Feminism -- What's In a Name?

My name is Sayan Supratim Das. In SIPA, I am known as Das. A friend here prefers to call me Saya. Most of the references to me on the phone turns to Satan. Autocorrect understands the real me. One of my best friend calls me Supru. Another annoyingly has christened me Babies after having watched a film called ‘Love and Other Disasters’. Most of my male friends from my undergraduate years refer to me as Bhai or Brother. Due to my incessantly annoying ways, I was also called Grandpa in college. Just yesterday, a group of three girls (who according to me constitute the Golden Girls of SIPA) decided I must be called Supratim. Colleagues from my last professional engagement called me Pummy Aunty due to my love for a parody on middle-aged Indian women made famous on Instagram. And keeping with the tradition of Bengali families to create a sense of boundary between the home and the away, my parents who gave me my name have separate nick-names for me. Ma calls me Babai and only my Baba can call me Babui.

The many names listed here, and the several which I have not mentioned, begin and end within me. Every name I am called by has a significance, for me and the person who uses that name. My name also comes with different pronunciations, tones, and tenors. Every region of my country and the world dictates different rolls of the tongue. It changes my name. It changes me. I am not the same person with everyone. With each name and pronunciation, I change, as does my association with the said person, making our acquaintance unique, singular almost.

And so, I ask, if a person changes with each name, with each association, never remaining the same, why must we expect a living, breathing entity like feminism to remain static?

It has been nine weeks since I have become educated about the intricate definition of feminism. I did not even know the term for decades together while I was educated about the world. I was not aware of the associated literature this term brings with it. The many feminist icons the world professes admiration for were unknown to me and my family.

However, in 2012 when the young girl in India was unfortunately raped and then murdered, I woke up to a new literature and a new debate about women. This debate was fought in familiar languages of Bangla, Hindi, and English, however this landscape had its own dialect. Keen to learn, I was however, lost within the vocabulary maze the dialect brought with it. I persevered and realised I was always aware of the contours of these debates. As I immersed myself into the debate, I became convinced I was always a feminist. I however, never knew I was one.

Months into the incident, a realisation had dawned on me. I was living the concept. I had lived it for twenty-four years and was to abide by it for a lifetime. Feminism was beyond an intellectual discourse. It is a spiritual experience. And one does not abide by such experiences. One lives it. Its tenets seep into our lives without trace, without an effort, without giving us an indication of its operations.

And as I sat in my class for Mainstreaming Gender, surrounded by empowered women and men, and led by a captain who steered us with knowledge and pride, I thanked my Baba for making feminism a spiritual experience for me. It was his life which ensured we need not know the definition of feminism, that we need not name it. But we lived it. With purpose. With clarity. With humility. And, with humanity.

Baba was born in Patna, the capital of Bihar, a state with staggering political might, but with little progress, social or economic. In the decades from the 60’s to the 80’s when he finally left the city for good, he was exposed to a limited world. The best universities were in Delhi and Bombay, but he had access to the lone university in the city. His English was broken, but he was fluent in the languages spoken at home and in the state; Bangla and Hindi. These were enough to sustain a business and then work in a tobacco company which had operations in the state. The family led a conventional life. Four brothers who shared clothes and books, a religious mother who was charged with the operations of the home, and an ex-army personnel of a father who had a government job. However, if one walked through the living room into the informal, personal quarters of the home, they would see a different household. My grandmother, a bride at fourteen, and mother eight times over by the time she was about thirty was a force to reckon with. My grandfather, strict yet palpably soft, was a patriarch with eccentric choices. And so, when the three older sons, Baba included, demanded that my grandmother be allowed to study, not only did he facilitate the education, he took over the household chores to help her. I have been inundated with stories of Baba and his younger brother teaching Math to my grandmother. I have known the family motorcycle was used to transport her to college where she eventually finished her master’s degree in Bangla. He fondly recollects stories of my grandmother tactfully turning away from the parking lot where Baba would indulge in youthful indiscretions while they shared the campus. And, so when Baba married Ma, a woman raised in cosmopolitan Calcutta, the bar of equality was raised higher.

