‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ sang Rex Harrison in ‘My Fair Lady’, enumerating in great detail the virtues of men and the failings of women. Was it in jest? I’m not sure. Hasn’t this been a recurrent theme in many a discourse in coffee houses and college debates and gatherings in front of a fire, of a winter evening? Where men and women alike have laughed at the ‘shrill, angry neo-amazons’ vociferating for voting rights for women in street corners or marching for demanding the same legal rights as men or even the Pussy Riot members doing their impromptu street performances? I think all of us have experienced this at some time. I bet we all have friends who roll their eyes and sigh in despair when they hear the word ‘Feminist’ spoken. Because, a large percentage of the human population today actually believe feminism to be a totally outdated concept, used and abused by some women to gain power or recognition in certain areas that are reserved for them, like international, national or local platforms for Women’s Rights, organizations fighting to prevent Violence against Women, promote education and health care for girls and women etc. I am sure that the majority of our friends and acquaintances are persuaded that women today have the same rights and privileges as men in all spheres of human activity. After all, women are present almost in all professions, hold important positions in different institutions, are elected as Prime Ministers and Presidents in different countries – in short, women have ‘arrived.’

I quite agree with the view that women today have come a long way compared to their great grandmothers or even in certain cases, their mothers, in almost all countries in the world. But has the fundamental gender gap, in terms of access to all types of opportunities, altered that much, even in the most developed societies in the world? Can we leave out of our understanding the glaring injustice meted out unchallenged in most of the Islamic countries of the world? Or the condition of women in countries torn by war or internal strife where they are still considered as the spoils of war? Or the torture inflicted on girls and women by their immediate families in countries like India if they ever dare to venture outside the boundaries carefully drawn for them by the patriarchal societies? Can we close our eyes to the discrimination of women in our workplaces, be it in the high pinnacle of academics or the chrome and glass office building that house highly skilled men and women in finance or law or information technology? Because these are the ground realities that we systematically refuse to see, blinded by the brilliance of a handful of women in public spheres and by the mantle of silence that surrounds the sorry tales of injustice and discrimination against women who are not in the lime light and remain the ‘hidden figures’ of human progress.

Nothing was handed out to women on a silver platter by benevolent males running all the power structures in different societies. Women had to fight every inch of the way for obtaining rights that should have been theirs naturally. The right to vote, to own property, to work, to choose the kind of life they wanted to live, to have total control over their bodies and their sexuality. I think that the essential reason for the intolerance to the feminist movement today is because of this last factor – women wanting to totally own and celebrate their sexuality as a means for empowerment. The reason is very clear. The patriarchal societies have always been frightened of the power of female sexuality – numerous social rules and norms were imposed on women in almost all societies to curb and undermine them. Since the beginning of history, man has endeavored to control the female body through edicts and customs and myths and stories, sorting them out into neat little squares, defining a specific role at each stage of life – daughter, sister, wife, and mother essentially – with specific duties designed to serve the male dominated society. Sexual relationships were designed to produce off springs, preferably males, to carry on the blood line of the progenitors. Any behavior outside this norm was ostracized, as it continues even today, though in a modified form. It was all right for men to lust after women – there were ‘fallen women’ galore, living on the verges of the mainstream society, to cater to their needs. Women stayed at home, serving to uphold the straight and narrow end of patriarchal societies.

It is easy to imagine the consternation of our male dominated societies by the Feminist movement today. Women have finally figured out where their real power lies – the refusal to perpetuate the male dominance in modern societies. They want to have total control on their bodies, over their sexual preferences and their sexual partners. They want to have the freedom of having or not having children, they want to change the unequal balance of power between men and women which is, and always has been, biological. This is the chain that needs to be broken, simply to give women the freedom of choice – something they still have not achieved.
Aparajita Sen


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