Secular Humanism

Why Feminist, Not Equalist?

Trans Feminism LogoAs a feminist who places a lot of importance in the power of conversations, there are a few catch phrases that are thrown at me from time to time that make me want to put my head inside a cupboard and scream my lungs out. I started calling myself a feminist at the age of twelve when I first read about the American suffragist movement and fell in love with the “radical notion that women are people”. Feminist thought and politics is the space where I found comfort, where I grew to love my body, where I learnt that it is okay to be different. Feminism gave me the kind of validation most 12 year olds crave for but never get. In other words, feminism is pretty essential to who I am today and how I feel about everything. So there is nothing that irks me more than someone who frivolously discards feminism with “I am not a feminist, I am an equalist/humanist” as though feminism is either some thoughtless, flippant and inconsequential movement used by bored, elite women to stir up trouble on the streets or a violent vendetta that seeks to completely reverse the social order in favour of the “female gender”. If you are one of those people, here’s news for you: feminists stand for nothing if not for equality; feminism is nothing if not for humanity. All feminism has ever tried to do is provide counter discourses to what is normalized and appropriated as “ethics” and “justice” by a privileged few in a society. Feminist praxis works towards providing a lens to view the variations and hierarchies that make up the category of “human”.

A few days back, my unfathomable love for musicals made me drag a friend along to watch ‘Les Miserables’. We had promised ourselves a “fun day” which, for us, means consciously demarcating a space and time where we will completely withhold ourselves from getting angry at anything at all. We deserved it too, after having worked tirelessly to arrange for a film festival on gender issues of various sorts for which nobody turned up (Yes, we lead very sad lives). We were fooling ourselves of course. Once you are addicted to feminist media criticism, there is no escape route. So by the time the romantic descriptions of revolution came along in the form of a song that goes in the lines of “do you hear the people sing/singing the song of angry men”, all that carefully suppressed anger came welling back up. I wouldn’t dare to fault the movie makers, of course. They were only adapting a famous piece of “political” literature. And why would they do it any other way? Everyone loves a good story about Revolution. And Revolution is the realm of Man; the brave Man, the heroic Man, the poetic Man and, of course, the intellectual Man. Those who would look at it any other way would be accused of not having the vision to look at the larger picture. They would be deemed unnecessarily critical and, God forbid, unpatriotic. Take, for instance, Olympe De Gouges, French feminist, activist and playwright, who got her head chopped off French Revolution style for pointing out to the revolution hardliners that the pursuit for “Rights of Man” may not be looking very carefully into the rights of other kinds of people.

And while we are talking about revolution, we might as well take a look closer home. Take one of the first, most significant movements for women’s “empowerment”- the anti Sati advocacy. The anti Sati debate taken up by social reformers, took a by and large protectionist form. There was a recalling of the image of the woman as a pious figure with great strength, resilience and moral soundness. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the champion of the fight against sati had, argued, “One fault they (women) have, it must be acknowledged; which is, by considering others equally void of duplicity as themselves, to give their confidence too readily, from which they suffer much misery, even so far that some of them are misled to suffer themselves to be burnt to death.”* Women were, therefore, easy victims because they were too naïve and gullible to understand what they were being pushed into and not because religious diktat and unyielding social constructions had put them in a claustrophobic situation.

The other major strand of the anti sati argument drew heavily from religious contexts. There was a revivalist trend of going back to the Vedic texts as well as other important texts of Hinduism, such as the Bhagwad Gita, to prove that Sati was not a compulsory act prescribed in the Hindu texts. While using religion as a strategy was pragmatically beneficial, it left the rigid patriarchal structures that existed within religion, unquestioned. The acknowledgement of a benevolence granted by both Divinity and the male intellectual reformer is seen in the Roy’s statement, given not long after the passing of the Sati Abolition Act, “We should not omit the present opportunity offering up thanks to Heaven, whose protecting arm has rescued our weaker sex from cruel murder…”** (Emphasis mine).

