Feminism 101

-The Gender Circle-

Labels, it seems, are the bane of our times. Reducing an individual or a group to a narrow spectrum of thoughts and actions seems to be a norm on social media. One of these trends has rather unhelpfully been named ‘reverse sexism’. Reverse sexism implies employing a sexist attitude (usually in the form of remark but not exclusively) against men. So, if you call a man a “sissy” or “girly” or some other form of verbal diarrhoea in this context, the accusation against you from some quarters would be that you are homogenizing men into a category based on arbitrary notions of universal masculinity.

However, is this issue really as simple as it seems? Before we move on, it is important to realize that under no circumstances is arbitrary labelling acceptable. It does not matter who this is directed at. That being said, let’s delve a little deeper into this reverse sexism thing.

Firstly, what is the basis of such claims? Which is to say, what is the origin of these insults that are reverse sexist? And it is here that things get complicated. In many scenarios, the insults aimed at men are such that they use feminine (ish) labels to paint the picture of a man as weak. This actually implies that at a time when one wants to insult a man, coincidentally (or not) it is through the lens of an insult whose basis is insulting to women or gender non-conforming individuals. So, it isn’t reverse sexism as much as it is “sexism-that-cut-both-ways-but-is-mostly-meant-for-men-but still-ends-up-insulting-women”. So, it isn’t really reverse sexism.

However, there may be many instances too where the insult does not come from a sexist, or misogynistic bent of mind. What then? Does that constitute reverse sexism? Is it legitimate to label these claims as reverse sexist?

Feminist writing (which, funnily, is the same as other writing in terms of the fact that one should only apply objective academic standards in review and not arbitrary-hate standards but I digress) has drawn a four standard approach to determine if a particular statement is sexist. For the statement to be sexist, the following standards are usually used[1]:

  1. It is Pervasive: It is woven throughout social institutions, as well as embedded within individual consciousness.
  2. It is Restrictive: That is, structural limits significantly shape a person’s life chances and sense of possibility in ways beyond the individual’s control.
  3. It is Hierarchical: That is, oppression positions one group as “better” than another. Dominant or privileged groups benefit, often in unconscious ways, from the disempowerment of subordinated or targeted groups.
  4. The Dominant Group has the Power to Define Reality: That is, they determine the status quo: what is “normal,” “real,” or “correct.”

Let’s explore each of these to see if reverse sexism stands these tests.

  • Firstly, the sexism must be pervasive. This implies that it must be deeply embedded in social institutions and individual conscience. This implies that structures and institutions must be impacted to act against one particular group based on sexist notions. These actions need not be overt and may materialize as subtle (or not so subtle) differences in attitude.
  • Secondly, it must be restrictive. This means that the sexism must act in such a manner on society whereby the target group’s life choices are impacted negatively. Once again, manifestations of these need not be overt and in many cases these lead to shifts in how individuals think such that their lifestyle or the lifestyles of those around them are going to be necessarily tangibly altered. Example – wearing “revealing” clothes is dangerous.
  • Thirdly, it must be hierarchical, which means that it positions one group as “better” than another. Dominant or privileged groups benefit, often in subconscious ways, from the disempowerment of subordinated or targeted groups.
  • Fourthly, the dominant group must have the power to define reality, i.e. it determines the majoritarian social discourse around this and other issues, and defines what values or norms are correct or acceptable.

Thus, when we accuse someone of reverse sexism, we cannot do so without acknowledging and recognizing that it refers to institutionalized violence and systematic erasure that is something uniquely experiences by those oppressed.

It is here where you might be asked whether it is impossible then to ever be unfair to men. Are they to be treated badly simply because of their gender? It is asked that oversimplistic reductions not be made and that we treat such matters with caution. Of course, one can be unfair, prejudiced, mean, rude etc. to men. That is different and can be deemed problematic but in no way can it be compared to institutional oppression.

Sexism is culturally and historically pervasive. It touches everything that moves. Even the most well-intentioned cannot escape its clutches. So, to many, it is ironic that they’re being accused of perpetuating such prejudice because it imparts power and agency to genders other than men, which they simply do not have.

One time a man said to me, “So just because three women told me something was sexist, that makes it so?”

I said, “YES.”

Members of a community that experiences sexism on a daily basis and have had their lives structured around patriarchal structures are in the best position to state whether something falls within these parameters.

Another bane is the issue of positive discrimination. It is criticized as being reverse sexist and unfair to men. However, it fails to realise that it is an important way to begin redressing the power imbalance and actually making the competition ‘fair’. It is of course, legitimate to feel bad and to try to understand the problem, but this is not a race or competition. Comparing problems to those who suffer discrimination on a much higher and intensive scale, does them a disservice.

