In this write-up I do not intend to write a detailed chronology of a movement called ‘feminism’. But what I intend to do is to bring before the reader as to what were the reasons behind such a movement that later influenced our mind, our system of education and also our society at large.
At its core, feminism is the belief in full social, economic, and political equality for women. Feminists want to prove that the natural differences between men and women are not true. Women are perfectly capable of building a successful career as men are. The basic assumption shared by feminists is that the gender of divisions in society operate to the disadvantage of women.
Feminism largely originated in response to some religio-cultural ways that restricted the rights of women in the West. Throughout most of Western history, women were confined to the domestic sphere, while public life was reserved for men. In medieval Europe, women were denied the right to own property, to study, or to participate in public life.
At the end of the 19th century in France, women used to cover their heads in public, and, in parts of Germany, a husband still had the right to sell his wife. Even as late as the early 20th century, women could neither vote nor hold elective office in Europe. They were prevented from conducting business without a male representative. be it father, brother, husband, legal agent, or even son. Married women could not exercise control over their own children without the permission of their husbands. Moreover, women had little or no access to education and were barred from most professions.
One can understand the deplorable condition of the Western women by the fact that even the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which defined French citizenship after the French revolution (1789), deliberately failed to address the legal status of women. On the other hand, the emerging feminists produced long lists of women of courage and accomplishment and proclaimed that women would be the intellectual equals of men if they were given equal access to education.
Now, feminist thought has assumed global manifestations and variations. It is now a worldwide movement active in the form of various institutions committed to work on behalf of women’s rights and interests.
Renaissance, Enlightenment and Feminism
The feminist voices of the Renaissance never united into a coherent philosophy or movement. This happened only with the Enlightenment, when women began to demand that the new reformist rhetoric about liberty, equality, and natural rights be applied to both sexes. The Age of Enlightenment turned into an era of political uproar marked by revolutions in France, Germany, and Italy and the rise of abolitionism (the end of slavery).
In the United States, feminist activism took root when female abolitionists sought to apply the concepts of freedom and equality to their own social and political situations. Their work brought them in contact with female abolitionists in England who were reaching the same conclusions. By the mid-19th century, issues surrounding feminism had added to the tumult of social change, with ideas being exchanged across Europe and North America.
Even the Enlightenment philosophers initially, focused on the inequities of social class and caste to the exclusion of gender. Female intellectuals of the Enlightenment were quick to point out this lack of inclusivity and the limited scope of reformist rhetoric. Challenging the notion that women exist only to please men, the feminists proposed that women and men be given equal opportunities in education, work, and politics. Women are as naturally rational as men. If they are silly, it is only because society trains them to be irrelevant.
Feminism and Education
Earlier, it was not unusual for girls to pick subjects that prepared them for their futures as mothers and housewives. Feminists believed that this type of education was an agent of secondary socialisation that helped to enforce patriarchy. They wanted to generalise their ideas about males and females to the whole of society. They believed that women were being suppressed by a male-dominated society, especially in education. They argued that the curriculum was more based around traditionally male-dominated subjects. Thus, it set up men more than women for further education or more prosperous work opportunities. Coupled with this was the view of a woman’s part in society – of becoming housewives, marrying early and having children. Feminists argued that this type of ‘stereotyping’ contributed to the suppression put on women by the male-run society.
Liberal feminists are the feminists who believe that the best way to fight patriarchal systems is by establishing legislation to fight discrimination. This school of thought believes women would achieve better equality if they were just more visible in the current social structure. Liberal feminists believe changes in equal opportunities and educational policies will end patriarchy.
These feminists believe that it is the gendered division of labour that contributes to women’s inequality. The fact that men have historically been paid more and get higher position in companies plays a big part. A Socialist/Marxist feminist would point out the fact that the majority of people who stay at home to raise children and take care of the home are women. He believes that women are oppressed based on gender and class inequalities.
These feminists believe that the traditional schools of feminist thought have been created by middle-class white women. They do not recognize that women-of-colour may also be oppressed based on racial inequalities. This school of thought argues for separate feminist thoughts like “womanism”.
Radical feminists believe that the biggest oppression at work in our society is based on gender. Some believe a married woman can’t be a feminist or that a straight woman can’t be a feminist. All-in-all it comes down to the argument that any dependence on men will equal the oppression of women. Although not all radical feminists are lesbians, this is the school of thought that has been influenced by a lot of lesbian separatist groups. Radical feminists believe patriarchy will only end when women are freed from the physical and emotional violence inflicted by men in the classroom and the playground.
Just as the plethora of problems confronting today’s man are of Western origin, feminism also is a response to the socio-religio-cultural ills of the West. As the bondage of women was their problem, its proposed solutions also gave rise to many more other problems which, due to globalization, are now eating into the vitals of the Eastern societies as well.
Feminism is an entire philosophy aiming at actually changing the life of contemporary women, on the grounds that women and men have equal rights in all the areas of social life. Equal rights first and foremost mean the opportunity to fill any position available to men, without any discrimination.
Understanding ‘feminism’ as a human rights issue can be good but underscoring its drawbacks when it is stretched beyond normal limits cannot be so good. And that is what we experience today that feminism is now demolishing the family structure of the East as it has in the West. Women no longer feel their goal in life is marriage and children. Their career is now at the top, while raising children for better future of nation is at the bottom.
To be continued…
Dr Nazir Ahmad Zargar, Coordinator, Department of Religious Studies, Central University of Kashmir, Ganderbal
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.