Don’t get me wrong. You gotta love a man for not wanting to burn women alive for some warped up sense of honor and glory. But I don’t want to be made to put him on a pedestal and uncritically glorify him for salvaging the “weaker” sex. The worst part is that we have still not managed to get out of the habit of using such problematic language, even if we disguise it under the all encompassing excuse of building a “strategy”. Even today, some of the most popular campaigns for women’s education call for the need of such education for the growth and the development of the coming generations, for inculcating a better sense of “family planning”, to help poverty alleviation and for the betterment of the society as a whole. Education for the sake of education is only the right of the privileged boy child. Similarly, the Nirbhaya gang rape case sparked a series of campaigns to create safer environments women which urged people (read men) to empathize with the victim-survivors of sexual assault by thinking about how they would feel if the same happened to their mothers/sisters/daughters. Not only does this conveniently hide the fact that women do get raped in the privacy of their homes by the very men that are socially assigned the job of “protecting” them, but also takes the focus away from a person’s right to claim safety in any space under any circumstance. The most visible campaigns, in fact, didn’t even have any representation of women in them. They had actor-director Farhan Akhtar inciting his brethren by flashing around the question “are you man enough” to join him in making Delhi safer. But as gender rights activist, Kavitha Krishnan rightly says, “machismo (mardangi) is the problem, not the solution.”

To me, “mankind” will never just be a word but a sexist terminology that assumes a particular gender to be representative of all kinds of people, Dil Chahta Hain will never be just another heartwarming movie about friendship but a film about male bonding where women are mere intrusions and The Notebook won’t be just another love story but yet another celebration of a heteronormative man-woman relationship which gains its legitimacy because it ends in marriage and a horde of successful children. To me it is hard to come to terms with the fact that my role models are not to be found in text books or movies. My role models will be found screaming themselves hoarse with slogans as they march beside me in some protest rally or another. They will be found tired and exasperated at unattended seminars saddened at how little people care after all these years and yet grateful that some people care at all. And as an upper caste, middle class, cis, able, born-Hindu woman, I cannot even fathom the marginalization that people who don’t identify with the above tags face. Like when Virginia Woolf famously said “for most of history, Anonymous was a woman”, she wasn’t at all cognizant of how much further into anonymity people who don’t identify with the man-woman gender binary will be pushed into for many years to come. Feminist training has helped me deconstruct the norm and recognize where I stand in relation to it. Few ideologies emphasize as much on the importance of recognizing privileges as feminism does. So, while “feminism” and “humanism” may not be interchangeable terms or substitute philosophies, without “feminism”, “humanism” remains “upper caste-upper class- cis- heterosexual- able bodied- middle aged man-ism”.

*Extracts from A Second Conference Between an Advocate for and an Opponent of the Practice of Burning Widows Alive (Calcutta, February 1820; Selected Works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, pp. 156)
**Extracts from the argument regarding the burning of widows considered as a religious rite (Calcutta, 1830; Selected Works of Raja Rammohun Roy [ New Delhi: Government of India, 1977], pp. 163)

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About the author

Shreya Sen

A student of Gender Studies, Shreya Sen is a loud and proud feminist and considers herself to be the Batwoman of the internet world. She enjoys reading, respects chocolates for their benign presence in her life, and often ponders upon the merits of procrastination.


  • Thanks Shreya for giving a voice to my thoughts. I feel annoyed whenever people come up with this ‘why feminist; why not equalist?’ trope. Now I have an eloquent article to point to!

  • Very well written. Why is it the LGBTQ movement and not All Sexual Orientation movement, Disability Rights movement and not Everybody’s Rights movement? For all the reasons explained in the article. To say one is an ‘equalist’ and not a ‘feminist’ is to think that feminism’s work is done and its no longer needed, the inequalities remaining are not representative of systemic oppression in a larger social context but just simple problems in an already equal world. Sadly, thats not the case.

