Last weekend, a woman took her life in Porur by hanging herself at home using a saree. She was a painter in her late 20’s, and the mother of a toddler. She was married and had lived with her parents and her partner. Under any circumstances, a suicide is a tragedy. I won’t name the deceased, but a couple of media outlets have, describing her as beautiful and brilliant (with images of her, but not her art). In her suicide note, the artist wrote that she had “had enough of feminism”, and that she had been “rude” so as to demonstrate her “feminine strength, penn sakthi.” This is also the subject of both headlines I’ve seen so far on this case (one on a website which had a “Killed By Feminism!” image which seems to have been removed).
But it would be equally remiss of me to criticise media sensationalism instead of looking beyond it to the fact that the artist didn’t seem to know what feminism is, but believed she had been practising it. And this poor understanding is propagated not by the media but by a vast and vocal legion who refuse to study the histories and theories within feminism, consider nuanced perspectives, interrogate personal privilege and positionality, honour intersectionality, cultivate compassion — and above all else, strive to live in alignment, especially when it’s unseen or challenged.
In India, wearing skinny jeans is a feminist act, for a woman’s attire in this country courts judgement and can be used to justify harm. But to declare that one is a feminist because one wears skinny jeans is solipsism. To reject a marriage proposal on one’s own terms is a feminist act. To post that rejection online and expect another person to be publicly shamed for their hurt, confused response — not so much. That sort of posturing has taken over the movement. And it’s a movement, not a static display. When we confuse proving one’s feminism with practising one’s feminism, we end up — well, exactly where we are.
Suicide is a health issue, and stigma around mental illness is a sociopolitical one. The National Crime Bureau has recorded over 20,000 suicides by female homemakers (“housewives”) every year since 1997 (as a recent study by Peter Mayer shows, almost four times as many as another national crisis, the number of farmers who take their lives annually). This doesn’t include those who worked beyond the home, such as the artist discussed earlier.
Relatedly, even as education rates rise, the female workforce now stands at just 27%. Alarmingly, this is a 10% drop since 2005. So women study for longer, leverage this to obtain marital “security” with partners deemed of greater eligibility and remain within the patriarchal system as homemakers. The class background that gives them this “choice” also gives them constant online access and the crushing pressure to brand themselves as empowered.
Where does feminism come in? It doesn’t, not enough. Not for as long as the painstaking long-term work of structural dismantling and the painful everyday work of practise, practise, practise are tossed aside in favour of the clickably cool and the patently faux.
(The Chennai-based author writes poetry, fiction and more)