Male feminism in India is, unsurprisingly, as diverse and nuanced a movement as the country itself. From avid male feminists to those incredibly weary of the “F” word, there are no steadfast rules. This four part article series will explore the topic of feminism through the lens of seven leading Indian men whose work either directly or indirectly correlates with helping women gain opportunity and equality.
Part 1 of 4, What is feminism?
For Paras Batra, cofounder of Leaf Wearables, it’s as simple as one word. Batra is one of five cofounders of a technology company focused on improving women’s security through jewelry. Batra and his cofounders were living in Delhi, in the aftermath of the infamous gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, when the issue of women’s safety first grabbed ahold of their collective attention. Batra found there was little progress in terms of safety for the women of his community, even two years after the attack. “People have told me our company is anti-feminist because it was started by five men, and we don’t have a female co-founder. But it’s humans doing things for humans.”
Humans doing things for humans seemed to be the theme amongst the leading men in the social enterprise space. Threads of Freedom, a social enterprise working to empower and reintegrate victims of sex trafficking via viable employment, was also founded by all men. Pritham Raja, cofounder of Threads of Freedom (ToF), admits feminism is hard to define. “It’s about equality, right?” After acknowledging the innate strengths and differences inherent between the sexes, Raja ultimately concluded feminism is about giving women “equal opportunity and a level platform to compete with men.”
These two young social entrepreneurs had fairly direct definitions of feminism, as did their counterparts in corporate India.
Pankaj Rai, Director of Global Analytics at Dell, known as a leading analytics leader in India, defined feminism as a movement that “tries to stand up” for women.
Founder of Myntra and most recently Head of Commerce and Advertising Business at Flipkart, both noted pro-women companies, Mukesh Bansal also commented on the differences between the sexes as an integral component to his definition of feminism.
“My perspective is to realize that men and women are quite different, and despite our fundamental differences we can work together in the same arena. Everyone should be respected for his or her own individuality, and we should all be on equal footing without bias. For me, the success of the feminism as a movement would be to reach the point where the need for it disappears.”
While the men of the social sector and corporate India have varying definitions, Batra, Raja, Rai and Bansal all would call themselves feminists, and proud feminists at that. However, not every leading man in India calls himself a feminist.
Writer, comedian, and stay-at-home dad Suman Kumar defies gender norms on a daily basis, but wouldn’t subscribe to any feminist title. “I’m not one for labels, honestly. I accept that across the world, without exception, every single place and every single society continues to be patriarchal and sexist, by and large. So I think that feminism is needed to make sure that we get rid of this nonsense. That said, my problem with feminism is I have had experiences with some rather militant feminists.
I don’t know, I really don’t have an answer if you ask me ‘what do you think feminism is?’ If you look at the world at large, you see the number of idiotic men and women that need to be educated, and for that I think some sort of an organized approach is required. I think, in that way, you probably need a label like feminism.”
Littered with tongue in cheek remarks, Kumar’s definition is both inciting and insightful.
“It’s basically a concerted unified voice to ring out, so I think that label is great, though I may not subscribe to the various hues. I think [feminism] is necessary; that people need to stand up against the audacious and unjust treatment that we have been meting out to women for centuries on end. And it’s not about treating women as equals; we’re nobody to treat anyone as equals.”
Though not a feminist himself, Kumar acknowledges the need for feminism across societies. His deep respect for women is clear, but his dissent against the ’F’ word is confounding. He finishes his thought with “I think feminism is more for men than for women, because men continue to be idiots,” sounding a little militant himself.
The Pinkathon, a women only race across several major Indian cities, focuses on various aspects of women’s health in which women themselves are the cause. Bengaluru Pinkathon Ambassador and social media strategist, Aakash Nambier has similar views on the subject. Feminism is “equality for all men and women.” Nambier continues, Feminism is often perceived as “women who fight for their right and fight against men, who hate men.” Though, “I don’t think it has to do with hate. It’s for equality.”
Despite his inclusive definition, Nambier would also not consider himself a male feminist. “I would call myself a male, and you are a female. I’m not a male chauvinist. We’re all equal here.” His avoidance of labels isn’t just shared by Kumar, but also his role model, actual model, and friend Milind Soman.
Indian super model, actor, iron man, and Pinkathon Ambassador Milind Soman is equally weary of labels and definitions. “I won’t say it’s my definition. I don’t have a definition because I don’t think one is required. From what I’ve seen, feminism is people trying to get women their place in society, which is equal status.” Soman continues, “definitions are always difficult because they all become opinions, so when everybody has their own opinion on what feminism is, then nobody knows what it is.”
“I believe that there’s a certain value that each person brings in the world and if some of the people are women, and therefore they’re not able to contribute the potential that they have, I think that’s unfortunate for all of us.”
Though they don’t claim the title of feminist, Kumar, Nambier, and Soman collectively embody the principles that most women would agree define the movement. They believe women have been and continue to be treated unjustly by and large, that the movement isn’t about hate but rather equality, and that when women are held back from reaching their greatest potential, simply due to gender, we all as a society suffer.
Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as American-Indian comedian Aziz Ansari wants them to be. Specifically looking at men whose work improves the lives of women, three out of the seven men interviewed said some form of “But I’m not a feminist.” Our non-feminists defy gender norms on a daily basis and work for organizations in which women themselves are quite literally the cause. Which begs the question, do definitions or labels matter? If yes, why are our male allies so hesitant to accept feminist as a label?
Movements like feminism are vital for any kind of societal progress. Movements are living breathing things, and have varying and dissenting voices at all turns. It’s what makes a movement great, but beyond that, successful in enacting societal change. The different hues, opinions, and nuances make change possible; feminism needs bra-burners as much as it needs HeforShe.
Feminism, as defined by our seven leading Indian men is about equality. It’s about standing up for women, and giving them equal footing and opportunities. It’s a unified voice against injustice and double standards, but it’s not about hate. Ultimately, it’s about helping a person achieve their greatest potential and live fully, no matter their gender.
For the men, such as Mukesh Bansal, Pankaj Rai, Pritham Raja, and Paras Batra, who are proud feminists, we need your voices and your efforts. From you we sow the seeds of stronger women and kinder men. For the men such as Milind Soman, Aakash Nambier, and Suman Kumar who aren’t feminists, or not yet feminists, we need your work and your outlook to continue to be inclusive. Because with or without the title ‘feminist,’ Indian women need allies; there’s still much work to be done.
This article is part one of a four part article series which was originally written for and published on Shenomics.com.
About the Author
Misha Rahman recently uprooted her life in Boston to move to Bangalore, India and work with Shenomics. She is completing a professional certification in social enterprise through IDEX Accelerator’s Global Fellowship Program. She spends her days on facebook, twitter, and linkedin- also known as marketing and strategy. In addition to empowering women she is interested in conflict resolution and human rights work. Misha enjoys traveling, reading, and binge watching Netflix.