I would like to start with a disclaimer that I am not an expert on feminism. I am a law student who has been introduced to various aspects of feminism through my course materials and other means. This article can be used as a good point of entry for people who want to engage with feminist theory and beyond.
The fight for equal rights and justice for women is a political movement which takes place within the framework of liberal democracy. Liberalism in essence refers to the rejection of
discrimination of people and has a commitment to the liberty of individuals from unjustified governmental or private domination. Liberal feminism is based on the belief that women are rational autonomous individuals who are entitled to the same rights as men. Women should be treated equally under the law and have equal opportunities. Liberal feminists essentially believe in reform over revolution. It is important to realize that liberal feminism is indeed responsible for the relative improvement in women’s place in society. However Radical feminists have posed critical disagreements with the liberal feminist position and these arguments have considerable merit. What does radical feminism propose? Radical feminism considers the problem to not simply be one that can be solved through reform or by giving rights. The blame that radical feminists put on is on the structure of oppression. The enemy for radical feminists is patriarchy and the aim for the movement is the complete uprooting of this very system. This is in contrast to the liberal feminist position as radical feminists argued that the main difference between men and women was power, where men have power and women are subjected to it. Radical feminists move away from the idea of equality and instead make the subjection of women (through, rape, sexual harassment, pornography, prostitution etc) the central focus of their inquiry. They rely on the argument that biology is not distinct from the social as science is “socialized” itself. For example, for the society when a child is born, a vagina is indicative of a girl and a penis for a boy. Further, the relationship between men and women (both social constructs) is a relationship of domination. And where is this to be observed? – it is to be seen in the act of sexual intercourse itself. For radical feminists, in a male-dominated society under the conditions of patriarchy a woman’s body is always rape-able and every man is a potential rapist. Consent is meaningless or is a legal fiction under conditions of inequality. The legal system uses the concept of consent to distinguish sex from rape but in reality, even during “consensual” sexual intercourse there is only an assumption of equal representation as the mere fact that a woman has a vagina and only men can penetrate helps in maintaining the hierarchy of men and women. Hence, in essence they argue that women have been socialized into thinking that penetrative sex is good and pleasurable but in actuality they are consenting to rape as the very act of penetration is a symbol of male dominance and hence structural inequality renders consent useless.
I understand that for people engaging with radical feminism for the first time, these ideas might seem too provocative. But radical feminist ideas are essential in understanding how patriarchy functions and how structural oppression operates. And a lot of critiques of their ideas that I summarize should not be misconstrued as a rejection of the valuable contribution of radical feminists in understanding women’s oppression.
There is tremendous diversity in feminist theory but there are three essential characteristics of feminism that are to be found everywhere. These include, a distinction between Male and Female (this can also be read as masculine and feminine, men and women etc.). Secondly, there has to be a relation of subordination between men and women and third feminism always argues a case for the female. But it is important to understand the disadvantages, limitations and costs in arguing for feminism.
A structuralist understanding would tell us that under conditions of patriarchy women are
oppressed and men are oppressors, but at times identities cannot help us predict behaviours. For example, a person who will typically be identified as male but in fact feels like a woman who has same-sex sexual desires, when engaging in what should be seen as lesbian sex would in fact have it be labelled as straight heterosexual sex. We should also be aware of how radical feminism at times ends up harming women, and in the name of arguing for women’s rights produces violence against women itself. For example, radical feminists have had staunch opposition to sex workers and argue that prostitution is a tool used by patriarchy to abuse women. Similarly, in the realm of sexuality by arguing that under conditions of patriarchy heterosexual women cannot enjoy sexual intercourse is an argument that is too generalized. Radical feminists would argue
that the women who enjoy sex are simply in false consciousness but in reality, sexuality is a more complex subject and to disregard so many women’s enjoyable sexual intercourse as simply false consciousness by radical feminist is problematic. Furthermore, the effects of feminism have trickled upwards to the state and corporations. The Indian state for example through Beti Padhao Beti Bachao can be seen speaking in feminist tones, this can also be seen as corporations opting for feminist values etc. But the issue with this is that feminist theory more often than not simply dismisses the power it possesses. And through this it has sided with the oppressive structures that it, itself argued against. An example would be how feminists have argued for increased and more harmful punishments for sexual offences and this in turn results in incarceration of minorities. Feminism infantilizes itself by refusing to admit the power it wields.
And lastly the limits of feminism include that it is inevitably tied to the heterosexual. It is
important to remember that Judith Butler in her famous piece Gender Trouble responded to the same issue by turning feminism against the male/female distinction itself. But perhaps Butler’s ideas (which a lot of other thinkers have critiqued) cannot escape the accusation of being heteronormative as they do not question the role of feminism in producing the feminine/female/women.
The limits of feminism are clearer when we historicize it with the treatment of Marxism.
Feminist tools of understanding were developed to analyse gender-based hierarchies but as issues become more related to sexuality and less about gender, feminist analysis falls short. Hence it is not correct to assume that feminism is the last stage to understand the world better just like Marxism was not able to properly examine all forms of social inequality. These theoretical frameworks are equipped to handle only specific forms of power relations, and as queer theorists have shown for other modes of oppression, there needs to be other forms of understanding, or probably a more flexible version of these.
- Pratik Kumar