By Sohini Chatterjee
"How did you become a feminist?" I have been asked this question, in various garbs, several times. The answer is: it did not happen all of a sudden, without preamble. Even to this moment, feminism continues to wonderfully and generously reveal itself to me, as I slowly but surely inch closer to understanding the nuances of feminist politics.
Feminism is not solely about gender equality, even though it is largely about that. Today, feminism(s) appropriates different ideas when approaching the question of equality between men and women according to the specific cultural contexts in which they are situated. Our diversities necessitate that we approach the question of equality with caution. Women are heterogeneous in their race, religion, caste, creed, class, sexual orientation or what have you. These factors can hardly be made invisible in feminist conversations or debates. Such differentiations have led feminism(s) to evolve equality-promoting strategies by resisting the temptation to arbitrarily abstract the gendered subjects as separate from their socio-cultural milieu. Feminists have realized that imposing a universal idea of "liberty" and "equality" is a self-defeating enterprise.
It took me a long time to wrap my head around what now seems like a simple, straightforward explanation. When I look back, I realize that my affinity with feminism, which started in the summer of 2012 during my undergraduate years, has matured considerably over time, and I have learnt and unlearnt many things.
A few years ago, I remember naively telling a hijab-wearing classmate that the headscarf should not be necessary for women if they're not necessary for men. In those days, I used to think of myself as a "modern", "liberal", "emancipated" feminist. Today I have started looking at these terms much more critically but back then I was like a scavenger, looking for traces of oppression everywhere. I was on a mission to fight for "freedom", a universal notion to me at the time. Thus, it was hardly surprising that I zeroed in on my Hijab-wearing friend. I imagined my friend's discomfort, day in and day out, feeling genuinely sorry for her whenever she walked through the main gate of our college where everyone else would feel the wind in their face more easily than she could. I, the 21st century liberal feminist, wanted to "rescue" my friend and firmly believed that feminism was the only way out for her from the burdens of religious orthodoxy. I harboured this belief for quite a while, until I started living with a hijab-wearing Muslim woman upon starting graduate school last summer. Of course, feminism was liberating both these friends of mine, but not in the way I thought it should.
"There is no family, no relative, no religious policing that I need to be afraid of from where I am. I could easily have let go of the hijab when I came here but I chose not to," my roommate once told me. She is a believer, prays as many times a day as her health permits, encourages her Muslim friends to do the same, wakes up for Fajr prayer early in the morning whenever she feels the need to ask for guidance from Allah, and dons the Hijab dutifully before stepping out of our hostel room every day. Yes, my friend could easily have let go of her Hijab, just as she easily could have stopped praying in the privacy of her room. But she chose to do neither. She believes in the merit of praying as much as she believes in the religio-ethical value of donning a Hijab before facing the world head on. If I do not find the prayers she offers every day to be grossly oppressive, I should not find her Hijab oppressive either.
Faith is a crucial aspect of a believer's identity. To deny a woman her right to practice faith is far more oppressive than all the collective accusations of oppression that are frequently hurled at Muslims. My friend told me the story of a differently abled cousin of hers in France. This girl's headscarf was pulled off by a couple of rowdy White boys. Since then the girl hasn't been to school. To an engaged onlooker, it is not difficult to understand that a feminism which robs believing women the right to practice their faith is no different from violent White boys who violate her religious sanctity on the streets. The feminism that speaks for White women in the Western world cannot speak to Muslim women in India.
Feminism today has evolved to register significant differences among women. It has given women different tools to fight for their rights, without depriving themselves of their core, carefully nurtured socio-cultural values.
My friend is an educated woman. She has a mind of her own. She brings flowers to our room every day and I've had the most thought-provoking conversations with her. She once held me for half an hour as I cried my eyeballs out. I refuse to believe she is oppressed or held back, either because of her religion, or because of her headscarf. She is more than her Hijab.
Feminism allows me to look at my friend for the self-assured person that she is, not just as a practicing Muslim, a theist. This is not to say that she is who she is despite her religion, but recognition must be extended to the fact that she is constituted by her beliefs. Her faith encompasses a vital component of her identity and her emancipation is decided through these non-negotiable, inalienable factors she associates herself with. She might have to still fight for her rights, like all women have to do in this patriarchal world, but if she chooses to do so with her hijab perfectly in place, who is anyone to question her choice?