What will happen to my free speech?

There is no free market place of ideas. There is inequality in terms of access to information and platforms available. But in colleges, weren’t we supposed to debate and discuss freely? Are restrictions which demand sensitivity, causing an interference with the free flow of information and reducing the quality of the engagement?

By recognizing that all of us are not equally placed in society, we must recognize that similar treatment cannot be meted out to all. This especially holds true for colleges where formal equality is meaningless. It is only when you are aware of differently placed groups, that you respect those needs. Racism, sexism and casteism have a disparate impact on some groups, and to wash our hands off that would be unfair, while serving to perpetuate the very systems that discriminate against them. A hostile living, working and educational environment can be created by speech that insults a group, perpetuates stereotypes, leads to changing attitudes of people towards them etc. The chilling effect can go both ways. Those arguing for speech that is not bound by restrictions can also appreciate how not having those restrictions has a chilling effect on the lives of those affected by such speech.

One demand is that students should make themselves stronger and not let this speech impact them. But this demand fails, as it underestimates the impact speech has. Shielding oneself from racist, casteist or sexist speech is hard when you have been brought up in a system that devalues your existences through various forms of speech. You are confronted by assaults to your existence and speech that can even threaten you, but all of this can be disguised as jokes or as healthy debate.

 “To be hated, despised, and alone is the ultimate fear of all human beings,” observes Matsuda.

Such speech can cause all kinds of harm such as fear; nightmares; post-traumatic stress disorder; hypertension; psychosis; loss of personal freedom, employment, education, self-esteem, and personal security; even suicide. Patricia Williams refers to the constant assault on one’s existence as ‘spirit murder’. Subjecting one to attacks on their dignity devalues their experiences as a member of that community. It exposes them to vulnerability in front of a dominant majority and this has domino effects on public participation, interaction with peers etc.

Lawrence argues that women and minorities often find themselves speechless in the face of discriminatory insults for a number of reasons. The visceral emotional response to such speech may not be able to be expressed in words. Fear, rage, shock, humiliation and the need to escape dominate. Also, more often than not, any response may not be adequate to counter it effectively. It is expected that those at the receiving end of such speech collect their thoughts and then calmly engage with the speaker. This is belittling of their response as it assumes that this is even possible, or that tailoring of responses is an acceptable demand.

When one is personally attacked with words that signify their subhuman status and untouchability, there is little (if anything) that can be said to redress either the emotional or reputational injury. The demand for engagement as opposed to censorship assumes that either there is no power differential, or that even if it exists, those impacted by such speech have the burden to deal with it. They are asked to disguise upset, anger and hurt to participate in a discussion where these emotions have no value.

The aim of this article is not to make a list of possible restrictions on speech. It is simply to draw light to how speech has adverse consequences and it is not always possible to counter the harmful effects of speech through instantaneous and equally effective speech.

What is the role of men in the feminist movement?

The men I’ve known over the years who are real, true feminists, rarely proclaim it because they don’t need a cookie for believing in equality and they know they don’t deserve one for that fact alone. They see inequality in the world, they’re pissed off about it, and they know that women’s issues are men’s issues too and patriarchy sucks.

But is the collective enthusiasm over famous feminist men a bad thing?

Not inherently. Allies are important, and for better or worse celebrity male allies to feminism, even tangentially, can be positive. These men, who occupy spaces of privilege that feminist activists often do not, likely have access to populations that wouldn’t be hearing about feminism otherwise. However, where the danger always lies is in the possibility that the voices of privileged allies will erase those of the oppressed. In an essay for Salon, BitchMedia co-founder Andi Zeisler called for an end to “fawning” over male celebrity feminists, arguing that “by celebrating pronouncements [by male celebrities] that, in most cases, are simply common sense, the media is also reifying the belief that an idea becomes legitimate only when it is voiced by a man.”

Why are so many people denouncing feminism? Is it a problem?

Priyanka Chopra did it. So did Katrina Kaif. Meryl Streep preferred to call herself a “humanist”. This begets the question- why are women so reluctant to call themselves feminists? Has the F-word now become a bad word? There could be a number of explanations for this.

A very common word that bounces around social platforms is ‘feminazi’. It is often used as a silencing tactic, to shame those talking about feminism by likening them to a dictatorial regime responsible for the Holocaust. Of course, anyone may realise that such a comparison is insensitive, distasteful to those affected by the events of the Holocaust and is downright reductive. But the frequency with which it is invoked and the lack of challenges do it, do give us food for thought and there is a need to introspect on why feminism is hated so much.

