Men and feminism?

First of all, let me clarify that I’m a woman writing this article. Also, that I’m a feminist. And these two terms are not necessarily interchangeable.

The reason I’m writing this article today is because, since the time last year when I started taking feminism seriously and started talking about it, most men in my peer-group started being very defensive about being men. After having long arguments with practically every male friend I have, being labelled as a ‘female chauvinist’ by some (in jest, apparently!) and trying to decipher the reason behind such a strong and vehement resistance towards feminism amongst men, I have finally decided to write this article. As an assertion that we’re not here to steal the golden throne on which you men sit perched upon so proudly. We just want you to shift a little and make space for us to sit as well. Or better still, get rid of the throne and let us both sit on the floor. And celebrate being together.

Most people, I’ve realised, have a problem with the word ‘feminism’. It comes from the word femininity which, according to many, refers only to everything women do and are; it is ‘womanliness’. But what if means more than that? It is, after all, an abstract concept, an idea symbolizing something, just as masculinity symbolizes another, diametrically opposite, idea. Traditionally, the feminine or the ‘yin’ symbolises fertility, creativity, nurturance, compassion, emotions, passivity, fluidity, empathy, tolerance, the moon and a holistic view of the world. Masculinity, on the other hand, symbolizes the ‘yang’, determination, passion, action, goal-orientation, logic, steadfastness, inflexibility, linearity, the sun and an individualistic view. Although, let me clarify that these are merely contextual representations; the concepts of masculinity and femininity can be perceived differently in different cultures, times and contexts.

The earth is feminine; receptive, compliant, has the power to create life. The rain is masculine; penetrating the earth to create new life. But the earth has masculine qualities as well; it is hard, solid and steadfast. And the rain has feminine qualities as well; it is fluid, tempestuous, nurturing as well as destructive. Just like that, all of us have within us both masculine and feminine qualities. A woman can be extremely determined and action oriented, like Rani Laxmibai, just as a man can epitomise qualities of compassion and tolerance, such as Mahatma Gandhi.

In the ancient times, both these masculine and feminine energies of the world were worshipped. Hence, during those times and even in contemporary tribal cultures which live apart from civilized society and in harmony with nature, women and men were (are) accorded equal respect and status in the social structure. However, with the advent of monotheistic religions, the world has moved towards a reverence for the masculine (a single male God or ‘His’ Messiah), progressively eliminating the importance, and thus the appreciation, for the feminine. Subsequently, we see our society becoming increasingly masculine; goal-oriented rather than process-oriented – the pot at the end of the rainbow is always more important than the rainbow itself! We are becoming competitive, individualistic, and consumerist, while ideas such as compassion, co-operation and tolerance are disregarded—be that in areas of work or in our personal lives. They’re becoming words that are glorified, idolised and put on pedestals, but of no use ‘out in the field’, much like how society perceives and treats women!

Feminists argue that the system of patriarchy that is omnipresent in society today, and has been for centuries, imposes many restrictions on women. And I’m not denying that. Even today, the condition of women is definitely worse off than that of men. Women have to deal with threats of violence and abuse, both inside as well as outside the house. They have no say in governance of the home or of the state, and whatever little they have is mostly nominal.  They have no property rights, even now after so many laws and policies on joint home ownership and women’s share in heritable property. Basically, most women are not aware of their rights or not bold enough to demand them. They are conditioned to be compliant, docile and subservient. Men, on the other hand, have a sack full of privileges that patriarchy has gifted them, right from their birth. And the women’s movement, since its inception a century ago, has been fighting for women to not be denied those privileges and choices that are available to men.

But behind this, what fails to be recognised by both men and women is that patriarchy has also put restrictions on men, although so nicely gift-wrapped and falsely glorified that many don’t even understand they are restrictions. These limitations are basically regarding the expression of or inclination towards the feminine. In earlier times, this was controlled through religious teachings and had a framework of ‘dharma’ or morality attached to it. The worst part is, this notion of ‘masculinity as a virtue’ is so deeply rooted within us, through conditioning while growing up or the influence of mass media, that we start regarding it as natural. I remember in primary school when the sight of a boy crying made me so uncomfortable that I would have a fit of awkward giggles. Never did a girl crying leave me feeling like that. I still wonder what it was that caused this discomfort. Crying is a natural phenomenon that is triggered by pain caused to the body or mind. Everybody does it; we don’t observe male babies not crying because they are males. So obviously, it isn’t ‘unnatural’ for males to cry. Why is it, then, that society hammers this “men do not cry” ‘fact’ into our brains— be those male, female or somewheres-in-between?

Feminism sought to show the world that women could be ‘equal’ to men. But in that process, I feel, it asserted something that patriarchy was already doing for so long. It exalted masculinity and shunned femininity. For my mother’s generation of feminists, discarding make-up, hair and traditional women’s clothing was a sign of protest; a liberation from stereotyped notions of femininity and beauty. Today, what with ‘lipstick-feminism’ and SlutWalks, women are acknowledging that it is empowering to ‘embrace one’s femininity’… but when will men start embracing it as well, and appreciating its value? And again, is femininity only about wearing revealing clothes and lipstick? Or is it about also nurturing the values it symbolises, values that men and women both have been steadily rejecting over the years?

Hence, feminism isn’t only about women trying to step ‘out’ and prove their place in the world, or ‘show’ men how they can do everything men do, it is about men accepting the feminine within themselves, and not being afraid to express it! That doing the work traditionally done by women, or expressing tendencies traditionally associated to women, can be as empowering as women stepping out of the house in trousers, to earn a living. Being able to care for one’s children, cooking, looking after the home, expressing strong emotions, showing care, compassion, empathy, sensitivity, being able to just listen to someone, are all needs that exist within every human being, but which have been denied expression by the patriarchal society for too long now. This denial and belittlement not only creates a sense of false superiority within men and women who portray strong masculine tendencies, but also puts a burden on them to follow rigid patterns of behaviour, communication and choice of work. Instead, by nurturing these feminine values and traits, not only can men (with some help from women, of course!) rein in a new kind of revolution but also develop themselves as more holistic and humane beings!

Ultimately, what feminists have been advocating for the last century is this freedom of choice. The choice to live, work, behave and just be according to our own potentials and dreams, rather than according to our sex, or our caste, or our religion, or our skin-colour, or any other such categorization that we have no say in.

The earth needs rain just as the rain needs the earth. Both are interdependent. Masculinity and femininity, both abstract concepts – values and ideals –co-exist, just as men and women, imbibing both within them, co-exist. And what the world needs today is a shift towards femininity! It needs compassion, empathy, tolerance and authenticity. It needs people who can talk about their feelings, but more importantly, it needs people who can listen. It needs a sustainable, holistic, we’re-all-in-this-together! approach. It needs people, both men and women, who care – for each other, for their children, and for the environment. It needs the sun and the moon both, although there are times when they do eclipse each other!

As the pendulum of time swings towards a masculine pull today, can the men of the world help swing it back towards a harmonious balance?

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