Many prominent feminists and women rights advocates believed that universalising feminism was the best way to engage with people and convince them to join the fight for equality. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that universalising the movement had led to mass co-optation of feminism for pursuing vested interests. The abundant prevalence of ideas and concepts related to feminism around us has made it extremely simple to co-opt them and advance one’s anti-feminist agenda.
One critical issue is that absolutely anyone can call themselves a feminist, do anything which is antithetical to feminist goals and get away with it, thereby, defaming feminism.
Being a Feminist Comes With Responsibilities
Capitalism and neoliberalism have co-opted feminism like no one else.
Go inside any clothing store and you will find t-shirts carrying messages such as “I am a feminist”, “Proud to be a feminist”, etc., in abundance. Any random person can buy this t-shirt and proclaim themselves to be a feminist.
One in every seven women working in the garment industry in Bengaluru have been raped or forced into a sexual act at work, according to this 2016 survey report by the women's rights groups Sisters for Change and Bengaluru-based Munnade. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There have been several stories of how women workers in Bangladesh – known for its textile exports – are exploited and paid a pittance for working long hours.
Do people who buy these t-shirts ever think about how this t-shirt has been manufactured? Do they ask if the workers who have made these shirts are not exploited and paid adequately? We can wear this t-shirt and easily become a “feminist” but buying that t-shirt makes us complicit to exploitation of labour.
Being a feminist is an identity and identity comes with responsibilities. Assigning an identity to oneself without fulfilling attached responsibilities is disservice to the ideology.
In 2008, Nike Foundation launched its Girl Effect campaign which aims to empower adolescent girls and enable them to be independent enough to make their choice – something that garnered a lot of attention. But an investigation by Slate, a US based media organisation revealed a mismatch between Girl Effect and the realities of Nike’s manufacturing factories in Vietnam, which accounts for almost a third of its production. The women workers reported excessively long working hours, intimidation and harassment by managers, and squalid living conditions.
“Adding 15 million women to the workforce will add $45 billion to India’s GDP”. “Lack of women workers affect India’s economic productivity”. “Including women in workforce is smart economics”...
Such statements are commonplace in reports and vision statements but they are classic examples of how neoliberalism and capitalism want to co-opt feminism with an objective to earn more profits, rather than challenging the structural gendered inequalities which hinder women from working.
Reclaim Feminism Before it is Co-Opted
Furthermore, very few firms in India have implemented the Supreme Court mandated Vishakha guidelines to tackle sexual harassment in their offices – another sign of their “commitment” to women’s empowerment.
A few weeks ago, The Frustrated Indian, a prominent right-wing page on Facebook, shared a news report by BBC on women scientists working in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and criticised feminists for their claim of Hindu society being misogynistic. The argued that three “Hindu” women had achieved laurels in ISRO – therefore, Hindu society is gender equal. This is a classic example of misrepresenting feminism and criticising the movement. Several of their other posts interpret feminism in a flawed manner and criticise it.
The real question is: Can we reclaim feminism from being co-opted and misused by agenda driven people?
(Devanik Saha is a MA Gender & Development student at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.)