Firstly, it could be the societal pressure which forces these celebrities to conform to social norms.  Perhaps they do not wish to wage a war against the patriarchy at the cost of thousands of fans who have are convinced that feminism necessarily implies hatred of men in some form. However, this notion is incomplete at best and grossly incorrect if viewed objectively. The idea that feminism implies a hatred of men is like saying that being a conservative implies that you are necessarily a bigot. While it may be true that certain strands of conservatives are in fact bigots (not isolated actions but as an ideology), labelling all conservatives in such a manner is patently unfair and would be rendered worse if people in positions of influence, through their actions, decried the conservative tag. To break it down, it is possible that across the vast spectrum that feminism encapsulates, certain strands may (again, not necessarily true) ideologically hate men; however, that still does not imply feminism does. To accept this idea is to ignore the fact that feminism stands for the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. It endeavours to dismantle the patriarchy and do away with gender stereotypes. Stereotypes affect everyone – transgender persons, gay men, lesbians, men and women. Hence, it is in the benefit of society at large that these stereotypes cease to exist. Calling oneself a humanist is akin to opposing the “Black Lives Matter” movement on the lines that it somehow devalues all life. It really doesn’t. It recognizes the existence of a social fact that African-Americans are more affected by racial violence (including, and especially from, the police) and accordingly asks society to move away from such insidious racism. It does not imply that the violence be redirected at another community, but aims simply to alleviate the standing of the African-American community. Similarly, in opposing patriarchy which has historically benefited men for millennia, feminism doesn’t purport to hate men but simply asks for an end to the structural perpetuation of inequality.

Secondly, an argument could be made that these celebrities have ideological disagreements with the nature of the movement. The movement has faced criticism in the past for being non-inclusive. For instance, in western countries there is a belief that the feminist only addresses the grievances of Caucasian women. Closer home, questions have been raised about the inclusion of Dalit women in the movement. This definitely gives feminists cause to introspect about the turn the movement is taking and whether its role is simply superficial. The existence of groups such as Women against Feminism is testimony to the fact that the movement has its own shortcomings and a number of women across the globe are unable to identify with it. Surely, more engagement is required and the movement must evolve to become more inclusive.  However, that is still not a reason to declare yourself decidedly not feminist. One doesn’t have to be a feminist and accept the movement as constant. In fact, if one does stand for equality of the sexes, then being a feminist should really be second nature. That being said, if the idea is to point out the non-inclusiveness through a public rejection of the tag – point taken. But if that is the argument, then is it not better to try and change the movement from the inside? One would be hard pressed to find a movement that values inclusiveness more than feminism and therefore feminists are always open to change, especially for the better.

It is important to understand the impact of rejecting the label of a feminist and creating another label which is essentially ‘feminist’ in its outlook but chooses to call itself something else (humanist). When individuals with so much social capital and reach denounce the very concept of feminism, they further perpetuate misinformation (in some cases, downright lies) that are harmful to the cause that the movement espouses. Surely, all these women who are so privileged in their own ways, must believe in the equality of sexes?

The fact that these women are denouncing feminism is even more problematic because they themselves have gained a lot from the struggles of feminists of yore. By distancing themselves from this movement, they are doing a great disservice to all these women.  Till those in power believe and acknowledge this end goal, the ugly face of patriarchy is here to stay.

But the disservice mentioned above is not the only issue. Feminism has always been a movement that stood on the outside and veritably wanted to gatecrash the party that all life had an equal invitation to in the first place. They were always on the outside looking in, and the Suffragette movement is a perfect illustration of this. Eventually, when all invitees were to be rightfully let in, they realized that the party being full of men had let to this idea that only men should choose the music, the food, the drinks, contraception, choice, norms about expected behaviour, equal pay for equal work, consent, etc. When someone asked why women could not make these choices, there wasn’t a better answer than it’s been happening since the beginning of the party and men are expected to do this (women, of course are not expected to). The problem was that some of the people who got there first simply did not want to share. Others condoned this either through ignorance or wilful perpetuation. Women began, through no fault of their own, in a worse off position. Feminism is simply an equalizing force aiming to restore the balance. To fear being labelled a feminist because people may view it negatively or because it is not perfect is a choice but one needs to understand the legitimization they are affording to misinformation and lies regarding the movement.

Returning to the idea of internal contradictions within the feminist movement, it is true that any social justice movement with a long history and diverse adherents will exhibit contradictions and problematic ideas. However, movements like Women Against Feminism are not only ahistorical; they fundamentally misread the nature of feminism and the current status of women.

