Putting feminism in perspective

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Molly Wierman stands with Damini Kane, whom she visited in India. Her trip made her consider the benefits of feminism that Western women take for granted. Photo by Molly Wierman

I’m going to begin by making a claim that might be controversial in some places, but with which many at the University of Dallas will agree: Feminism isn’t a pressing issue in the West.

To qualify that claim a bit: It isn’t a significant problem when compared  to the dire need for feminism in the East.

Most of us at UD might not think much about Eastern feminism, or even the East at all, except perhaps for recent news articles about assaults on Indian women dressed in Western fashion. But as a white, Western woman who recently spent two weeks in both urban and rural India, I can tell you: The East needs feminism.

One night my friend Damini and I were riding in the backseat of a car in Agra, a “small city” of about a million people in the state of Delhi.

In the passenger seat sat Damini’s  father, a broad ex-journalist who smoked five cigarettes a day and drank a glass of Bombay Sapphire every night. He once escaped the leaders of a slave gang who were trying to kill him by riding his bicycle with a flat tire and a broken headlight through the jungle for hours.

He had been talking to the driver for a while. As my friend later translated for me, the driver asked him several times, “So how old are your girls in the backseat?”

Perhaps here in Texas we wouldn’t have thought much of the question. Certainly we wouldn’t have worried about being followed or harassed later, especially because we had this intimidating man with us.

It was the circumstances that made all the difference and kept Damini and I on guard for the rest of the night.

We were in the same state where a female university student about my age had been gang-raped and murdered on a bus she’d been on with her male friend, in a city where taxis have to display decals claiming, “This taxi respects women.” Tourists are greeted with welcome kits including a lengthy list of safety tips for women, with advice such as not wearing skirts or walking alone at night “for your own safety,” according to an August 2016 article in the Guardian.

In some ways, I think such Western ignorance only exacerbates the problem. We don’t realize how lucky we are here. After being followed around by groups of young men while I was in India, I no longer looked over my shoulder when walking along Northgate Drive at night. Even in Italy I didn’t face this kind of harassment — the Italian in his mid-30s who tried to take me back to his apartment when I was in Florence took my refusal well enough.

We can’t work to resolve what we don’t see or recognize. We can’t support women whose struggles we don’t acknowledge.

And when it comes to our own society, we can’t really understand our problems and our goals if we can’t put them into perspective.

White Western feminism isn’t a pressing issue, but it is a problem.

Even I, a woman who considers herself a feminist, who has experienced discrimination and, frankly, more frightening mistreatment because of her gender, can acknowledge that my experiences didn’t happen because we have a severe cultural problem in the West, but because the perpetrators were jerks.

I have to put my feminism in perspective so that I can focus my efforts — not so much on keeping myself safe when I’m walking along Northgate, but on making sure my fellow women receive the career support, healthcare and opportunities they need as mothers, daughters, wives and professionals.

When we see better, we act in more effective ways. Even more so, we have compassion and understanding to guide us — and such principles, I think, need to be and, in fact, are at the heart of both Western and Eastern feminism.

To develop this understanding and to act accordingly, as I learned when I went to India, is really just a matter of looking around more carefully — and we’re all capable of that at UD, aren’t we?

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