I have often blogged about my feminism, the need for it and my own lessons and observations over the years. My feminism began out of mere frustration and anger, as I believe has been the case with many of my feminist sisters. Anger at being discriminated against. Anger at the social imbalance existing around us. Anger at feeling helpless when faced with oppressive situations. We all started with anger. We continue to channelize this anger into fuelling the movement, and making sure that the world knows that we still remain angry. This isn’t an irrational, violent, destructive anger, but a kinetic, fiery one that needs to constantly shine to remind everyone that the world we live in is far from being equal. If they tell you feminists are always angry, you should say “Yes! And why aren’t you?”
In my initial years of working in the development sector, I started to understand the pragmatic side of feminism. I started to see how the anger remained, and yet was being used as a positive, powerful tool to spread awareness about how important it is to not be complicit and take some action. Today, as I understand the needs and concerns of young feminists better, I see a wave of emphasis on self-care and collective wellbeing—how critical it is to look after our own needs and not feel that it’s a selfish act, how important it is to have each other’s back, and how we cannot be sustainable to the movement, if we aren’t rested enough.
From this understanding of “self-care is not selfish” arose my own thoughts about feminist guilt. The amount of guilt we experience every single day, within the movement, outside of the struggle, in the most personalised or public spaces often goes unrecorded. The most obvious example of guilt comes from the practice of caring for our self. Did I sleep too much today? Did I take a slightly longer break at work today? Didn’t my lunch deserve that extra attention? Did I spend too much money on that dress? Did it make me happy to splurge? Don’t I deserve some pampering? Haven’t I worked hard, against all odds, to be able to afford this? Opposing thoughts dominate our mind, and the first step towards accepting self-care, as a critical part of our everyday life, is to start by not feeling guilty about it. To stop feeling guilty for feeling happy. We deserve it. We matter. In fact, when we are happy, “the system shakes a little”.
My own awareness about self-care and its importance has made me identify feminist guilt more acutely. I have often tried to understand moments, when the feminist in us feels a tinge of guilt. For me, the biggest moment was when I decided to get married. Marriage can be a free choice, but as an institution, it will always be patriarchal and unfeminist. Chanting of shlokas and mantras that have obvious regressive tones to them, obeying patriarchal rituals, being silent to sexist statements by common relatives—these are just some instances and a common experience for many feminist sisters, who I have known and conversed with. It doesn’t matter what culture, caste, class, religion or ethnicity one belongs to. Marriage remains the ultimate slap to feminist growth. To be married doesn’t make you any less of a feminist, of course, but I felt like I compromised on my feminist vows (the ones I made to myself) when I silently listened to the male priest dictating me my wifely duties. Being married to the man I love (with all my heterosexual privilege) indeed made me happy, but also made me feel enormous feminist guilt.
As the movement becomes more digital, instances of feminist guilt have started to emerge in the online world. We’ve all spent hours of our time on online (and offline) conversations, trying to expose sexism, casteism and misogyny in statements we hear, only to be mansplained, ignored or be categorised as “feminazis always overreacting.” As I have grown older, more aware, perhaps more tired from being part of the struggle, I have gradually learned to better utilise my energies.
From feeling exasperated and exhausted of explaining why we need feminism and why it’s important to acknowledge privilege and identify oppressions, today I have learned to stay quiet. To not engage in lengthy comment threads in order to make a point. To recognise that there are some people with whom any discussion can be futile. To respect my own capacity and energy and channelize it towards a space that would value it more. To admit that it is not my job to educate someone about the necessity of looking at things from a feminist and gender sensitive perspective. And that comes with a pinch of guilt. I have lost count on the number of times I have seen relatives, family members, school friends, old colleagues pass a statement that is obviously repulsive, regressive and plain inhuman, but I have chosen to not react, because I know that the person concerned will never understand. I know that my energy and mental peace of mind is far more important than making a case for feminism. Feminist author, translator and historian, C.S.Lakshmi (Ambai), once said: “I no longer have the time to explain what feminism means.” And I resonate with that.
What worries me most are moments of feminist guilt within our own feminist circles. When we felt guilty for not taking on more work because our plates were too full, when we felt guilty about saying no to a task at hand because we couldn’t take on more, when we felt guilty about our feminisms not being up on its toes as we made mistakes within the movement, when we felt guilty about not attending that rally, not participating in that protest, not mobilising those people because we were just too damn tired at the end of a long day.
Our biggest feminist guilt arises when we don’t feel feminist enough. It is a lot more common an experience than we’d like to admit (check out this twitter conversation on #feministdilemma), and it needs to stop dominating our lives, our politics and our approach. In a world that is trying hard to pit women against each other, manufacturing divides and factions between movements and creating more silos, solidarity and a sense of warmth is what will keep us all sane. We need to move from a competitive feminist space of pumping guilt into others in the movement, to a learning and welcoming space of pumping love, attention, care and support. We are all products of patriarchy. Remember it wants us to feel guilty. Defeat it, by being happy and letting go of that consuming guilt.
This post does not necessarily reflect the politics or views of any organisation, group or collective and is the viewpoint of the writer alone.