Misinterpretation of feminism

Tagging bold, intelligent, independent and iconoclast women negatively is not a new trend

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or prostitute”. Although British author Rebecca West wrote this line more than hundred years ago, it literally describes how most people think of feminists in the present world. 

Feminism, like any other ideology, has different types and analysis. Even so, it is one of the most misinterpreted words especially in this subcontinent. Often fighting for basic needs or for human rights is counted as feminism here, if it is about women. Moreover, personal opinion of a woman expressed in publicly or privately often gets tagged as ideology of the whole community. This trend has become evident in the age of social media where outspoken women are labeled as ‘radical feminists’ and are harshly criticized accordingly by both men and women. To do so they often tend to justify crimes against women. 

I have had a similar experience recently. One of my friend’s cousins, an engineer by profession, was recently beaten to death allegedly by her husband, who was also an engineer. The news made me sad, angry and numb at the same time. Later, I was discussing it with a friend, who had a speculation that the girl must have done something wrong. I was both surprised and shocked by her justification. When I told her that one do not have the right to kill a person whatever the reason is, she tagged me as a “radical feminist.”

Tagging bold, intelligent, independent and iconoclast women negatively is not a new trend. Scholars argue men have been doing this since the ancient period to transform the society from matriarchal to patriarchal. To establish the supremacy of men thousands of women have been ostracized and killed across the world. In the middle ages, women were regularly tagged as witches in Europe. From the early decades of the 14th century until 1650, between 170,000 and 424,000 women were executed for their alleged ‘witchcraft’. Historians describe it as a systematic male attack on women.

Sociologist Karl Thompson recognized four widespread types of feminism namely radical feminism, Marxist feminism, liberal feminism and post-modern feminism. Among these types, only radical feminists tend to blame men for social inequality and claim a change in the whole system instead of reducing the gap. Marxist feminism blames capitalism rather than patriarchy as the source of women’s oppression. On the other hand, liberal feminism, supports the notion of putting the blame on culture and social values. It emphasizes on equality in education and employment and believes that both men and women will suffer because of this discrimination based on gender. Post-modern feminism aims at destabilizing the patriarchal norms entrenched in societies which have led to gender inequality. It does not see women as a single homogenous group.

In a country like Bangladesh, where in most cases women do not even have decision making position in their home, radical feminism is surely not a widespread theory. The pioneer of Bengali feminists, Begum Rokeya was a liberal feminist herself and fought for women’s right of getting education and equal opportunities. Yet the word ‘’feminism’’ itself is thought as a radical term here. Feminists, who try to portray gender discrimination in the society, are constantly being bashed on social media and also in real life. Even an advertisement of a sanitary pad that is showing a brother’s care towards his sister is criticized mercilessly. Both men and women who supported the advertisement also faced similar criticism. It seems that controlling is the only way of taking care of women here. 

According to a research conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh and Jatiyo Nari Nirjaton Protirodh Forum, 66 percent of Bangladeshi women have been victims of domestic violence and only 1.1 percent of them seek help from law enforcement bodies. But recently, especially in social media platforms, women have been increasingly talking about their rights and inequalities they face. Unfortunately, they are often blamed for defaming culture by their ‘feminist’ activities.

And the critics are not only patriarchal men; even many of Bangladeshi women, even the educated folks, do not support the idea of women being independent, mentally or financially. They willingly want to be the silently oppressed in the name of love. I have seen women whose husbands are having extra marital affair, yet abuse them physically and mentally. But despite all this, they do not leave their husband, because the patriarchal system does not support it.  I have seen many women who tag other women as fools, oversensitive, and even evil just for expressing her willingness to be free and to take part in decision making. Frank Oconnor rightly said, “No man is as anti-feminist as a really feminine woman.”

When someone talk in favor of women to ensure even a basic human right that should be provided to every human, people often tag him/her as a feminist. Though radical feminism is basically an idea practiced in West and Bangladeshi Feminists mostly support liberal feminism, they are tagged as violent, austere women who dedicated their life for defaming our culture and values. And if a man supports feminist ideas he is either criticized as a playboy or a timid person who lacks manhood and dominated by ‘mere’ women. 

In a society where talking about sexual harassment means embarrassing her family, rapes are believed to be a consequence of not wearing “proper outfits”, talking about sexual hygiene is tagged as shamelessness, claiming for basic human rights are called feminism, and feminists are thought as shameless aesthetes deserving  physical and mental abuse and slangs, light is yet to come.

Feminism is a much needed concept for the development of men, women and society as whole. So, feminism should not be used as an abusive term. 

If someone is working to reduce gender disparity, to ensure basic human rights for women and to secure independence for all, he orshe is doing something right being a feminist and his or her help is necessary for the society.

Pratyasha Bhattacharjee is a student at Department of Public Administration, University of Chittagong