Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Feminism is not a dirty word

The right has succeeded in putting such a negative spin on "feminist" and "liberal" that even progressive politicians avoid using either term. Women pursuing careers that were beyond the wildest dreams of even their mothers (not to mention their grandmothers) say "I'm not a feminist" and they don't even throw in the "but" that used to follow that sentence (as in "I'm not a feminist, but I wish I didn't keep running into that glass ceiling"). The popular wisdom is that women have rights now, so feminism's time has passed. It's the post-feminist era.

But if feminism is dead, or irrelevent, or just a movement by a bunch of frustrated man-haters, why are we still struggling with so many of the same issues? Why is the biggest obstacle to Hillary Clinton's presidential aspirations her gender, instead of her refusal to take a stand against the dangerous foreign policy and other abuses of the current administration? Larry Summers may be gone from Harvard after his ill-advised comments that women don't have the right stuff to be scientists, but plenty of other people still say the same thing.

The mommy wars are breaking out again -- Ellen Goodman summarizes the current fight between stay-at-home and go-to-work mothers here. She mentions a new organization, Moms Rising, that gets at the real problem: Our society doesn't provide enough support to families with children.

The mommy wars aren't my personal concern; I have no children. I could just ignore them. But that's part of the problem in the U.S. today: Very few of us are looking at the bigger picture. We treat our struggles with making a living, raising kids, dealing with health issues, and following our dreams as if they were only personal concerns, instead of realizing that many of our problems are created by decisions that the system has made. Those decisions can be changed.

As far as I'm concerned, post-feminist is just a euphemism for "I'm doing okay, so I'm not going to worry about anyone else."

The thing that led me to muse on feminism was a movie: "Water," written and directed by Deepa Mehta. It's a stunning movie that tells the story of Hindu widows in India who are separated from their families and forced to live in a home for widows, where they support themselves by begging and occasional prostitution. In the movie, these widows include a seven-year-old child who never even knew her husband. The story is set in 1939, against a backdrop of Gandhi's political movement, but as a note at the end makes clear, the problem still exists today. In fact, the subject matter of the film was so controversial in India that Mehta was forced to finish filming it in Sri Lanka after rioting shut down her set in India.

The movie is a great one because Mehta has a gift for understatement. She doesn't hammer you with either the moral or the political background, instead telling the story of real people whom you can care about and placing them in the context of the larger culture. It's currently playing in New York and Washington, D.C., and probably in several other major cities in the U.S. It opened in Canada last year at the Toronto Film Festival. Alas, it is not yet playing in India, as far as I know.

It's always dangerous to discuss feminist issues in a culture not one's own -- someone will always accuse you of culture-bashing. So I'll let Indian-born Mehta's powerful film make the statement and simply encourage everyone to go see the movie. But I will say this much: This movie shows that the need to address the rights of women in the world is far from a settled issue. We haven't reach the post-feminist age by a long shot.

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