injustice”.
Another friend on the table chimed in, recounting his experience with feminism. He had been in a group activity in class where they had to find a solution to a hypothetical problem that involved stranded ruined planes in deserted islands. One person in the group made a “rather stupid suggestion” that the group heard out patiently, before they decided to go with the suggestion offered by another person, who did in fact, with have some flying experience. The former was a woman of colour, the latter, a white straight cis-gendered man. This distinction was pointed out by someone during the debriefing, as a sign of subtle racism and sexism working in the group dynamic; a suggestion the group found offensive. “I have nothing against feminism”, the third friend said, “I just don’t know why everything has to be about gender all the time.” The first friend nodded. The terms “humanist”, “bra-burning femin*zi”, “men’s rights” were thrown around in the conversation.
My first instinct was to judge, brand them as chauvinists. I wanted to lecture them, trace the history of feminism through the many waves and schools of thought and the broad range of issues it encapsulates, convinced that once people know the same things as me, they have to feel the same way; right? I felt like a defender of the whole feminist movement, the same way one feels about one’s family; it’s by no means perfect, but if anyone says anything against it, one must vehemently defend to protect the honour. Being a feminist has been such a huge part of who I am, of the battles I’ve fought and the things I’ve believed – this felt personal. Losing this “battle” not only meant being proven wrong, it also discredited so much of what I stood for.
One of them noticed the frustration evident on my face and changed the tone, “we are on the same side, J”. I didn’t agree with a lot of what they said, but this debate looked a lot different from the same side; it felt less like a battle. It was now no longer about who wins a territory, but rather a discussion about what is best for the territory. Suddenly my defensiveness vanished. “Feminism is complex”, I tried to summarise what I was feeling, “and it’s kind of unfair to reject an entire movement because you don’t agree with some people’s versions of it”. I confessed that I was saying this as someone who has had her fair share of tussle with several tenets of feminism – do I agree with all of them? I don’t. If feminism as a whole perfect? By no means. Is feminism still important? Yes. Absolutely.
“What is your feminism”, one of them asked. I paused. Usually, I am pretty clear on where I stand on most issues. Pro-choice: definitely. Strongly vouch for inter-sectional conversations in feminism. Vehemently protective when any girl is accused of “asking for it”. Kind of pro-slut walks. Each of these, however, felt like different spectrums that I stood at different points on. To reduce it all to one center point where all the spectrums merge perfectly would probably be a blessing, but if it were a good idea – I wasn’t entirely sure. Also because a part of me wanted to leave the space open to change my mind on those issues, not out of flakiness, but more as openness to points of view hadn’t yet considered. Yet, some sort of allegiance felt necessary. However, on merit of the same allegiance and family metaphor, I shouldn’t have to defend my feminism – despite what places it takes on the different spectrums, they all lie within the basic tenet of equality, and thus within feminism. Why then did it require extra justification?
Words from Roxane Gay’s TED talk, “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” rang true in my head: “We demand perfection from feminists, because we are still fighting for so much, we want so much, we need so damn much. We go far beyond reasonable, constructive criticism, to dissecting any given woman’s feminism, tearing it apart until there’s nothing left.” For an “intellectual issue”, there was too much feeling, too much decision making in that tiny situation on the dinner table. I could hear the responses I was used to hearing play out on cue in my head “seriously, stop being so dramatic about it”.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am dramatic. Proudly so. I also happily take the blame in being an “overthinker” who “reads too much into things”. But sitting on that table, all these thoughts and feelings stirring up inside me, I couldn’t unsee this. My discomfort came from a place of power inequality – a dynamic that I am as much to blame for playing into – but a dynamic that is very real, despite all the good intentions. A dynamic that comes from a certain assertion of normal, which puts (my) feminism outside of this “normal” forcing me, indirectly, to justify my stand to those standing within that normal to be accepted by them. “Hegemony”, I was taught this was called in college. The “normal” that was created by a group that yields power, a “normal” that gets so embedded, that everyone just assumes it is true. A normal that then becomes an ideology that makes decisions for the people within that dynamic, often without the person even realising that they are agreeing to this cultural domination. Sitting here, in this group of well-meaning men I love being asked to justify my feminism, we were all playing by this normal, perpetuating it, without really being fully aware of it.
I tell them that, as kindly as I can. Thankfully, they take a moment to take it in (or maybe just to eat their food, but I am going with the more assuring explanation of the silence that followed) before one of them responds, “but aren’t you trying to create your own hegemony, such that the new normal makes feminism the normal, and those of us outside of that now have to explain to you? Aren’t you fighting for domination, in a fight against domination?”
I could see where he was going with this. I had recently entered into one of those futile but heated Facebook debates about this with another friend, who had shared that godawful video mocking political correctness and “oppression olympics” that went viral recently (I refuse to share the link because, like, contributing to that demand (not happening!)). For those of you lucky to not have seen it, it shares the story of a “privileged man” in a classroom, who essentially gets ostracised for everything he says because it offends some group, and in the end, despite being deserving in his merit, he doesn’t win a certain prize in the math class because equity rules take away points from him and give them to others in the class. Now, if that video was more good-heartedly funny, I would have probably loved to use it engage in a discussion about the the balance between assuming good intentions and pointing out inherent deeply coded systems of injustices, something that I would love to be able to get perspectives on. But, this video made me acutely uncomfortable instead, not because of its exaggerated tone, but the crude way in which it tries to justify its message through a lens of meritocracy.
