Shreekumar Varma
Years ago, I was the only male delegate at a USIS-sponsored seminar on feminism and literature. Shashi Deshpande spoke and left, having a train to catch. The others were academics who spoke spiritedly. I was, in true “ladies-first” style, the last.
I read my paper and observed that if feminists were less strident, they would have a better chance to be heard. That the focus should be on humanism, since that would ensure no one was marginalized and everyone treated with equal respect. About a dozen ladies pounced on me and proceeded to tear me to bits. “Strident!” they snapped. “What do you mean, strident?” Till one of them, filled with sudden sympathy, rescued me.

Recently I had a chance to see the Vikalp series of films, cinema marginalized by the establishment. Curiously, the films screened on both days I attended had statements to make on women. The first day, it was incidental. Women in a Kerala coastal village threatened by human-induced erosion came across as an easy and strong part of the struggle to reclaim their lives.

Another was about Mumbai’s “ladies special” local train from Virar to Churchgate. The regular commuters have evolved into a close-knit community, sharing laugher and loss. They celebrate everything together, success, childbirth, wedding, and festival. What struck me was this comment: “At home we are wives, mothers and daughters-in-law. In the office we are employees. It is only here that we get to be ourselves.”

The next day I went was devoted to feminism. There were parallel stories of three sex workers, one of them a transvestite. Again, a comment by one of the women struck a brutally truthful chord: “You men seek us to get what you can’t get at home. And then you ill-treat us and shun us.”

Perhaps a bit of stridency is the answer, after all?

Another film revolved around single women living in Delhi. Some of them had the option of staying with their parents and yet they stayed alone, making independent decisions, meeting life on their own terms. A single mother found that her little daughter’s presence softened the edges of her struggle.  “I suppose it is natural that they want to know about people who live in their building,” said another, harassed by intrusive, disapproving neighbours, “but when it comes to their association meetings they keep me out as if I don’t count.” Here again, the rules are designed to control and sideline the most vulnerable sections of society.

The lives of these single women are plagued by a curious contrast---the need for companionship and their personal rebellion against a lopsided social reality. Can the one find fulfilment in the face of the other? Does standing up for your basic rights mean that you have to stand alone through most of your life?

The very first film that day had taken a hard look at Feminism. It began as a rather flippant net-chat among various women and then proceeded to seek answers from activists and other women about the true nature and scope of feminism. 

Taken together, these films set you thinking. What is the place of feminism? Since it is about setting the stage for a free and complete woman, shouldn’t there be a more rounded participation? Why do so many women, including those in the film, smile and shake their heads and say, “No, no, I’m not a feminist, but I do believe in getting my rights”? Is it time to take another look at applied feminism, and make sure that it works for the prostitute, the abused child, the harried housewife and the short-changed worker? Does a perception of militant or ivory tower feminism keep ordinary, illiterate and less informed women from accessing its true potential?

Bra-burning is associated with Feminism, though the protagonist (and maker of the film) finds that it never really happened on the feminist battle-field. There are similar myths that keep the feminist tag alien, and reduced to being a rather uncomfortable western import. Most men (and women) look at it with unease or amusement, a concept that has nothing to do with their own lives.

Since an inevitable fact of the day appears to be that you’ll be heard only if you garner specialist groups to deal with specialist issues (thus overturning my own argument for replacing feminism with humanism), the time is now ripe for a new look at feminism. Time to clear the cobwebs, and raise it from being a distant concept to a working idea. 

Feminism has been bristling in seminars, banners and political formations. It is needed practically now, as a lever to raise the strength of women.

(The writer can be contacted at
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