By Shikha Singh
Feminism is an activist theory that aims to battle and end the systematic domination of women at the hands of agents of patriarchy. The logical aim of feminism is thus to ultimately render itself unnecessary as soon as structures and instruments of patriarchy are dismantled.
A section of people in the Western world emerged in as early as 1980s and started proclaiming that the time for abolishing feminism had come. This is arguably when the term “postfeminist” gained momentum. They argued that the goals of feminism as set by the first and the second waves of feminism had already been achieved. (To know more about the four waves of feminism, this is a good primer.) This idea, that the world had entered a postfeminist age, originated in the West but is also prevalent among some sections of Indians who consider feminist issues being limited to equal access to education and work. Since these goals have either been achieved or are gradually being achieved by state facilitated policies, people who define feminism narrowly think that feminism is no longer required. However, appearance of another wave of feminism, of which #MeToo is a part, suggests otherwise.
Issues such as sexual harassment, rape culture, assault on campus, which the #MeToo movement has largely focused on, are not new. They have been addressed by activists and academics in the past. Many laws, despite being imperfect, already exist and people do not need to be feminists in order to understand that sexual harassment or assault is wrong and criminal. And yet, Kira Cochrane, who has written extensively about fourth wave feminism, says, “What’s happening now feels like something new again”.
But what’s so novel about it?
This new wave, or the so-called fourth wave, is markedly different because of the manner in which it is taking up feminist issues, old and new alike. The first three waves saw the struggle waged on the streets. Books and articles were written, songs were composed, art was perfected — but by only a select few. The ideas and goals of the movement were conceived by a few, by the so-called intelligentsia, even though protests and mass mobilisations took place amongst all who identified with the cause at grass roots level as well.
The fourth wave is markedly different.
Internet, in the fourth wave, is not only the platform where feminist ideas are exchanged, but where the actual struggle is waged. The gap between the “movement leaders”, that is, the erstwhile intellectuals, and the “followers” has collapsed. In fact, the roles today have become interchangeable. This is not only a feature of the movement but an essential requirement today.
Our empathy is invoked when we read a 14-year-old’s account of being catcalled by a 20-year-old on The Everyday Sexism Project. Her visceral fear and helplessness go beyond providing a clinical definition of sexual harassment; her experience lays bare what being subjected to sexual violence leaves in its wake. This fear and feeling of helplessness do not go away as the survivor matures. They persist — at 24, 34, 74. This fear is as real as the fear of getting abandoned in your old age, getting robbed or killed walking down that dark lane, or of remaining trapped in that less than happy phase you are in all your life. The only thing that sets that 14-year-old girl’s fear apart from all the others is that the former is experienced mostly, if not solely, by women, and by practically all women at that. The pervasiveness of the problem belied by the number of women who continue to come forward. The vividness of their experiences is discomfiting, the names revealed are shocking. Subjected to judgemental and anonymous trolls online, the affect on the woman who speaks up online can only be underestimated in its magnitude. The act of sharing online is the first step towards expelling their fears.
The most important feature that has enabled the spread of this revolutionary movement, online social media networking, however, is also considered its greatest limitation. It is being criticised for being limited to a privileged few who have access to internet. It is being called elitist. Yet others are calling it a movement of a hypersensitive generation which is presenting itself as a victim. Sexual harassment and sexual violence have been normalised to such an extent that speaking up against them is the aberration, not the heinous acts themselves.
The #MeToo campaign in India, however, given the nature of the nation, its infrastructure, and the demographics of its people, is marked by a lack of participation from the marginalised and hence, is perhaps rightly called elitist and exclusionary.
The movement that had begun in the virtual space has spilled over into real world. It has led to the accused being suspended from their current positions, cases being filed, and at the very least, public shaming of the perpetrators. If these acts of crime have been committed, the perpetrators need to be punished with the help of actual laws in the actual world. The biases in the system that are allowing these perpetrators to get away need to be challenged and the world, real and not just virtual, must become better for the women to live.
When Highway’s Veera calls out her perpetrator and declares that she is not okay with a world in which harassment is a normal, everyday event, it is an act of bravery. All the Veeras today are performing the same acts of bravery. But the discussion now needs to extend to include those like poor Mahavir’s mother who do not have the means or chance to do so in the first place!
Shikha Singh is a writing analyst at Qrius.
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