New Internationalist

Define Feminism: a poem

My daughter and I, and my husband and sons, have had frequent conversations about feminism.

I realize I am a bundle of contradictions as I tell my annual batch of British development students to be ultra careful in India. To cover up for their own safety. I hate doing it because saying ‘wear long loose clothes’ goes against everything; it’s a step away from saying ‘wear a burqa or hijab’.

And I argue with a Muslim man that to say that women tempt men is ludicrous. If a man covets a five-year-old girl, is he the sinner or she? I ask him. So where’s the logic behind covering a girl child in black burqa from head to toe? He smiles, but his beautiful wife and daughter have recently moved into hijab, though their grandmothers in Kerala walked free and unencumbered. Am I a hypocrite?

What about culturally appropriate attire, ask my activist friends who don’t like scantily clad women walking around villages. There’s scope for a full-length article here. But for now I thought I’d share my daughter’s thoughts. She who insists she cannot write.

This then is from Tahira, born in 1983 with a different perspective from that of her mother who lived with sexually inappropriate remarks through the 1970s and 1980s, when few people talked about sexual harassment. And most women had to grin and bear it.

Us (Non)Feminist (Wo)Men

I’m not sure I’d call myself a feminist
Said my best friend (with a little moue of distaste), and my sister in law agreed.
They’re both
Intelligent, accomplished, and independent women.

Of course I’m a feminist
Said my beautiful, commonsensical mother
But please
Change into a kurta and out of those jeans before you leave.

It’s an elitist preoccupation
Said my activist scholar brother as he
Cleared the table
And started washing the dishes (while I propped up my feet)

Well, I guess I am a feminist!
Said my startled, future husband, and
Epiphany over,
He paid the bill and held the door for me.
            ……
Please don’t be chivalrous – it’s sexist!
Said the woman to my father,
Looking pointedly at
The door he held open, at a fancy Oxford conference.

My mostly loquacious father,
Who holds doors for absolutely everyone, (regardless of their genitalia,)
Said nothing, shrugged,
And preceded her in hurt bewildered silence.

Please don’t be so ethnocentric
I want to tell the woman from Oxford,
Don’t you realize
Chivalry’s a western cultural construct? (backpedal, quickly now, you don’t want to be racist).

Don’t sacrifice politeness for political correctness,
And start to second guess each thoughtful gesture.
That’s what I want to tell my father
He is clearly a feminist (according to me)
       ………
She’s exhausted, so she tells them, she’s impure and menstruating.
And is banished to the anteroom and the solitude she craves.
With an impish little smile,
She lies down on the matting, no one can touch her now for three whole days (Mission Accomplished!)

The audience chants Vagina! as I slip into the corridor,
To check His father’s eaten the dinner I cooked that morning.
Mindspace uncluttered,
I enjoy the rest of Eve Ensler’s brilliant, hilarious, feminist play

She swore she’d never be a passive victim (the girl I’d love if I were lesbian).
I want to shout applause and vehemently agree,
But I’ve shamed myself to silence,
As (earlier that day) we sat frozen as she confronted her molester alone (we were like strangers on a bus)
……
I want to tell my friend
That she can call herself a feminist, define it on her own terms
And continue
To wear a bra and want a boyfriend

I fundamentally believe
In equity and equality, so I’m definitely a feminist
But that isn’t
All that I am (the whole is greater than the parts)

I tell my morning mirror that I’m equanimously feminist,
Without boxing myself into black and white pigeon holes
That demarcate boundaries,
Imposed by other people’s misconceptions and insecurities.

Comments on Define Feminism: a poem

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  1. #1 ajf 20 Jun 11

    I really enjoyed this! The poem has a really nice touch of humour, and its very keenly observed. I often find discussions about feminism end up with participants talking past each other because they have different ideas about what feminism means. I think this article hits the nail on the head in that it means so many different things to different people.

    Would it be too much of a stretch to say people project their own beliefs onto feminism? People project their own beliefs onto their religions, and this allows them to justify these beliefs. I wonder if the same thing happens here. For example, the issue over clothing. How much of this is a feminist issue? Is it really helpful framing it in feminist terms, or is it too narrow. Should we talk about things in more inclusive, 'humanist' terms? For example, is a choice of clothes purely a feminist issue? Is it purely a product of the oppression of women by patriarchal society? Feel free to disagree, but I would say no. I would say there are plenty of non-gender-related cultural factors. My point being, gender is only part of the story.

    I almost get the feeling that feminism means so many different things it's not a very useful concept. What do others think on this?

