Why men cannot be feminists

share this article

It is easier for a man to add his voice to the feminist narrative than to give up privilege for the upliftment of women.

For feminism to be successful as a philosophy and as a policy platform, it needs to stay undiluted by male appropriation. Mere espousal of or belief in the ideology of feminism doesn't automatically make one a feminist. | Flickr / Garry Knight

Recently we witnessed an unfortunate incident in a neighbourhood in Chennai. A young man, let’s call him Kartik, had entered a residential street where his parents had set up an ironing business. The aging parents, well into their fifties, are poor and their income is linked to ironing clothes for the well-heeled people that live on the street. They charge Rs. 6 per item of clothing. This particular morning, Kartik, 20, was intoxicated by 11 a.m. and stumbled into the street looking for his parents. Shortly afterwards, people began poking their heads out of windows and doors to the sound of much shouting and thumping. Kartik was beating up his parents. The mother ran into one compound and locked the gate behind her and screamed for help. The resident, an enterprising woman in her late thirties, emerged with a can of pepper spray, warned Kartik a few times to leave. When he refused to do so and began attacking her gate, trying to enter the property she sprayed him in the eye.

There was a deathly silence on the street for about two seconds. Kartik did not know what had just been squirted into his eyes. In the third second, he grabbed his face with his hands, gave blood-curdling screams and fell to the ground. The only person, who rushed to Kartik’s side, was his mother, who (all the blows she had received forgotten), began screaming that her son was dying. The woman with the can of pepper spray let the boy suffer for about a minute, before suggesting first-aid measures, calling the ambulance and the police.


It is easy to argue that Indian society is in a state of flux with regard to feminism. That it doesn't know what to do with this new ideology and that it is confusing for many men and women. This though is a benevolent view of what is transpiring.

There are a few things worth noting about this incident. First, the abused mother transformed from victim of assault shouting for someone to call the police back to dutiful mother in less than a few seconds. Second, the woman who smote the boy with pepper spray began to be eyed with caution. Third, the boy, in the middle of his painful encounter, screamed for his mother repeatedly for the next hour and, when she didn't respond immediately as she was also busy wailing and asking passersby to stop and help, he repeatedly called her a bad mother. He then bit her savagely on the arm, even while temporarily blinded by the spray.

Kartik saw his mother as someone, who would endlessly play the role of his favorite punching-bag and come to his rescue and assistance the moment he required it. He felt entitled to her attention, service and forgiveness even in a situation where he had violently assaulted her. Another dynamic we noticed was how the woman with the pepper spray was perceived. The act of spraying was not seen as an act of strength by the observers we spoke to later, but as an act of desperation that arose out of fear. She was referred to as paavam or “poor thing”, because her husband was not in town.

Familiar Framework

In the case that we discuss, there are two scripts at work. The first is the traditional and familiar Indian script of the unconditionally devoted mother, who will not hit her son back or defend herself under any circumstance. The second script is that of a woman who did not back down from a fight and instead pushed back against a script where she had to hide from male violence, run away from it or call for help. She instead took control of the situation and defended another woman. The observers could not understand this behaviour. So, they invented a familiar narrative around it, one that they were comfortable with and could repeat.

We later spoke to the woman with the pepper spray. Unsurprisingly, she identified as a feminist and said as much. We asked her why she had used the spray and she said that the boy was not scared when she told him to stop. Her presence as a woman was not enough to deter him from aggression. So, she decided to preemptively defend herself instead of waiting for rescue.


The differences in perception between the observers and the woman we spoke to are intriguing. It shows there is still much time left before ideas of feminism and female strength and aggression become part of an acceptable way of interpreting female behaviour. For instance, in India we are very comfortable with movies like Queen and Dangal, which were touted as movies with a feminist edge, but refrain from featuring women as sexual creatures. The Censor Board of Film Certification bans Lipstick Under My Burkha and Ka Bodyscapes, which deal with themes of sexuality. Queen and Dangal were seen as popular feminist films. However, while the leading women in these films certainly do challenge their scripted roles, they do so only within the confines of ‘acceptable’ behaviour, i.e., we do not talk about their sexuality.

