What empowerment is really about

Women are very prickly about patriarchy. And there is something about a video on women’s empowerment doing the internet rounds starring film stars and models amongst others that reeks of patriarchy. A number of women pose in front of the camera while a voice over tells us that whatever women do has to be tolerated because it’s their choice.

The things these women want to do is pretty mundane - fall in or out of love, cheat on their partners, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, come home late. In fact, the sort of thing people regularly do regardless of whether they feel empowered enough to exercise their choices. The script sounds like a man thinking of the things he thinks he is free to do and then transferring them to women. And indeed, the script is apparently written by man.

In India, the battle for women’s empowerment is fought on several fronts, and what is empowerment for the woman in rural India is barely even seen as a squabble let alone a war in urban India. Representation pic/Thinkstock
In India, the battle for women’s empowerment is fought on several fronts, and what is empowerment for the woman in rural India is barely even seen as a squabble let alone a war in urban India. Representation pic/Thinkstock

But even these choices have gone beyond what women are looking for or demanding. Is cheating on your spouse something you need to be empowered to do? Or falling out of love? Or if the train is late and you get home late, is that a choice or circumstance?

Almost everything in the video, part of a fashion magazine’s campaign to empower women is quite frankly both odd and old-fashioned. Not to mention a bit rich for a fashion magazine and a film star to tell women that it’s their choice whether to be size zero or size 15 when the entire might of the industries they belong to push women towards skinny.

Empowerment is not just about doing silly things and being free to do them. It is also breaking free from a system where menstruation is still a bad word or a taboo picture - as a young woman found out when a photograph she put up was taken off a popular photo-sharing site. When women are proud to be called “sluts” because they are fighting old taboos, you might guess that they have moved a bit beyond the right to come home late and change boyfriends.

Nor is empowerment necessarily an attempt to copy bad habits or behaviour patterns commonly - if erroneously - attributed to men. Nor is gender equality about blaming men for everything that goes wrong either. It is about working on prejudices and unfairness together. Yes, choice is important but choice that functions within its own laws alone is also anarchy.

But empowerment is about fighting patriarchy. And patriarchy is when men - however well-meaning - try and tell women what women’s empowerment means. Patriarchy is about running around screaming that women must be “respected” without letting the woman tell you the kind of respect she wants. Patriarchy is about vowing to “protect” women without grasping that women might want to fend for themselves.

Patriarchy is about putting “Women” on a pedestal but treating individual women as playthings or objects. Patriarchy is about seeing every woman as someone’s wife, mother, daughter, sister but not as an individual in her own right. And patriarchy, as we have seen in a larger gender battle is about placing everyone in a heterosexual mould and then claiming some religious or cultural superiority for your prejudices.

In India, this battle is fought on several fronts and what is empowerment for the woman in rural India is barely even seen as a squabble let alone a war in urban India. The short video in question might argue that it is looking at one small aspect of the problem but in fact it is adding to the problem by continuing with stereotypes.

Not surprisingly, a few men have hit back with their own “choices” -and some of them are the things that irritate women the most. Is it fair then to deprive men of their choices like if they want to come home late and don’t want to take your calls? Is that what empowerment means: A petty and empty battle of the sexes? Then have we moved along at all from where we started?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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