A Reflection on Feminism and Positions of Privilege (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism and Gender)

As I write this week’s piece I glance out of the window not to my usual Colombo view, but instead to the sweltering heat that is Chennai in the summer. Spending the last week in India has made me reflect on my last visit here, which was spent in Delhi in the middle of winter. I came to Delhi as the Sri Lankan delegate on invitation from the regional High Commissions of Canada who convened ‘Fem Par II: Young Women as Agents of Change’ in Colombo and Delhi.

The Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka described the gathering as a “program focussed on empowering young women to become agents of change through leadership and meaningful participation in political and social life, enabling them to realize their full potential and contribute to their community”. Taking place over four days, two in Colombo, Sri Lanka and two in Delhi, India, delegates took part in capacity building sessions, panel discussions with universities, civil society organizations, think tanks and youth organizations, seminars, and meetings with decisions makers.
Often such gatherings give you a chance to connect with some incredible people, which I had the immense privilege of doing so through my incredible fellow delegates. The times that made me reflect, think and question what I thought I knew were not always during the discussions. The most meaningful moments we shared were during the long bus rides back to our hotel, over breakfast and in moments of quiet. Among all that we shared, the question of privilege and the role it plays in feminism, the empowerment of women and gender minorities and our own reliance on it to break through what holds us back seemed to come up several times as a recurring theme.

When we discussed the role that positions of privilege have to play in the feminist discourse, Isha Afeef, the delegate from the Maldives aptly noted, ‘when you are a leader, people try to make you the leader of everything’ and this has led to the creation of champions in various sectors where women are held back, being held up to the spotlight with people crowing ‘Look at her! If she can do it so can you!’. While we do need champions and role models to keep inspiring generations of women to achieve, we cannot by pass the very real effects varying forms of privilege have in some of these cases and that the reality outside of this is often starkly different. Privilege comes in varying forms and is not mutually exclusive to other forms of marginalization or discrimination. For example, a young woman from an upper middle class urban setting may find herself with greater advantages to succeed or more opportunities than a middle-aged truck driver from a rural village. This does not absolve the young woman from suffering though discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace due to her gender, greater risk of being a victim to sexual violence and the myriad of other things women face on a day to day basis. But this privilege has a role to play and cannot go unacknowledged. Privilege comes in varying forms and types – from socio-economic, gender, caste, class, support systems to even the social environment (i.e. women in conflict zones regardless perhaps being better off economically may still face greater disadvantages than poorer women in more politically stable situations). The goal should be a lessening of women on these external privileges to overcome the disadvantages their gender identity subjects them to, and a creation of a more even playing field for all.

Shreya Ila Anasuya was the delegate from India, and she mused to me “in a position of privileged we often find ourselves telling people what they want. We need to sometimes take a step back and realize that just because we enjoy such privilege we don’t always know what's best for everybody else”. Those of us who occupy these positions of privilege as women need to be made aware that while we have no need to apologize for our privilege, we cannot assume that those who lack it are faced with the same world-view or have the same opportunities that we do. Often by the very simple advantage of being able to effectively express ourselves in English, we become the voices of women who are unable to be a voice for themselves. This is where one needs to tread with caution – it is all too simple to hijack narratives and assume you know how people think and feel to speak and worse – interpret their feelings/situations on their behalf. We foster ideals of feminism and patriarchal structures which often mean nothing to people who are struggling for basic survival. We assume we know what is best for them, and fail to give them a seat at the table much less a voice to be heard themselves. When you have been entrusted with sharing someone’s narrative, it is a privilege and responsibility to be valued and taken as seriously as possible. Be the channel through which their voices will be heard and amplified the way they choose, and when the time comes – pass the mike. One also needs to be sensitive to context and reality, and not force upon them cosmopolitan ideals and agendas which may not be coordinated with the reality of their lives and the choices they make.

Negotiating my own privilege as I work in the gender space, or really any space has always been something that forces me to be very self-aware and reflect on why I do or say whatever I think is best. As a young Tamil woman living in a developing nation it is often all too easy for me to play into what people perceive to be major disadvantages and model myself as a spokesperson for groups I don’t identify with or represent. I constantly must remind myself that I have immense caste, class, socio-economic and educational privileges that exempt me from this and I have no need to apologize for that. What I do have is the ability and responsibility to use these advantages to create spaces where the voices of those without my privileges are heard.

As Shyam Selvadurai says through one of his characters - a Gender Studies Professor who is also a Human Rights Activist when she is accused of upholding traditional gender roles when she is raising money to purchase sewing machines for women who are seeking to become economically empowered, “who are we, Western Feminists to tell these women what they should and should not want”.


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