    • Yup. Also, I think that the more progress a social change movement makes, the more subtle and deeper the issues it has to tackle get – in fact, like fish swimming in water, people aren’t even aware of the existence of those issues. This might be the case with some well-intentioned “equalists”. In Allan Johnson’s book The Gender Knot he explains why these are social systems we are dealing with, not just individuals, and he likens patriarchy to a “tree”:

      Like all social systems, patriarchy is difficult to change because it is complex and its roots run deep. It is like a tree rooted in core principles of control, male dominance, male identification and male centeredness. Its trunk is the major institutional patterns of social life as shaped by the roots—family, economy, politics, religion, education, music and the arts. The branches — first the larger, then the progressively smaller—are the actual communities, organizations, groups, and other systems in which we live our lives, from cities and towns to corporations, parishes, marriages, and families. And in all of this, individuals are the leaves who both make possible the life of the tree and draw their form and life from it.

      The link above has Chapter 1 of the book available for free, I urge everyone to read it as it changed the way I understood patriarchy completely. As we make progress, we get closer and closer to the roots of the social system, and the harder it gets to tackle. Take LGBT rights for example – today one can easily spot inequality because marriage isn’t legal. At some point in the future it will be, and you might then see equalists arguing the “all sexual orientations rights” line you mentioned above, even though the roots of heteronormativity will still be intact.

      As for knowing when we’re there, this post titled When Do We Stop? makes a case for not worrying about the “line” or the “tipping point” just yet because we are far away from it. My feeling is, there won’t be a line as such, just a gradual fade over time.

    • Absolutely. Of course we can, and need to, find spaces to form alliances and coalitions, but acknowledging unique forms of oppressions is an important political tool.

  • Very well-written, and appreciate the arguments. I would like to see this followed up with a deconstruction of humanism itself, and a more nuanced analysis of what “feminism” and “humanism” mean. There are historical discontinuities and internal dissonances in what both mean to groups of people across time and space. There is so much contemporary feminism that is beyond humanism – postmodernist, poststructuralist, postcolonial. I would also like to see within this analysis attention on the simplistic moral categories implied by “humanism” as used by many people.

    • There is much left for me to read. Especially on “humanism”. Thank you for your insights. Would definitely like to follow up on it.

  • Great article in all but I would like to get some doubts cleared. When you say – /* So, while “feminism” and “humanism” may not be interchangeable terms or substitute philosophies, without “feminism”, “humanism” remains “upper caste-upper class- cis- heterosexual- able bodied- middle aged man-ism” */ – are you claiming that without feminism humanism reduces to just this much(in the Indian context)? A person from the west would have included “white” somewhere in there as well.

    In my opinion humanism is the super-set of all such inclusive movements – feminism, LGBTQ rights movement, etc(i.e. humanism > feminism+masculism, which is what the post implies). Or is feminism used here as an umbrella term for all the other movements? If so, is that the current consensus?

    PS : In a followup comment on the FB Nirmukta page I tried to rationalize the quote in question by stating this – /*One rational explanation for the claim that I have come up with is that if feminism were to be removed from humanism then that would in some sense lead to a “slippery slope” where other marginalized groups would too be neglected.*/
    I think I can do one better and state that without feminism there would be no humanism because if we were to ignore the problems faced by one historically and even presently marginalized section of society then we would probably do the same with the rest. Still, I would like to know your take on my concerns.

    • I am not making a claim that feminism is a sub-set of humanism. Instead what I suggest is that the historical origins and trajectory of the feminist movement needs to be understood in order to analyze contemporary social realities. I am not saying that feminism is an umbrella term, but it doesn’t address women as a monolithic category. Therefore, it is important to understand various kinds of feminism(s) to see how intersectionalities of caste, gender, race, sexual orientation, ageism, ableism etc work together in order to build meaningful coalitions with other social justice movements or/and ideologies as well.

      • Thank you for the reply. You made some valid points. But now I am a bit confused XD.
        I agree with Shreya Ila that we need a followup on humanism as well.

        By the way, when I talk about humanism I refer to it as described in the following blogpost, which I think is much different from what you mean by humanism (explains the confusion) –

        “Secular Humanism is a life stance that combines naturalism with a strong commitment to ethics, justice and human happiness. Feminism is one of the many causes under this umbrella, along with anti-racism, anti-casteism and so on.”

