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Why feminists can’t become thought police

In a free and frank gender debate, men must be allowed to air their views - no matter how offensive we find them, writes Seema Goswami.

brunch Updated: Dec 14, 2013 20:08 IST
Seema Goswami

First off, a confession. I find myself increasingly discomfited by the newly-minted feminist narrative in which a woman is always considered to be right and the man is always seen as being wrong. In which a woman's word is regarded as being more reliable than a man's, simply because she is a woman. In which a man is assumed to be guilty until he is proved innocent, turning the principles of natural justice on their head, if a woman were to level a rape or dowry charge against him. And in which men and women are depicted as antagonistic entities, engaged in pitched battles across the gender divide.

It really doesn't have to be like that. Women's rights are not just a feminist issue. They are a humanist issue. And we do the feminist cause a disservice when we try and shut men out of the discourse, or treat them as enemies of the movement. This is the good fight which all right-thinking human beings must fight; not just those with an extra X chromosome.

Because of our visceral reaction to such events as the Delhi gang rape last December, the gang rape of a photo-journalist in Mumbai, and more recently, the allegations of sexual assault levelled against Tarun Tejpal, we are finally talking about a woman's right to a safe environment, at home, at the office, and on the streets. But because our rage and anger is so overwhelming, the pitch of the debate has been raised to such shrill levels that we are in danger of drowning out good sense.

http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2013/12/farooq_pic.jpgThe first sign of this is our absolute refusal to listen to what men are trying to say, if it doesn't fit in with our narrative of woman = victim and man = predator. While there is no disputing that women are more at risk when it comes to sexual violence or harassment, we cannot dismiss out of hand the notion that some men may be victims too. Cases of the dowry and rape laws being misused may be rare, but they do exist. And we ignore them at our peril.

But what is also worrying is the new fashion of shouting down men who express opinions that we regard as sexist. Take Farooq Abdullah, for instance, who confessed that he was now scared of talking to women for fear of what would happen ("I don't even want to keep a female secretary. God forbid, there is a complaint against me and I end up in jail"). Or Naresh Agarwal, who said that men would no longer hire women as personal assistants for fear of being accused of sexual harassment.

Whatever we may think about the mind-set that generated such sentiments, there is no denying that these sentiments do exist. These two men were just brave/foolish/foolhardy (take your pick) to say in public which many men were feeling (and expressing) in private. But given the viciousness with which they were greeted, I wouldn't be surprised if men now run scared of even speaking out on gender issues, for fear of being shouted down, sneered at, abused, or dismissed as chauvinistic Neanderthals.
And, if you ask me, that is a real shame.

If we want to change people's minds on issues such as women's empowerment, sexual harassment or even sexual assault, then it is important to engage with them in a meaningful way which facilitates dialogue and a free and frank exchange of ideas. Men may well have views that we regard as sexist but just screaming 'pigs' at them will not make them rethink their attitudes. It will just make them disengage from the debate and keep their views to themselves in the future. And those views will never change.

It is simply self-defeating to create an environment in which no man can express his true opinions on gender - however sexist we may find them - without being torn to bits by a lynch mob motivated by political correctness. Jumping down the throats of people who say things we don't like will not result in their views being asphyxiated out of existence. These attitudes will continue to flourish in the dark, all the more potent for being unspoken and hence unchallenged.

Also, I can't help but feel that it is time that we injected some shades of grey into a discourse that has become too black and white to allow for a nuanced approach. The feminist movement will only benefit from acknowledging that all women don't fit into one easy category of 'downtrodden victim' who must be protected at all costs. Women are human beings, and as such they have the same strengths and weaknesses, the same virtues and flaws as men. Some women are truthful; some are not. Some women are weak; some are strong. Some women are victims; some are oppressors.

To lump them all into a one-size-fits-all category smacks of intellectual laziness and a complete misunderstanding of how the real world operates. This kind of thinking doesn't empower women; it belittles them by reducing them to easy stereotypes. True equality exists in having the same standards applied to women as they would to men, without conceding any special privilege or concession simply because they are women.

And it also means conceding the point that men have a right to their own views on the gender debate currently raging in the country - never mind how strongly we disagree with him. Feminists cannot become the Thought Police, no matter how grave the provocation.

From HT Brunch, December 15

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