The argument usually made can be seen from a few excerpts below –

Sheila Sampath, editor of Shameless, an intersectional feminist magazine for teen girls and trans youth, admits she usually has more arguments with feminists about feminism than she does with men.

“People have very legitimate reasons to reject feminism,” Ms. Sampath said. “It doesn’t surprise me that the narrative they’re responding to is the dominant narrative. That narrative itself is pretty racist, pretty capitalist and focused only on gender. To be honest, I reject that too.”

At the same time, she said, she would never say ‘‘I don’t need feminism’’ because feminism means something different to her: It means anti-capitalism, de-colonization, anti-racism and class equality.

“That’s feminism. But that’s a less sexy sell than ‘I can do what men can do! Girl power!’”

Here’s another –

British feminist blogger Grace Chapman at Vagendamagazine.com wrote a post called How (Not) to React to Anti-Feminist Women. Her conclusion was thus:

“People shouldn’t feel they have to tiptoe around feminism for fear of angering the beast… In order for feminism to be truly powerful it needs to be accessible and engaging, to everyone, and at the moment it’s just not, not yet.”

In response to the above, it is important to understand that Sheila Sampath’s criticism is (and I might be being reductive here) a branch of feminism. What kind of feminist one is, is a personal choice. But to paint feminism as some kind of a monolithic ideology is patently incorrect.

The idea that feminism ought to be engaging for everyone is true only to the extent that ideally all individuals should treat people across genders equally. Arguably, subjectively, one could choose to be a bigot and at that point, the feminist movement has no obligation to be engaging for them. In fact, the idea that a movement ought to be acceptable only when people deem it to be is nothing more than majoritarian post-facto justification to couch issues that they may have with feminism under the guise that “it is not engaging”. In fact, feminism has a very basic goal at its heart and great diversity in how one wishes to achieve that goal. How one goes about that is once again a personal choice and various strands of feminists have completely different perspectives on the form they wish to adopt. In terms of analogy, opposing feminism because it is not engaging enough for all would be to look at a field of nominees running for office from the same political party and rejecting, decrying and wishing to remove the political party because you don’t agree with at least one of its candidates.


[1] Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, on Everyday Feminism


3 thoughts on “Feminism 101

  1. Hello, thanks for the post, it really clarified a lot. However, one doubt about the logical limits of safe spaces – such spaces are deemed necessary for the people “claiming” to be victimised by an action, and the existence of this very action is the issue of debate they are shielded from. Doesn’t this sound a bit problematic? For example, I can call myself a victim of the fictional argymheorrid, and if this movement becomes pervasive, everyone may demand safe spaces for being victims of argymheorrid – however, it being pervasive does not render such shielding argymheorrid legitimate when it is the very nature of argymheorrid which is in doubt.

    To clarify, I understand why pragmatically it is necessary to preserve the rights of people against such speech by having safe spaces. However, I was wondering whether conventional logic also justifies the same – or should we adopt a Metsuda-esque argument against logic in favour of emotional intelligence?

    To further clarify, I am not against safe spaces per se, but am merely wondering to what limit can their use be restricted, and against what violations.

    Thank you for reading! Looking forward to a response.


    • Hi,

      You should definitely check out Mari Matsuda’s argument behind restricting assaultive speech on campuses. First, she clearly defines the scope of this restriction, to cover speech which targets vulnerable minorities on college campuses, which have suffered structural oppression in society. Hence, race, caste, class, gender and sexual orientation would become grounds for restricting assaultive speech, and speech which targets peculiar sensitivities of students (such as the fiction you speak of) would not constitute an adequate ground.

      Second, we fail to understand why the argument in favor of creating safe spaces is illogical. Rather, (and as Waldren has argued), assaultive speech can have consequences which are counter-productive to the very objectives of promoting free speech in the first place. On campus, assaultive speech could have a chilling effect on the speech, personality and development of the student whose identity may be targeted by the same. Students whose identities are the targets of such speech cannot be expected to engage and deliberate, and therefore this doesn’t really bring the ‘truth’ out, as Mill would have argued. Rather, the psychological harm faced by the student and the perpetuation of marginalization resulting from the encouragement of such speech, would create an atmosphere which would be hostile, unsafe and counter-productive to the education of that student. It is to protect the vulnerable from such harm, that the argument for safe spaces is made.


  2. Good post, except it wasn’t written well.
    In the literary world, it’s considered a good practice to use simple words to bring out more meaning in your story/article.
    You can’t expect everyone to understand this article completely if you use high-sounding words.

    Try to improve on this front next time, otherwise I liked reading it (because I am fortunate enough to understand these high-sounding words)


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