        • Good point. While the idea behind feminism is socially egalitarian yet the name, unfortunately, reeks of sexism. ‘Feminism’ is what a male chauvinist would call a sex-equality movement. It seems inappropriate to stick with the name just for history’s sake. We’re *against*anti-femme* thought, NOT pro-femme or anti-homme. Just like we’re anti-racist, not pro-black, anti-casteist, not pro-some-castes, etc. We want to remove gender privilege from the powerful, but not by focussing on the ‘unprivileged’. The very word ‘unprivileged’ shows a bias (like the ‘weaker sex’), and that problem is shared by the word ‘feminism’.

          • Saying feminism is a sexist word because it sounds like “pro-women” is the same as saying “LGBT movement” is pro LGBT, dalit protests are pro-dalit and so on. Same goes for “atheist movement”. If we are against anti-atheist thought, why use a pro-atheist word? Feminism primarily deals with what affects women. Nothing wrong in calling it for what it is. The other alternatives seems to be words which, as Anita notes earlier, tend to give the impression that inequilaties don’t exist anymore.

  • Why call it Feminism if it is for the sake of Equalism? I think that we should protect both the sexes. As in our patriarchal system, the female-sex is being oppressed and we are opposing against patriarchy – this is not Feminism, this should be called Equalism. Because, the exactly same thing should have been done by us if the other sex was oppressed. What would you call that? Masculinism? I don’t think so. Am not saying that Feminism is baseless. What I believe is that Equalism is a more rationalistic way. We have to coin the term ‘Equalism’.

    And, the shocking thing is that the real zeal of a good number of Feminists are being exploited by the Capitalists and being used to build a consumer-culture.

    • // Why call it Feminism if it is for the sake of Equalism? // For the reason mentioned in an earlier comment. Also, for me, “equalist” has the effect of erasing the fact that one group has privilege. Furthermore, it tends to be used by people who deny that that privilege exists. So I tend to be suspicious when people use the term.

    • ‘Equalism’ masks/covers the fact that women are mostly at the receiving end of injustice (except women gang-leaders, political satraps, etc., of course). Men are rarely subject to oppression by women, and even if that does occur (eg. the hypothetical false-rape charge, etc), the consequences for men are far less dire.

      I agree that the term ‘feminism’ is biased and patronising, but ‘equalism’ errs on the side of being too vague for being anything other than an umbrella term for all anti-discrimination planks.

  • Insightful article, Shreya.

    Although I daresay say my beliefs and social attitudes are not far from your own, I confess I’ve taken to calling myself an egalitarianist these days, largely because some feminists do not seem to like the idea of a man ‘co-opting’ the feminist space, so to speak.

    I can understand that.

    Mainstream media is heavily male-centric, and feminist spaces provide a great outlet for women to discuss issues away from that male-centricism. For obvious reasons, many of these women do not take kindly to an overt male presence in these spaces.

    However, this does leave people like me a little confused. It’s a bit of a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation – calling yourself a male feminist can result in accusations of trying to co-opt feminist space, or worse, of trying to portray yourself as some kind of White Knight (the implication being that this is mere posturing).

    NOT calling yourself a feminist causes the other kinds of feminists to react negatively, because they see it as a “I’m not a feminist, but…” type statement, with the accompanying negative connotations.

    So I’m kind of confused at this point, and ‘egalitarianist’ seems to cause the least offense to the least amount of people.

    In any case, while language and labels are somewhat important, it is really the beliefs which count. In that, I raise my glass to you in solidarity.


  • Well written! Exactly what I’d been looking for!

    I usually am annoyed when people argue, as to why I’m a feminist and not an equalist.

  • Let’s take a look at some statements in this article:

    I started calling myself a feminist at the age of twelve when I first read about the American suffragist movement and fell in love with the “radical notion that women are people”.