In the discussion that followed, the much-too-common debate trick of exaggerated exceptions was used neatly, wrapped in reason-appealing notions. So there was the classic “but what about the women who take advantage of these moments and cry wolf in cases of rape”, to discuss the undue misuse of feminism by women to get their way, or worse, to get attention – apparently that’s what happens when we create conditions for women to feel safe and be supported for things like rape. I would probably have agreed to the extent that men need to be given the benefit of doubt when making a decision in these cases, a narrative that sometimes gets skewed. However, the fact remains that the fight against victim shaming/blaming, the fight to give women right to complain against rape without feeling afraid is still too real. While there would definitely be cases of women misusing this power, it is still only the exception. The “self-defense murder” is used so frequently too, but one doesn’t question the need for that law. Several schools misuse the funds that they receive to improve education, but we don’t question the need to push in more funds into education. “Why then does this fight get questioned”, I asked, I must confess, rather aggressively/ defensively.
To which, another commentator said – “look at the context of the video; why does privilege need to feature in a discussion in a math class. It takes away from the learning math”. Conveniently forgotten here is the point that unfortunately that discussion hardly ever shows up in classes other than the social sciences and humanities, but I see his point. A fellow (male) feminist joined in and tried to reason with the barrage of men supporting that video. In a long back and forth that followed, on and off facebook feeds, one of the men said, “look, I am all for equity, but the competition is already intense, and then some populations get unfair advantage because they belong to populations that were once discriminated against”. A point that my friend on the dinner table was also perhaps alluding to; that sense of threat, very real and disconcerting to them.
On the dinner table, I tried to engage with the same thing a friend who fights for racial justice once said to me – “Ideally, we could take a blank slate and start off equally. You know, give everyone the same starting points, same rules, let the best runner win. The problem is, this is a long marathon, several people have already started running a long time ago, and now we are trying to give some people who weren’t allowed into the marathon at all, the chance to catch up by giving them shortcuts in the initial parts of the race. It does not sound fair, and I constantly wonder if it is, I mean everyone else did run the whole route, but it seems also just, once they make it to where the other runners are, who by the way, are still competing, they have a chance to become equal runners. Some of these runners we provide shortcuts to might be Bolt-like fast, and may zoom ahead in this marathon, and all those people who have been running this whole time might have every right to be p*ssed, but I do intend to fight for that Bolt-like person to at least have a chance to fight the race”. My friend didn’t seemed convinced, unfairness always seems too uncomfortable, but when put in the context of the justice issues, the latter feels way too important not to fight for. In my work in inclusion and belonging, I truly struggle with this balance. It is hard to always be able to clearly distinguish between fairness and justice – fairness cannot always be promised or even possible, but justice is ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to access situations where fairness is possible. The means to this are complex, often with much space for improvement, but the debate needs to be about the best way to seek justice, not about whether or not justice is required.
For anyone who has been following the news lately, this fight feels way too real. And to be honest, I am terrified of having that conversation. I am sure there are things I can learn in the conversation, things I hadn’t considered before, and there is value to me opening up my mind about it while also sharing what I have learnt, but the issue feels too sensitive to allow for that, perhaps even too personal lately. In my head it always looks like this: say there’s a destructive object that we are all trying to diffuse, a goal we all share in common, and one way to do that is to shoot it at the right spot. Now, if a person holds this object in their hands, wears a bullerproof jacket and asks me to shoot the object, I would still not do it, because I will still be worried about shooting the person. The best way would be to put the object on a more neutral table, and then try and diffuse it. A conversation about complex topics like these feels like this object – when we refuse to address the complexity of it as a given, oversimplifying it or avoiding it because it is complicated – we cannot diffuse it. We cannot diffuse it if we hold it on our bodies, where there is always a fear of getting shot, of it becoming personal. It needs to be put on a neutral table and diffused collectively, where the differences in our approaches to doing that might just bring us closer as a whole to doing that. But if we don’t diffuse it, it is going to blow in our faves. I don’t even know if we will ever diffuse it entirely, but isn’t that still a fight worth having?
The issue on the dinner table was never resolved fully, but it could have been much worse. For me though, that conversation feels like a reminder of hope – hope that it might be possible to somehow engage in these conversations more deeply and empathetically, learning through them, that some people in this debate might still be on the same side, and perhaps, by accepting the fears and feelings, all of which are very real, and acknowledging the complexity of everything that we are all fighting for, we might at least begin to start working together. Without this hope, I wouldn’t know how to proceed in the world that we see around us lately.
A shameless plug to end this: A hope that lays at the center of the “Library of Perspectives”. To get started on this, I am currently working on an experiment in feminism, and the sides to it. Get in touch if interested. More on this experiment, soon.