From the time I have known, my insular, nuclear family of three has been defined by an unsaid rule of equality. The three of us, Ma, Baba and I, have operated on the principle of Dumas’s Three Musketeers, ‘one for all, all for one’. If Baba made the first cup of tea in the morning (a practice he continues), Ma would begin the process of getting me ready for school. Baba would pack my tiffin made my Ma and then begin his day. I have never seen Ma act as a conventional home-maker. Never has she handed Baba his clothes for the day, neither has she cleaned his cupboard, or sought permission to do things. Baba has never been the archetype husband. His word is not the final word except in rare issues we have no expertise in. Every step has been a discussion, first between Ma and Baba and as I grew, I was given a seat in the table. Unlike other families around me, Ma, a consummate home-maker who always wanted to be one, never cooked food keeping only our preferences in mind. The table had to be cleaned after meals, a chore we all took in turns. Our plates had to be deposited in the kitchen sink. No one was there to do it for us. The same was done should one needed water in the middle of the meal. I have also seen Ma occupy the seat at the head of the dining table. In her absence, Baba never took the seat. It remained an unsaid rule that Ma ran the domestic economy and so the space was hers to occupy. I was taught how to help Ma pleat her saris, and learn to use the tools to fix small glitches at home. I was taught how to cook, how to take care of the house, was encouraged to play under the sun, and given firm but fair restrictions I saw girls around me battle with. It would be years later that Baba and I would nod our heads when we came across the call Gloria Steinem made for sons to be raised as daughters.

We were the antithesis of the conventional Indian family. Yet, despite our obvious feminist ways, the three of us did not know the existence of the word or the scholarship which came with it. Due to Baba’s upbringing, and Ma’s knowledge of her personhood, we lived our own version of feminism never realising we all were feminists. We also recognised, others around us were living their definition of feminism. We need not subscribe to it, or accept it as our own. However, we must acknowledge it.

And so, I argue against a definition for feminism. I argue against a common language. I argue against a centralised movement. Feminism must be like music. It must reflect personal choice, and design. It must come from every corner of the world bringing with it its own rhythm, its own beats, its own tunes. These songs must be separate. They must carry lyrics uniquely their own. The poetry feminism inspires must be composed of different languages. The themes must be different, the challenges must be uniquely local, the arsenal to combat such challenges specialised, and the techniques inimitable. Just as we speak passionately about being different, and singular, feminism must reflect our choices, our opinions, our politics, our station in life, our circumstances, and our perspective. None of these can be imitated. Feminism cannot be a monolithic concept.

Diversity, thus is feminism’s greatest strength, and singularity its greatest enemy.

I have come across academic work stating the lack of definition of feminism as being ‘not funny’. There is often a call about the need for a common vision of equality. But how can we have a common vision of equality and experiences when we are all born differently? Economic inequality, social disabilities, geographic barriers, cultural diversity, and several other obstacles separate us. Uniting under a common vision is akin to seeking to be caressed by arctic winds while roaming barefoot in the Sahara under a distressing summer sun.

It is not uncommon to come across women who are suspicious of the feminist movement. I understand the trauma of the movement losing support. This perhaps happens because women and men are wary of a single definition which does not voice their concerns. The dangers of a single story are well known. Chimamanda Ngozi ensured we understood it. Taking a thread from her narrative (TED Talk ‘Dangers of a Single Story’), the dangers of a single definition have the same consequences where several empowered, educated women and men will proclaim their support for equal rights, however desisting from joining the club we promote.

This seems ironic given how the understanding of gender issues and the historical context is increasing among men and women in various age groups. However, there is little or no consensus among men about gender issues despite widespread agency among them to being about positive change.

This brings us back to the moot question. Why must we create a consensus? Issues of gender beyond the reflection of equality, come with subjective challenges. These vary. Despite living under the same roof, my parents and I define our versions of feminism and gender issues. There are similarities, there are divisions, missions are separate, and there is convergence in our paths. However, the larger goal of achieving equality must be common. But, then again, your equality must be different from mine. Whose equality must we term as the right one?

I understand the urge to name, the impulse to define, to congregate under one flag, to unite with a singular anthem. Jane Goodall, one said, “Of course, giving them (gorillas) names was wrong, Sentimental, anthropomorphic, unscientific… But, isn’t that what we do? Name the world, create order in our heart’s world?”

Perhaps, in naming and defining feminism we are doing a disservice to the movement. And so, I call upon my fellow women and men to define feminism for ourselves, to create our own goal posts, to converge when our paths meet, to walk boldly on separate paths when our missions call on us to do so, to fight each other for our causes should it be the need of the hour, for in this conflict a possible symbiosis be born. Till then, we must look beyond the need to name and define. Like I have come to realise the many facets I have with the many names I have been given today, may we discover the many dimensions of feminism when we allow the choice to every woman and man to choose their brand of feminism. In our differences, may we find commonalities and unity.