    I will let someone better qualified than me answer this -a woman by the way- whose views on feminism are as accurate as well explained:

    In case you don’t want to read the whole article, I’ll copy an interesting excerpt:

    “the history of the expansion of suffrage is a lot more complex and nuanced than most feminists would lead you to believe. For instance, up until shortly before women’s suffrage in the US, the system was not one of secret ballots. Because ballots were public in the early years of universal male suffrage, there had been numerous cases of employers coercing their male employees to vote the way they wanted”

    She also explains that the right men obtained for voting was in exchange of their facing death on war (WWI at that time). Many women were opposed to sufragettes simply because they thought citizenship rights would come along with citizenship obligations.

    And this is where feminism reveals itself as a biased, one-side of the coin speech:

    – Feminism talks about sexual mutilation on women on some countries, but hides the fact that mostly males are sexually mutilated in the whole world.

    – Feminism talks about male privileges, but hides the fact that males have to carry the burden of many obligations women are not subject to (like draft, to name one).

    – Feminism talks about male violence, which exists, but hides the fact that women violence exists too, especially against children, including sexual abuse. Statistics on this point are never discussed from a “gender perspective”.

    – Feminism talks about sexual assault, but hides the fact of false rape accusations that have ruined thousands of male lives. Here again an interesting post, with statistical analysis:

    – Feminism talks about equallity at the job market, but silences the fact that most dangerous, filthy, stressing jobs are done by men: workers on construction, mines, sewers, firemen, etc.

    Virginia Woolf was a very interesting writer, but too self-centered. Nobody cares about male suffering. When a woman is killed, a woman is killed; but when a man is killed, it’s just “people”. Anonymous is not a woman, but a man.

    • It would help if you could acquaint yourself with feminism instead of relying on straw-feminist caricatures. To address your examples:

      – Feminism does not condone genital mutilation.
      – Feminism does ask for a greater role for women in the military.
      – Feminism does not say that women can’t initiate violence.
      – False rape allegations are a widely belived myth as indicated by this recent report.
      – Again, feminism doesn’t argue that “dangerous, filthy, stressing jobs” should be done only by men.

      Frankly all your examples fall squarely in delusion land. They rank right up there with kooky religious beliefs. Again, spend some time learning about feminism before quoting nonsense like that.

    • Just to add to what Satish said. The points about about how men suffer too – how we’re considered cannon fodder for example – a part of that comes from patriarchy itself, because an aspect of patriarchy is dominance and control – not just of women, but of anyone, including other men. Please read the book “The Gender Knot” I recommended in an earlier comment, it goes into this in detail. One also has to understand intersectionality i.e. intersecting social systems of privilege, like class, race and caste. A working class man is less privileged in terms of class compared to a upper class woman, for example. But even taking into account intersectionality, male privilege overall is real. We live in a gender-based social system called patriarchy, which is male-dominated, male-centered, male-identified and centered around an obsession with control. And feminism is trying to eradicate patriarchy. So this is a win-win for us men too, as it offers us a way out of this toxic mess. However, we can’t expect feminist women to do this for us – they have more than enough on their plate. We need to work towards this ourselves. You’re against male circumcision? I am too. We men should mobilise against it. We should be the ones trying to end the very serious problem of male violence too. We should be doing all these things, instead of taking out our frustration on feminism. That’s completely the wrong target – in fact it’s shooting ourselves in the foot. The target is patriarchy.

    • If Satish’s language seems too vague and patronising (it is), let me rephrase the points:

      – We’re against ALL involuntary mutilation (male, female, religious or otherwise). Women-focussed groups only talk about FGM, but they’re not all of us. Cricket-focussed groups cannot be blamed for talking on and on about cricket, anti-racism groups cannot be accused of ignoring class divisions, etc.
      – We look forward to the day when women can die horrible deaths on the battlefield in vast numbers alongside their male peers and the list of glorious martyrs contains many women, not just one Rani Laxmi Bai, Uda Devi, or so.
      – We fully realise that some of the most bloodthirsty criminals and rulers in the world have been women who have acted of their own free will, and they richly deserve whatever horrible fate befalls them.
      – False-rape charges may or may not be true, and some rape-laws *do* seem to be biased against men (don’t cover homosexual rape or sexual coercion by women in power). *If* a rape charge is false, we condemn it, BUT, the vast majority of rape charges are NOT false, and an even greater number of rape cases go unreported. That is the bigger problem.
      – Again, we believe that equal-pay-for-equal-work applies only when the quantum of work done is actually equal, however dirty, stinking, or dangerous the job may be. In India at least, women construction labourers are very common, yet paid less. This is slowly changing, from personal observation, to a quantum-of-work basis, eg. the number of brick sets/bags/bushels carried, etc., but is the exception rather than the rule.