A Convenient Feminism

What the above discussion indicates are two things. First, undoubtedly there is an emergent discourse on female empowerment and many men and women are talking about it. Second, and this is perhaps the troubling thing, the discourse has become akin to a fast moving consumer good. Over the last many years, ideas of empowerment and feminism have percolated into movies (Pink, 36 Vayadhinile), advertising campaigns (Vogue Empower, Dove, Tanishq), radio shows, novels, literary festivals, policymaking initiatives, interviews on television and talk shows. They still remain at the level of pronouncement and proclamation. Simply put — all of this is still just talk and feminism has become sexy in theory.

Perhaps this schizophrenia is best evinced in Chetan Bhagat writing an allegedly “feminist” book about a sexually empowered woman, and then berating feminists for being feminists in an interview with Open Magazine by calling them “elitist bullies”. There are many more examples of such behaviour. For instance, Karan Johar, who may be single-handedly responsible for mainstreaming many marginalised groups on screen, can still shoot back at actor Kangana Ranaut and say that he is tired of her playing the “woman and victim card” and that if she feels the industry is bad, she should leave.


In a sense, such espousals of feminism are pretentious and dishonest, but also convenient. The question we need to raise is linked to this idea of convenience. Should we allow feminism to remain convenient so that it is widely accepted? Can feminism achieve its goal of parity in social, political and economic spheres, if some men or all men impose their own versions of it? We ask these questions because as separatist feminists have suspected for some time, any move towards female empowerment, if influenced by men, will end up re-establishing patriarchy in some form or the other.

Our cynicism and disfavour of “convenient social-media feminism” stems from a sense of unease about how feminism is popular, but only when it is sanitised. We can be glad that people are at least talking. However, we must also recognise that to believe in feminism and to practise it are two different things. Social media posts give us a false sense of an ongoing powerful feminist discourse. There is a tendency to share social media messages on designated days such as karva chauth, International Women’s Day, Mother’s Day, in an act of self-proclaimed feminism. But this culture of simply preaching through sharing is not enough.

Further, let us consider the pushback that feminism and feminists receive from two sources — from the traditionalists, and from men’s rights groups that are not typically traditional but hold the view that any expansion of women’s rights is an encroachment on theirs. Both groups have set notions of what women’s roles are in society from the number of children they can have (ranging from 2 to 12 depending on particular godmen), to what they can wear (Indian politicians often have a lot to say about this), to what time they can come back to their dorms (Maneka Gandhi recently said curfews should be imposed). None of these trends is encouraging.

It is easy to argue that Indian society is in a state of flux with regard to feminism. That it doesn't know what to do with this new ideology and that it is confusing for many men and women. This though is a benevolent view of what is transpiring. Men in India have no incentive to give up their privilege and entitlement in favour of women. They have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by being real feminists for they are wholly dependent on the wife-servant, the mother and other women for their caretaking and sexual needs and to enhance and project their masculinity and so on.


In other words, if women stop playing their assigned roles, masculinity as constructed in India would collapse.

Because of the above reasons, it is unlikely that in the near future, huge swarms of Indian men will come out to support women as feminists. Even experientially speaking, a man is not linked to his body in the same way a woman is, as a reproductive capsule. So, it is virtually impossible for a man, except maybe someone who is trans, to understand feminism from a female perspective. These two considerations together make the male feminist a myth.

We deeply wish things were different and that this piece sounded more positive.

However, for feminism to be successful as a philosophy and as a policy platform, it needs to stay undiluted by male appropriation. Mere espousal of or belief in the ideology of feminism doesn't automatically make one a feminist. For now, men are at best allies of feminism, not feminists per se. Here, we also depart from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement that “a feminist is someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. We need to raise the bar set by Adichie by saying that it isn't enough to merely believe in feminism, one also has to practise it in all spheres of life and activity. In such a world, perhaps the behaviour of the lady with the pepper spray would not be forced into a convenient familiar script. Belief and male goodwill will not change much for women, but concerted action and sacrifice of male privilege will.

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor