Thursday, September 25, 2014

What HeForShe Left Out

      I recently willed myself to watch the video of Emma Watson’s speech at the UN HeForShe Campaign Launch. I was reluctant at first as I usually am about celebrities tying themselves to feminism, often marketing and branding it in a way that isn’t necessarily or always good for the movement. But pushed by a close friend, I finally caved and looked up the speech online.

      I was certainly moved by the speech; after all, feminism is a movement that has been close and extremely relevant to my life as an Indian American woman. After all, I have seen women in and outside of my family often valued less than their male counterparts, and I have seen women in academic and professional environments sometimes working twice as hard to prove themselves as equal and worthy of respect and recognition.

      But equally noteworthy, I have seen the toll that confining gender roles have taken on the men and boys close to me. I have seen my male friends unable to openly express themselves for fear of being seen as weak, unmanly, or worse. I have seen my brother change; as he grows older I have seen his behavior lean more towards what is expected of him as a man, forsaking or hiding so much of what makes him a wonderful, beautiful human being. I have seen men and boys of all ages, who are so harmed by the confines that are commonly thought to only suppress women. And this is the part of Watson’s speech that moved me the most, as it is something so rarely acknowledged.

      It often strikes me as ironic that the men who put down feminism — branding it into something that is not, using terms such as “feminazi”, pushing aside the issue altogether, etc. — are those who could most benefit from truly understanding the movement. Too often, these are the men who have been taught to shut down emotionally, to value traditional ideals of masculinity, and to deprive themselves of sensitivity and feeling — things that make us all human. These are the individuals who have so much to learn and to gain from understanding that feminism isn't at all about man-hating. It is far from it; it is man-loving, and woman-loving. Feminism truly is a universal cause.

      I find myself often avoiding certain words or behaviors that are traditionally and heteronormatively feminine or girly, especially in the professional or academic environment. I have been taught that I must do this to be taken seriously, to have my words, thoughts, and contributions valued or even considered. Likewise, I so often see male friends, family members, colleagues, and even strangers suppressing or restraining themselves, catching themselves before they fall and reveal what they truly feel. And for them, this hiding is also about not being taken seriously. It too is about weakness. And just like it does for women, this need to hide or change one's behavior almost always carries over into the private sphere. 

      I recently had a conversation with a friend in which he admitted to preferring a more natural environment to DC’s urban structure, something he began with, “I know I’m a pansy, but….” Too often, I see people covering up how they truly feel or adding a sense of self-deprecating humor in order to sort of justify or make up for behaving in a way that is seen as traditionally feminine, and thus: traditionally weak. And I myself am certainly guilty of this as well. This is why it was so relieving to see that Watson's speech acknowledged something that is so rarely spoken of.

      But what the speech left out, I feel, is the fact that while men are certainly a big part of the feminist movement, the role of women is not to be forgotten. As women, we put each other down so much and so often, that I can’t help but think that we are perhaps the main hinderance in our own progress, something blogger Emily Schuman hits upon in her aptly-named article titled "She For She". I took a class once in which two girls openly admitted that they believed female soldiers should not serve in the front line. I was astounded and could not take them seriously, and my initial response was to laugh. This was about two years ago and has still stuck with me, but I certainly no longer see the humor. How can we as women put ourselves down so much? How can we want to destroy the progress women throughout history have strived to create? 

      Throughout my life, starting with experiences as early as elementary school, I have been taught to be a "quiet" feminist. I have been repeatedly made aware that the feminist movement is associated with aggression, impoliteness, and unattractiveness. While this "education" is offensive coming from anyone, it was most surprising when women and girls around me separated themselves from the movement. However, eventually, this is what I did, too. I learned that if these were the connotations that were to be associated with me, then I was not going to label myself as a feminist. But I've thankfully grown since then and I learned to value my own opinion much more. While I came out of the closet as a feminist long before this, I took a Gender and Sexuality class last year that really bolstered my strength in my own convictions and convinced me that all students should be exposed to the true nature of the feminist movement at least once in their education, whether it be in college or even earlier. I am now shocked and sometimes even offended when I here girls my age separating themselves from feminism. Are they not affected by the wage gap and disrespect that I am? Do they not see the struggles that lay ahead for themselves or for countless (if not nearly all) other women? But I digress.

      While I still don’t fully understand the students' comments on women in the military, it has taught me this: in order for the feminist movement to succeed, we must certainly call upon the boys and men. That is for sure, and I believe Watson has done an amazing job in establishing why. But let us not forget that we as women also have a role to remind ourselves and each other to be less critical and more honest. Remember that a few anatomical differences do not mark you as inferior, and remember to stand up for yourselves and for each other, regardless of gender identification. Do it for yourself, but do not forget that you have a responsibility to the men, women, boys, and girls around you, as well. And please, please, please: don’t be afraid to call yourself a feminist.

-- V


  1. This is great Virali !! I really appreciate your blogs, they are so true and natural. If you don't mind Can you send me the video link of Emma's speech ? Also I have a question whom are you asking to not be afraid to be called feminist ? Indian Women ? If yes then I would like a point that still many women in India are not so moderate despite of their education because of the cultural and traditional restrictions. I can say it's a taboo !! Couldn't stop myself to respond after reading your blogs ;) I think I am going to start this soon and thanks for motivating me !!

    1. Thank you so much Madhuri! Your kind words mean a lot to me. :) Here is a link to the video: To answer your question, I am asking people of all genders and backgrounds and nationalities to call themselves feminists! Feminism is intersectional, it is universal and we can all benefit from feminist progress. Thank you again and can't wait to read your blog once you start one!