      If any person (man or woman) proposes equal rights for women without equal dangers that come with those rights, the are sexists and opportunists, not feminists. If they call themselves ‘feminists’, they are hypocrites, but still not feminists.

      • What stops one from imagining a world free from both war and gender injustice? There are organizations which combine both gender sensitivity and pacifist sensibilities such as Women Against Gun Violence . Further, in this very comment-trail, there has been a reiteration of how patriarchy is exploitative of men too, especially when life-denying warlikeness is made part and parcel of normative masculinity. Therefore, to suggest that demands for equal opportunity in all workplaces including the security establishment constitute some kind of unwitting bloodlust, is a strawman.

        As for some legislative measures seemingly being biased against men, here is a post clearing such misconceptions about a recent Indian legal provision, as part of a thread that maybe relevant to this discussion in full.

        • I’m an atheist, freethinker, anti-patriarchy, anti-chivalry, and a very staunch supporter of equal rights for women, but I’m not a pacifist. I do not believe in non-violence for non-violence’s sake, and believe that violence may be necessary as a tool of last resort against an adversary that is impervious to reason and armed to the teeth. Just like non-violence is not cowardice, violence to protect your family and friends is not bloodlust. Women have every right to fight and die for their cherished family, friends and ideals as do men. War and martyrdom is very, very destructive, but sometimes it cannot be avoided. Indian history is replete with fighting women, though not many of them. A war fought by free citizen volunteers to preserve their life, liberty and way of life is not exploitative. It wasn’t exploitative in 1857, it isn’t now.

          I agree with the rest of your post, including that laws only *appear* to be biased against men. That’s why I put a great big *If* in my earlier comment — as the so-called bias has yet to result in harmful outcomes for a significant number of men, while women are at the receiving end all the time.

          • The guard of honour presented to Pres. Obama by Wing Cdr. Pooja Thakur has brought into focus the contribution of women in combat roles in the Indian armed forces, which behind the spotlight is already a reality in an unsung way, as this NDTV interview reveals.

  • Finally an easily digestible and likable answer to this whitewash of feminist concerns that the idea of “equalist not feminist” embodies! Thank you.
    To all those who worry that the “male” will get lost in concerns of feminist works because “men” are not named per se: think how long we lived under words like mankind. I like what Satish Chandra said earlier. If you take up the GLBT cause or the DALIT cause are you asking for inequality? Do we have to say SEXUALITY NEUTRAL and CASTE NEUTRAL??? Is that perhaps disengenuous to the realities that are lived? First. Second, is it perhaps a way to push the actual concern of a sexual minority or a caste disempowered person back into the margin?
    Here in the USA this is happening with race as well as with gender. By saying we are post racist we fail to acknowledge the historical structural and sometimes linguistic cultural institutions that are in our social machinery that perpetuate marginalization (lower wages, educational discrepancies and so on).
    I am very pleased to read this and find this thoughtful essay. Keep on organizing your film festivals and sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated.

  • Couldn’t have put it better myself! As someone who regularly in internet arguments gets told to be a humanist I’ve always sought for a response rather than typing a scream hah. This is perfect and just what I mean, humanist literally still has man in it and is exactly what it feels like people are telling me to be, someone who acknowledges men as though they were being ignored. Gosh forbid as a woman I should want to care about oh I don’t know women hah. People even get angry at feminism for it’s name being about women but even despite that it cares about how the patriarchy hurts men too but unfortunately if all someone does is yell humanist in response then they’re probably never going to see it.

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