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Roadmap for a Brand New Wave of Feminism

By Bhumika Singh

When somebody identifies as a feminist in today’s world, they are met with sneers and ignorant criticism. Most people have a convoluted idea of feminism in their minds and are so rigid about their preconceptions that feminism has started to be dismissed as a partisan and toxic political movement altogether. To retrieve feminism from this quagmire of irrationality, we also need to bring some internal shifts in the movement. The fountainhead of feminism can be located in the abolitionist movement which targeted slavery and laid down the path for subsequent struggle for women’s rights. Although feminist theory has changed, evolved, and branched off extensively over the past couple of centuries, the precedents indicate towards the essence of feminism which is equal rights for all. The first and second wave of feminism were primarily concerned with equal legal and social rights of women. The third wave (intersectional feminism) focused on subjective experiences of discrimination based on not just gender but race, class, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. The fourth wave must be an offshoot of the third wave because globalization has led to diverse and heterogeneous populations and hence, it is essential to extend the scope of feminism beyond gender. However, the focus needs to be shifted from governmental affirmative action to changing the social consciousness. 

Feminists all around the world tend to demand affirmative action from their governments to compensate for centuries of discrimination and exclusion. Indian economist Deepak Nayyar’s analysis indicates that despite affirmative action in India being a constitutional right which has been in place for more than half a century, the outcome has been underwhelming at best. Economist Guilhem Cassan’s study also points toward the pitiful state of women belonging to lower castes who are unable to avail any benefits from affirmative action. According to Nayyar, affirmative action alone cannot eliminate discrimination because the privileged will always remain reticent in denouncing their opportunities, however immoral it may seem. Nayyar points out, “…in societies where opportunities are scarce, there is bound to be resistance. It would be easier if we create more opportunities.” Although Nayyar directly refers to educational opportunities, his argument can be extended to economic opportunities. Instead of redistributing the available opportunities by means of government intervention (a zero-sum process), it would certainly be much better to allow more opportunities to be created.

In order for that to be achieved, a free market is as essential as education. The biggest point of convergence for feminists and libertarians is the importance they ascribe to the economic independence of individuals. A free-market economy allows voluntary exchange between individuals without any unnecessary government regulations; it would provide women with the economic and social autonomy essential to an individual’s liberation and growth. Here, it is also important to understand that capitalism is not the shadow of patriarchy, even if the popular discourse within the feminist movement vehemently claims so. The marketplace has been dominated by men like any other social or political sphere because of prejudices against women: this needs to be changed. And a free market allows, even facilitates, that change. Sandra E. Black and Elizabeth Brainerd’s application of Nobel Laureate economist, Gary Becker’s theory of “taste for discrimination” on gender has borne productive research in this direction. Traders who bear this taste are willing to pay extra to satisfy their discriminatory ideology, usually by employing more men (at higher salaries). According to their thesis, increased competition in the marketplace makes the aforementioned “taste” too costly for a discriminator because there are non-discriminatory firms which would obviously make more profit merely by virtue of being non-discriminatory. Hence, a free market which operates on competition is bound to lessen the wage gap by compelling the discriminators to change their ways or go out of business. Heavy government regulation, on the other hand, only hinders this progress by hampering the efficiency of the market system. 

Furthermore, while it can be an attractive idea to rely on the state to ensure equality in other spheres, it would be naive to expect results especially when the base of our struggle remains segregation. Terry Eastland’s view on race can be applied to gender here, “To count by race, to use the means of numerical equality to achieve the end of moral equality, is counterproductive, for to count by race is to deny the end by virtue of the means. The means of race counting will not, cannot, issue in an end where race does not matter.” Constant state intervention cannot change ideologies and prejudices which have been harboured over centuries. Moreover, state intervention might provide us with vestiges of positive liberty i.e., the capacity for acting on our freewill, but more than that, it will curtail our negative liberty by imposing newer constraints and restrictions on us, of which we already have too many. In such a scenario, affirmative action can even be counter-productive for real social change. 

But ultimately, despite the hope of free markets and economic empowerment, we cannot overlook the downtrodden state of women in India who suffer several layers of marginalization. This marginalization can only be fought through conscious social action and change. For this purpose, women’s collectives have been extremely helpful, especially in the rural areas. In order to exercise their agency, women need a basic level of social acceptance and support, which is found to be absent especially in rural communities. There are numerous NGOs and Nonprofits working to provide women with the necessary support. Snehalaya is one such NGO in Maharashtra which focuses on the economic upliftment of sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community. These NGOs enable women to exercise their individual choice of vocation and to earn through their products and services. 

In conclusion, we need to shift our focus from government coercion and affirmative action to individual autonomy and negative freedom to create real equality and not just a forced illusion of it. Quality education is vital to create subsequent generations who do not possess patriarchal mindsets and exclusionary prejudices. Education itself will flourish in a free market because the syllabi will not be designed to satisfy any political agenda. As Sharon Presley and Lynn Kinksy point out, state coercion as a remedial “just changes the sort of oppression, not the fact”. The next feminist revolution must borrow from classical liberal values for individuals to be free from discrimination and exclusion. After all, we do not wish to substitute one hegemony with another. 

Bhumika Singh is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in English from Kirorimal College at the University of Delhi. She is a part of Students for Liberty’s first cohort of Fellowship for Freedom in India.

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