By Sandy Kular
Whenever I talk about feminism, whether that be with my friends or colleagues, I always feel that there is an elephant in the room. The feminism projected by my majority western friends does not include myself, a Sikh woman of Punjabi heritage who was raised in Britain. This is not just limited to my friends, but it expands to the social media I am exposed to. ‘White feminism’ dominates not only my social media feed and friends’ minds, but most importantly my own cultural identity complex.
Before I delve into my own narrative of cultural identity and white feminism, I think it’s important to define ‘intersectional feminism’. Intersectional feminism ‘is a movement recognising that barriers to gender equality vary according to other aspects of a woman’s identity, including age, race, ethnicity, class and religion, and striving to address a diverse spectrum of women’s issues.’ – according to dictionary.com. The movement was introduced by Kimberlié Crenshaw. For myself it’s defined as understanding that feminism cannot be defined by one female.
(Art from @courtneyahndesign )
Up until recently I really struggled with calling myself a feminist. Perhaps naively but also largely due to the media I had been exposed to; I felt that it was either for men haters or that it came from a place of privilege. Growing up as a third-generation immigrant in Britain came with its own set of issues in regard to how identified myself. I felt, and often continue to feel, that I struggle to balance traditions, modernity and my own personality. Combining this with being a woman in an, unequal society, I turned to those around me, online and in real life. It is important to note that I attended an all-girls grammar school which had a massive bearing into the views I was exposed to. I am so thankful for the liberal views I was exposed to and I feel they were fundamental in exploring my identity, especially at a young age. However, this led to a lot of conflict in my life. I absorbed these notions of ‘feminism’ and took them home to a background that could not support them.
An example is the idea that women should be able to wear what they want and that had transcended into women showing skin to embody this idea of an empowered woman. Now, I wholeheartedly believe women should not be told what to wear by anyone but themselves, but what I don’t agree with is the idea a woman has to show skin in order to prove this. There was a pressure to show you were aa feminist through actions that quite honestly made me uncomfortable. Showing skin was not something I had grown up with, yet I felt pressure to align with this message in order to show that I was liberal and a ‘modern woman’. Like most teenagers I pushed the boundaries, particularly in my clothing, as to what I could get away with and would often throw out terms such as ‘oppressed’. As I grew up and began to explore my heritage and culture, I realised two things: 1) respecting and representing my identity was necessary and 2) fighting to wear crop tops is not as important as helping make ALL women equal.
It has only been in the last five years where I have looked to actively recognise the internal westernisation that I possess. Most importantly I looked to recognise my privilege. In what I thought was trying to progress myself as a feminist was actually doing a disservice to my ancestors before me. The ancestors who had fought for me to have the privilege of demanding to wear crop tops. My religion, Sikhism, not only advocates for the equality of men and women but it does it in a way that encourages modesty. I realised there is empowerment in not only modesty but empowerment in embracing your identity. Judgement is something that unfortunately seems to be a nasty by product of this movement. I often feel that because I look to explore and develop where feminism belongs in my life, I do not fit the required mould. Whether this be because I don’t agree with all projected notions of a western woman or because I wish to remove cultural ideas that rooted in misogyny – I get judged from all corners. I feel uncomfortable having to explain to my white counterparts why some of my morality and behaviours are based out of trying to retain my culture and as part of my identity.
The topic of crop tops is trivial, and I also cannot ignore the strides that women in the West have made for feminism. Yet, more than once, I have seen feminist movements in the West that have garnered so much attention and made change in things that, in my opinion, are a luxury. ‘White feminism’ can ignore the oppression faced by their sisters in ethnic minorities or those that live outside of their echo chambers. I feel a sense of frustration when I see the ability to do so much good and that power not being harnessed. In 2017 only 60/195 countries had safe legal processes for women to have abortions and only 6 countries in the world give women equal legal rights to men. Whilst I agree that campaigning to #freethenipple is important and the hypocrisy from platforms such as Instagram is disgusting; I think there are more important things.
I think it is a privilege for us to sit in the Western world and be able to have an issue with things such as this whilst acting ignorant to the struggles of women outside of this bubble. I am a firm believer that you can advocate for more than one thing at one time, but I often find that there is deadly silence from the #feminists on my timeline about fundamental human rights issues. This was highlighted during the surge in the Black Lives Matter Movement following the tragic death of George Floyd. I was shocked but not surprised at the lack of outrage from this community particularly in the discussion of oppression/racism that black females face in the West. This resentment mounted in me toward the people who would not hesitate to share an ‘empowered woman naked’ post but did not recognise the continuing issues that black women were facing. Yes, most of these people did go on to talk about it but only when they realised it was a trend that they could not avoid.
The word feminist has haunted me and become enwrapped in a far greater struggle of cultural conflict and identity along but is something that I still think is important. I value the notion and forum it has created socially for women to empower one another. I also think that looking back to the suffragette movement 100 years ago we should be proud of what we have achieved. But there is still work to be done.
We, as women, need to take ownership in realising that the current feminist movement is divisive from within. How can we expect to fight for equality with men when we do not see each woman as equal? It is tiring to constantly be judged, criticised and argue with women who have the privilege to be ignorant to every female’s uniqueness. My identity as a female is defining but along with that my identity as a British-born Sikh of Punjabi descent is also defining to my identity. No part of that can exist without the other. So, if #feminism is going to continue to ignore that and not embrace intersectionality then, as T Swift once said, I would like to be excluded from this narrative.