MeToo movement, Sabarimala controversy: Tenets of feminism need a rethink as debate over gender equality deepens

The popularity of discourse on the MeToo movement and Sabarimala controversy has given rise to an important question: Can women have it both ways?

Phrased differently, are women claiming equality with men and advocating for gender neutral laws; or are they arguing for laws which favour them, which in turn maybe discriminatory against men. In essence, what does equality mean? Does it mean sameness of the genders or does it highlight their differences? This is at the heart of the issue that feminists in India need to address.

In USA, there are three views on the ideal relationship between the two genders. First view, as advocated by Wendy Williams and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is that there should be complete gender equality where no special treatment is given to women. Applied in India, this would mean that laws which have a clear bias in favour of women — such as, special maternity leave for women for six months, or provisions for ex-parte order in favour of women under domestic violence act, or laws on sexual harassment at work place in favour of women —  should be seen as violative of gender equality as they provide special treatment to women.

The second view is that laws should be largely gender neutral, although there can be some exceptions when another right trumps or is at least of equal value as that of gender equality. For example, the proponents of this view, such as Nadine Strossen, would defend legalising pornography as banning it not only violates free speech but also gender equality — whereby women are assumed to be the dominated character and in need of protection. This has largely been a minority view in the feminist discourse.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The third view on gender equality is that when advocating for laws, we cannot be blind to the differences amongst genders or ‘gendered realities’ which may be due to biological reasons, or historical and cultural discrimination, or the emotional make-up of women.

Catharine MacKinnon argued against legalisation of prostitution as women are always at the receiving end by being brutalised and degraded. It’s just not a level playing field. ‘Difference feminists’ claim that women are not same but different than men, and that these differences arise from perspectives that have been forced on women. For example, in her book, In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan writes that while men’s development is oriented towards ‘rights and non-interference’, that of women is around ‘relationships and inter-dependence’.

Whatever maybe the cause of differences, this view advocates for laws which take into consideration the gender differences and design the laws accordingly.

Those who are still skeptical of the MeToo movement in India need to realise the difficulty that a woman undergoes before publicly acknowledging the discrimination faced by her and forced by a man who is much more powerful. While there is a possibility of misuse under the MeToo movement, the doors of the courts are open to prevent abuse against it. Of course, one could argue that even resorting to courts does not protect either party fully, when part of the trial has already been conducted by the media, and the other part depends on the available resources of the party.

The MeToo movement, although far from perfect, has provided a tool, whereby women can bring the focus to the differences and their vulnerabilities without being dis-empowered by them. Whether the MeToo movement should be run in a gender neutral way, where #MenToo get the same audience as women have, or whether we should take into account the historical differences and discrimination against women, to give them an extra ear, has been the question. Thus far, the reception that the MeToo movement has received, demonstrates the prevalence of the popularity of the third view on feminism where equality for women takes into account their differences with the men.

Similarly, in Sabarimala, questions have been raised about the practices which prevent men from entering women’s only temples. Those who support keeping women out of Sabarimala, interestingly, emphasise on how women are different from men. Those who support women’s entry into temples, argue how women are different on biological grounds (which is not under their control) but same in all other ways (to carry out vrathams, needed to enter the temple). Some argue, that because men and women are different, some men are not allowed in women’s temples and vice-versa. Those who advocate for gender equality, suggest that all men and women should be allowed entry in all temples and any practice against this should be held discriminatory. Others may take an argument that women are all same but still different in some ways, and it is on account of that difference that they are kept out of Sabarimala.

In my opinion, all laws, including those relevant for Sabarimala, should be based on equality, keeping in mind the differences that have been historically discriminatory against women. This is also the view that the Indian Constitution takes when under Article 14, it first provides for Right To Equality of All and then in Article 15 provides that there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, class, gender etc., thereby showing sensitivity to the discrimination that has historically taken place for a variety of reasons. The third view presents a balanced view where it doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and provides for equality without treating the apples and the oranges alike.

However, when applied to India, these three views on feminism may take different colours and call for different views, depending on the extent to which the difference principle can be emphasised and balanced. Whether prostitution should be legalised, whether pornography should be legal, whether there should be equal paternity leave, are some of the questions which will require us to answer whether men and women are same or different and what should equality really mean?

This is then an ongoing debate on which the feminists need to weigh in carefully in times to come. In doing so, the lines of the three views may be blurred as it is in their application, that the true relevance of these differences in views on equality may bear out.

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Updated Date: Nov 09, 2018 15:29 PM

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