It was a characteristically muggy day in Kochi, and I was hanging my head out the side of an autorickshaw; attempting to feel some semblance of a breeze to complement the musky refreshment of my clove cigarette. A speeding moped broke my sun-burnt moment of disassociation. A mother and daughter waved at me from atop the moped as their bright pink saris fluttered against the air. They looked free as birds; speeding down that pot-hole riddled road. There was no man with them to chaperone. I waved back and took a long drag on my kretek. We were heading to the same destination.
Women like this are a new breed in India. They possessed a means of transport independent from the man of their household and were learning English from me and some other travellers. I was teaching an English class designed to empower local women, and the mother had brought along her daughter because she knew as well as I did, that it would be the next generation of women who would bring gender equality to Indian society. In a country as vast, ancient, and as complicated as India; these things take time.
The things I saw in India made me identify as a feminist for the first time in my life, and whilst they are controversial, the things I experienced need to be talked about more here in our comfortable and native West. In India, women face often insurmountable amounts of discrimination, especially if they come from a poor and uneducated background; which is the case for the majority of Indians today. Girls are often not allowed to go to school, despite the Government’s best wishes. By the time they are twenty they are most probably married to a man their father has decided on, at which point they effectively gain a second set of parents in their in-laws, who they have no choice but to respect. Children are then an expectation, rather than a choice, and they won’t see any real respect until they themselves become in-laws. Men, on the other hand, have a pretty free-reign on their own destinies. They are encouraged to go to school, and many end up working abroad in Arabia or in the West. More or less, they can marry who they like, when they like. If they sleep with a few people on the way, that’s no real problem. They face pressure to have children and to find a wife, but they face far fewer repercussions than women do if they choose a different path. One of the most heart-breaking things I have heard to this day, I heard in Fort Kochi from one of my students. I had asked the class to give a presentation on their dreams: what they want for their futures. One woman replied “Women are not allowed to dream. Our husbands don’t like it.”
Rapes in India are so prolific, that we are not even sure how many actually happen. We know how many are reported, but we equally do not know how many go unreported. The culture in India restricts women from speaking out; they are to be seen, not heard. Almost every woman I spoke to in Kochi had a story to tell me about rape. Whether that was a story of their own rape, or an admission of their fear to walk down the street alone; even in broad and outspoken daylight. Travelling with western women I saw some of the worst harassment I have ever seen, from groping to public masturbation, to voyeuristic photographs on beaches to verbal abuse and heckling. Women have no respect in India, and I saw it with my own eyes. Whilst they may enjoy a mostly equal standing constitutionally; corruption and culture keep women as housewives and mothers rather than citizens. If you go out at night, you will see very few women around on their own or in groups of other women. They are either not allowed, or too afraid. That is a real rape culture. Not a ‘rape culture’ based on pornography and sexualised advertisements.
India is, in so many ways, a fantastic place; one of my favourite places in the world. It is the world’s largest democracy, with a vibrant and fascinating history and culture that will keep any traveller entwined in wanderlust for quite some time. Indeed, I will not forget the hospitality, kindness, spirituality, and work ethic I saw in the Indian people in any hurry. Even so, working with local women shattered this romanticised view for me. I try not to judge other cultures, but there are a few universal wrongs that I cannot abide by in any culture, and the way women are treated in India was something I couldn’t abide. That’s why I opted to do an extra women’s empowerment after originally heading to India to build a school and coach some sports.
India has a patchy history of feminism. Women who do speak out often get silenced, but slow progress is being made. Things need to change in India, because women are still very much second-class citizens. So, while women in the developing world struggle to even survive in the misogynistic climate it fosters, what are western feminists doing about it?
Nothing, is the short answer. In the West, real feminism had died a death due to an extreme lack of self-awareness and perspective, and a misguided affair with Marxist ideology. Third Wave feminism: the current stage of feminism in the West, has largely become a joke. It has become a shrill minority now, with only seven percent of Britons identifying as feminists. That’s fair enough, because the fight has been won on most fronts, and the remaining fighters seem utterly misguided and blind to real issues facing women today. Now they just seem like bitter academics, arguing over the use of the word ‘bossy’ and the way men sit on crowded trains. They see the world through the lens of a constant conflict between men on women, with history being pushed on by the overthrowing of supposed patriarchies. This is despite women enjoying full constitutional equality in the UK, with laws protecting against pay discrimination and a myriad of other injustices that used to be prominent but have now, thanks to the first and second waves of feminism, have faded into the memories of previous generations. This ‘Third Wave’ proclaims that there are no human issues, only male and female ones, with male ones repeatedly brushed under the carpet. Men having a suicide rate three times higher than that of women? That’s nothing compared to a pay gap that exists purely as a result of individual choices. Men are now far less likely to go to university than women? Whatever, men are more likely to interrupt a woman in the middle of a sentence and ‘mansplain’ to her.
Here in the West, our obsession with protest and social change has become self-indulgent and blind to the real horrors of equality worldwide. There are still many issues to be addressed in our own society when it comes to how women and men are treated differently, but we have forgone this fight in favour of lofty and misplaced pursuits of loud protest in the interest of being revolutionaries. India on the other hand, is many steps behind. You could almost call the UK post-feminism, in terms of what has been achieved and in terms of the bastardisation feminism has gone through in recent years. India has barely made it past the first wave of feminism. As I said, India has pretty much achieved constitutional equality, placing it past the suffragette movements we now rightly revere. It’s quickly approaching the bra-burning second wave of feminism; which is the fight for women in cultural terms. Its all about giving social mobility to women, and all about fighting for respect. The richer and more educated India becomes, the easier this fight is becoming. Once women are taught that things don’t have to be that way; once women are taught that they are individuals with agency rather than property, the men will realise these truths to be self-evident. In India, the fight marches on, and it is very much still a fight worth fighting. I wish I could say the same for feminism back home.
I have seen the realities of gender equality in the developing world, and ironically the reddest pill I ever took was becoming a feminist; a feminist with a healthy sense of self-awareness. The majority of the world’s women face discrimination on a daily basis. Rape, assault, slavery; these are commonplace in the developing world. Here at home, women smash glass ceilings. We have female leaders in business, in politics, in communities, and in education. We have a fair and mostly un-corrupt legal system and a series of laws to protect against discrimination and persecution. We have work to do, but it is nothing in comparison to what women have to face in India or for that matter South Africa, Ethiopia, and the rest of the developing world.
So, while feminists here in the Land of Hope and Glory squabble over statistics and the use of gender in language, I plan to stand up for the girls and women who didn’t have the suffragettes and the bra-burners to fight for their right to dream. It’s about time we woke up and realised that there are no male or female issues, only human ones. We must fight for the betterment of humans the world over, rather than virtue-signaling about non-issues here at home. All people, irrespective of gender and nationality, deserve the right to dream.
To all those here at home who call themselves feminists: get off your arses, and make a positive change in the lives of women and girls across the world by actually doing something. They don’t need platitudes, they need allies.