Why do Indian Feminist Moms find it hard to embrace the feminist label? by Shweta Ganesh Kumar

One of the first things that you see on my bio on Instagram is the word, ‘feminist’. It is a word that evokes mixed emotions, especially from an Indian perspective. At least once a month, I receive messages from random men asking me why I have the word displayed proudly on my profile. The last message asked me, what I meant by being a ‘feminist’ and whether it meant I only spoke to girls. How do you even respond to a message like that?

How do you begin to explain that being a feminist is certainly not about ‘friendship goals’ within a certain gender?
How do you articulate the years of systematic gender-based discrimination that urges you to take a stand?
How do you begin to explain that being a feminist does not mean one wants to diminish the rights of men and that the intent is to ensure that both the girls as well as boys of our nation are ensured equal footing and the same privileges along with the responsibilities?
But despite the challenges I face due to embracing feminism, I still cannot imagine doing it any other way. And I know that I’m not alone in this journey.
I spoke to a couple of Indian mothers who are openly feminist, on what prompted them to wear the feminist label on their sleeve.
Radhika Kowtha-Rao, an Indian Mother of three says, ‘Once you know something is wrong, an action/word misplaced – it’s hard to unknow it or weigh it in the new light. I am also constantly checking to see if the rage we feel when we hear things on media are indeed rage-worthy. Lots of tone and connotation and context is at play. That’s part of communication. Yet, the world is still so skewed towards males, and females are still fighting to assert ourselves and to be heard. It’s a responsibility now.’
A sentiment that Nikhila Azeez, mother of one agrees with. ‘How is it fair in any universe for any person to be treated lesser than another person.. to not be given equal opportunities.. to be told over centuries that they come second. And here we are talking about an entire gender. An entire gender being told over centuries that they come second. That their opinions are not as important. That the only reason they are on this planet is to procreate.
How is it fair when a man who has no earnings who does not contribute in any which way to a household, who shows no parental responsibilities whatsoever decides that his partner should go through an unplanned second pregnancy knowing that this will completely disrupt the very thin balance they are on already,’ she concludes.
It is hard to argue with the common sense that is the foundation for their comments. In theory, everyone seems to accept that we want to create a world that is based on equality. In theory, no one wants to be seen as the person who believes women should be treated differently just because they are not men. Yet, despite this not many Indian mothers like to openly identify as feminists. As someone who believes awareness is key to getting people on board for the fight for equality, I reached out to some Indian Mothers, who I believe are feminist in spirit, thought and practice yet refuse to label themselves so. What was stopping them?
A couple of them said that they did not believe in labels and that their actions should speak for themselves. But most of them said that they did not like what the term represents in modern India.
A simple Google search proves them right – it shows just how negative the associations with the word are. Amongst the top hits for the phrase ‘Indian Feminist’ are articles on ‘How Indian Feminism is flawed’ and ‘How most Indian feminists are pseudo-feminists’ or even worse, ‘Feminazis’. There are long anecdotal essays on how ‘feminist’ women are too educated for their own good and how they have broken hearts and ruined ‘traditional’ families and how they hate men and crave supremacy. Most articles in this vein are written by men and a lot of them conclude that the only woman who seems to be able to understand the angst of the aggrieved, feminist hating, an Indian man is his mother. So where do Indian Feminist Moms fit in, in this context?
By the very nature of the traditional scope of the role, mothers have been excluded from the rebellious aspects of feminism. The assumption has mostly been that if a woman has chosen to get married and have a child biologically and raise it, you have stepped away from the task of standing with your sisterhood. An accusation that I am very familiar with and one that I have faced right from the time I quit my job with a non-profit organization to get married and shift base. I was told that I had betrayed the cause by going traditional. Later on, when I became a mother at the age of 27, I was told that I was simply a mother now and had no just cause to talk about feminism as I was now a visible symbol of the establishment – a married Indian woman with kids.
This is not a unique experience. A lot of modern Indian mothers I’ve spoken to talk about this exclusion that they have felt from feminist sites to discussions on the movement in India. It is as if our status as mothers naturally ‘elevates’ us to self-sacrificing martyrs or virtues of paragon whose only reason for existence is raising our children. When in all honesty, this glossing over the harsh realities of motherhood is a form of discrimination itself. As an Indian Mother, traditionally the bulk of parenting responsibilities have fallen on the mother – she is the one who gives up her job, is asked to join PTA organizations, send the lunches, make the costumes, check the homework, help with the projects, monitor the extracurricular activities and more, and all of this while she manages the home. Over the years, there have been many Indian fathers who have wanted to be more involved in the parenting of their children. Some have succeeded. But others shy away from breaking the gender roles that they have been conditioned to, since birth. And so Indian parents end up stuck in the same ruts parents have been for centuries.
This does not mean that Indian mothers have not been feminist in their own way – the first mothers to work outside their home, the first ones to engage paid help to take care of the home, the first ones to insist that their daughters did not have to be married young and that they had the right to be educated just like their sons did, the first ones that taught their sons to accord women the same respect they do to men, the first ones that made their sons help out with household chores, the first ones that said that they matter too… there have been hundreds and hundreds of them. We all know them – as grandmothers and mothers, as our Aunts and our friend’s mothers. As our bosses and teachers and domestic help and in so many other roles. And now, it is time to call them by the label that they truly deserve – they were not just strong women, but pioneering feminists who fought for the betterment of the status of women and mothers in our nation, in their own private and public ways.
But why is the label important? It is important because it shows the naysayers that feminism is not a dirty word. Calling someone a feminist should not be an insult. It is a badge to be worn with pride. When you say that you are a Feminist, you are standing up and asking for women to have the same rights that a man has had. You are not asking for a man’s rights to be taken away. Feminism is just one aspect of a larger battle for equality. You might be living and raising your children by the feminist code but every time you reject the label saying you don’t want to get political, it seems like you are ashamed of being thought of as one when you are probably just trying to avoid controversy.
But remember that change only happens when there is a large shift in the status quo, a shift that happens when a tribe comes together to work on common goals. And how will you find your tribe if you fly under the radar? What is the point of being invisible when you could amplify the cause by proudly embracing the label? All parents want their children to be able to achieve all that they possibly can without being discriminated on the basis of their gender. But it won’t happen if your voice is not out there adding to ours. Change begins from the smallest unit and you could be the catalyst for change within yours.
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