11 women in Modi Cabinet: Why this is far from feminism

Being a ‘good feminist’ doesn’t mean supporting or cheering on people of a particular gender simply because of it — especially when they stand for everything you despise.
Photo of women ministers in the Modi government.
Photo of women ministers in the Modi government.

As a person who has always believed that more women — more people of all genders — should be in politics, yesterday, I thought, would be a time for a difficult moral conundrum. I thought I would be confused about whether to feel happy about the fact that the Union government had inducted more women as ministers, or to continue to be angry at the fascist, oppressive politics and policies of the ruling dispensation. Fortunately for me, there really was no moral conundrum. When I saw a picture of the new women ministers of the Modi regime standing with their seniors Nirmala Sitharaman and Smriti Irani, I did not see any grand ‘moment’ for feminism in the country. All I saw was a bunch of fascist enablers — this time in handloom sarees instead of kurta-pyjama-and-sleeveless-jackets.

And not even for a moment do I question whether I’m feminist enough for not cheering on this representation.

There are two parts to this. Firstly, it’s important to understand that what happened on Wednesday was not about ‘governance’ — it was a PR exercise to placate an angry populace that has been disenchanted by the way the regime has handled the pandemic and its economic fallout, and a whole bunch of other things that don’t show the regime in good light, that have been occupying the mindspace of an angry people. So of course the PR exercise would go all out — it will have people from the south as ministers, people from marginalised communities as ministers, women as ministers. Fascists are repulsive, not naive. They know how to make the right noises to confuse us about their true intentions.

Secondly, it’s crucial to know and believe that feminism is about standing against oppression, and not for supporting oppression, even when it’s masked as progress. Yes, representation is important — even crucial to achieving feminist goals in society. But representation in itself is not the goal — it’s equity, smashing patriarchy, dignity and respect for all people of all genders. And ‘representation’ of women in a problematic, oppressive regime is not going to help achieve those goals in any way.

To those who say, if it wasn’t those women in those problematic positions, it would be men in those same positions doing the same jobs — well, my answer is in your statement. There is nothing feminist about the position they hold, and as a feminist, it is not my job to cheer them on, to consider this some great achievement. Politicians are powerful, yes — and more women should be in politics, yes. But when the regime itself is not just un-feminist, but anti-feminist — anti-feminism in every way imaginable — there is no point in looking at this ‘representation’ as anything but farcical.

Even if these women push some boundaries and break some glass ceilings, they cannot ultimately stand up for feminist ideology because that would mean going against everything that their party stands for.

Cheering on a larger number of women in a fascist government is the same as cheering on the fact that there are now more women soldiers going to war. Feminism is anti-war, therefore a feminist would not cheer the fact that there are more women now going to war because the end goal of feminism, among other things, is also to end war. The gender of the people going to battle does not matter. Similarly, when feminism is anti-fascist, how can a feminist cheer the fact that there are now more women in a fascist government?

Is it feminist if more women are committing heinous crimes like sexual abuse? Is it feminist if more women are corrupt? And conversely, is it feminist if more women are forced to do hard physical labour ‘at par with men’? Is it feminist if more women are being sent to prison? It is all ‘representation’ — but that does not automatically make anything feminist.

What is feminist instead is to stand against war, to create a society where crimes like sexual abuse do not happen. Where corruption is not the norm. Where people have basic social security and don’t have to suffer in order to put food on their plates. It is feminist to question the prison system, to question why undertrials are imprisoned, why our society needs to send political dissenters to prison at all. Feminism is an ideology, a practice, not a checklist of random “men do so women do so it is feminist” items.

That there are now 11 women in the Union government is not a story of feminism in India. It’s a story of individual success for 11 women who have, I’m sure, fought hard to reach where they have. When even egalitarian movements and politics are filled with powerful men who continue to oppress women and refuse to give them their due, one can imagine how much more the odds are stacked against women in a right-wing, conservative setup. However, their achievements do nothing for progress in society, while their party and government continues to impose majoritarianism, patriarchy, casteism and every other supremacist ideology on the country.

In fact, as visible leaders in a problematic system, they are very much part of the problem. As people who are in power as minorities and marginalised communities are forced to live in fear, live as second-class citizens in their own country, they are the power we should be speaking truth to, not cheering on. As women holding up a toxic system, they will only go on to, they will eventually be holding up patriarchy, and keeping women oppressed under men. If their party takes a stand against reproductive rights, so will they. If their party and ideology stands against interfaith marriages, so will they. If their ideology’s supporters put up minority women for ‘auction’ — they’re not going to defend the women.

If it comes to an election where a fascist woman is standing against a progressive man, my feminism tells me to vote for the progressive man, while being extremely aware of the reasons why there are more male leaders in the country. If it comes to supporting a woman victim of sexual harassment, my feminism tells me that it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to support her problematic politics, either in private or public.

My feminism knows that people who follow toxic ideologies are not my allies — whatever their gender.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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