  2. #2 v 21 Jun 11

    Really nicely written, very thought provoking and definitely put a smile on my face!

    I think it would be interesting to read more opinions on what feminism means to people. In a passing conversation a few years back, someone told me that I'm a 'silent feminist'. I didn't ask for an explanation and am still figuring out what it means to me and whether it is true.

    Reading this made me think about how, more often than not, we go with the crowd on definitions about things that we feel are not immediately in need of the effort of deeper thought. I'm sure this article would stop some of us on that track.

  3. #3 Ann 21 Jun 11

    A beautiful and excruciating poem - an emblem of what life is for so many women.

    I'm passing this on to my daughter (and son), and thank you for sharing it.

  4. #4 Beulah Kaushik 21 Jun 11

    Brilliant article and a really GOOD poem. Tahira, you are talented. This has captured the thoughts most of us cant express. Great write up!!!

  5. #5 MAri 24 Jun 11

    A comment from Tasneem via email:

    Loved your daughters take on the whole is more than the sum total of parts…. Tight roping that paradox….does the hijab on the face is an assumption that there is hijab on the mind and thinking….

  6. #6 MARI 24 Jun 11

    Tahira's reply to Tasneem, (Also via email), but Im adding them here because they are relevant to the post.

    Hi Tasneem,

    This is Tahira, Mari's daughter. About 15 minutes ago, (without seeing your comment) I had an almost identical reaction about walking a tightrope when you comment on Hijab, and then saw your mail, and had to connect with you directly!

    I was recently at dinner at a friends place, when the topic of France's pseudo secular ban came up for discussion, and I was surprised to be the ONLY person in the room who felt that a government had no business dictating attire, and curtailing a citizen's fundamental civil liberty regarding what they wear. Everyone else (all non muslims) felt that the hijab is a product of patriarchy, and muslim women need to be ’rescued’, and even if they claim to wear it out of choice, it because they have internalized the oppression.

    While Im sure that many women are forced behind the veil, and are oppressed, I was so disturbed by the arrogance, the refusal to even consider the possibility that there are muslim women who know their own minds and are intelligent enough to make a choice that might be purely the product of their own personal beliefs and not imposed on them by anyone else. I have friends who are incredibly intelligent, articulate and very very emancipated, who at various points have chosen to wear the hijab (with NO pressure), and it angers me to see women like them dismissed as ’oppressed with out even knowing it’. Intrestingly, many of the people in the room who felt that the hijab should be banned because its only meant for women, were flabbergasted when I asked them to extrapolate that argument to their mangalsutras, or bindis or even the ghunghat. All of them thought Kate Middleton's wedding veil was lovely, and most of them (like good Indian brides) covered their head on their wedding day. None of this could EVER symbolize oppression to them.

    I was wondering if you have any intelligent literature which examines the issue in all its complexity. the best article I,ve come accross so far is http://www.tehelka.com/story_main42.asp?filename=hub260909why_i.asp . Do have anything else you would reccomend reading?

    And thanks so much for your comment!

  7. #7 thulir 05 Jul 11

    This is just awesome! Mari and Tahira, you have put into words so brilliantly all the contradictions which most of us women of our generations feel...

    Anu

  8. #9 Timothy 06 Sep 11

    I loved this poem. I love how complex thoughts are so simply stated. It's so intelligent, with such a wry sense of humour, I especially like how the authour doesnt take the subject of feminism too seriously, despite the fact that the subject matter is far from funny or frivolous, unlike most of the earnest articles one usually reads on feminism. (Dont get me wrong, Im not saying serious discussions arent needed, Im just saying its nice to read something intelligent that also puts a smile on your face).

    I didnt get the paragraph on menstruating and no one can touch her for 3 days? Is that a biblical reference?

  9. #10 mari 08 Sep 11

    Hinduism views the menstruating woman as “impure” or “polluted” . The impurity lasts only during the menses, and ends immediately thereafter. Menstruating women are often sent to a separate room, sometimes a house outside the main house, (sometimes even outside the village). They are not allowed to enter the pooja room (the prayer room) or temples, or other sacred places. Because they are considered polluting, they cannot enter the kitchen, cook, or touch other members of the family. They are supposed to use separate utensils and cutlery, and separate bedding. Despite the stigma of pollution, many Indians believe that the taboo originated as a means of giving women a few days of rest, since during their menses, women are supposed to rest, and do no work.

  10. #11 SEA 24 Jan 12

    So many elements about feminism so neatly encapsulated - witty, poignant too - and crosses the generations as well as cultures. Thanks for writing it and to your mother for posting it on NI.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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