The F-word has become something of an F-bomb, scaring away all but the most committed activists this side of 25. We live in a society which shrinks from labels and embraces all shades of grey; the word “feminist”, in all the bra-burning militancy that it conjures, is no exception to the rule.
Those of us who feel even the smallest degree of affinity to the term find themselves continually playing defence, seemingly encircled by non-believers from the classroom to the bus, train or plane.
Indeed, the awkward silences that punctuate lengthy trips by public transport provide the perfect platform for controversial squabble; which perhaps explains how I recently found myself on a nightrider, scolding friends who insisted that feminism was primarily a first world struggle.
Feminism is not a particular new or Western concept. Assuming that all feminists hold gender equality at the core of their values, most women – even “third world” women – would by definition be considered to have feminist beliefs, even if they do not believe themselves to identify with the label. Much has been said of the burgeoning feminism of women in the most impoverished, developing areas of the world, and of servants, labourers, politicians, and Forbes-type executives, so I’ll spare those details. What interests me most is the feminism of the middle class, the most aspirational and most ordinary sector of any society, which in larger developing countries toes the fine line between “local” and “Western” lives. Access to the media, specifically television and film, has given the middle classes insight into life abroad. A glossy, dramatised version of it, perhaps, but nonetheless, a taste of contemporary Western values as perpetrated through the media. Feminism amongst the “third world” middle class has become as much a confused hybrid of values as life itself.
Girls in urban India and China report to having taken up smoking, drinking and dating as vehicles to express their independence and freedom of will – all three having more than enough shock value for the more conservative cities in both countries. But the feminism of young middle class women is still rather conflicted; when progress is made in one area, another immediately regresses.
Take, for instance, the case of Pink Chaddi.
In 2009, orthodox Hindu nationalist Pramod Muthalik threatened to forcibly drag any couples found together on Valentine’s Day to the nearest temple and marry them on the spot. The announcement came right after a group of women were attacked at a bar in a southern provincial city for engaging in “anti-cultural acts”. Out of the outrage that followed, the “Pink Chaddi Campaign” was born, whereupon young Indian women were encouraged through social media channels to send pink underwear to Muthalik’s office on Valentine’s Day in non-violent protest.
The campaign sent a hopeful message to India’s urban youth: it was possible to highlight the treatment of young women by their peers in a powerful yet humorous way. Two years later, the SlutWalk marches began to envelope the rest of the world in response to Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti’s statement, “women should avoid dressing like sluts”.
Also in India is the issue of skin whitening. The ‘fairness’ industry in India has been the subject of much criticism or praise, depending on which side of the (quite literally) colourful debate one sits on.
Skin whitening products line the shelves of every urban supermarket, department store and pharmacy in the country; advertisements claim that applying a cream or scrub twice a day can lighten skin up to five shades (though “shade” is rather a subjective term) in a matter of weeks.
While these products are mainly targeted at women, men are not left unscathed; Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan was slammed by his biggest fans for promoting men’s skin whitening product Fair and Handsome. The sensible response of many urban women has been to form coalitions such as “Dark is Beautiful” – but new products unfortunately pop up faster than new campaigns.
Fairness products are no doubt nasty; but lately, they’ve gotten even nastier. Enter skin whitening… for genitalia. The advertisement for Clean and Dry Intimate Wash, a whitening product targeted at every woman for use ‘down there’, has been making circles around the Indian media. While anal bleaching is now a commonplace ‘beauty ritual’, in a country where whitening products are already a contentious topic, making such a product specifically for parts of the female anatomy is bound to raise a few eyebrows, and a few voices, on ridiculous ideals of beauty and, indeed, feminism. The product has already gained a fair few enemies through the webs of social media, but it remains to be seen whether or not women are aggravated enough by it to take any concrete action.
Feminism certainly does not discriminate by colour, background or socio-economic differences. The fact remains that change can always be incited when there is sufficient cause for it, even in the middle classes. As long as women in the third world face continue to face obstacles to expressing their freedom, independence or simply being left along, that cause will persist.