On International Men’s Day 2021, I think about my relationships with men and their impact on my feminism. From a newly-awakened, angry feminist to an older, wiser feminist-in-progress, the men in my life played a significant role in how I related to my own idea of empowerment.
A couple of months ago, I called R to discuss something work-related. The conversation naturally flowed to current events as it usually did. R and I have never seen eye-to-eye; we have always assumed that the other person will have an opposing opinion, especially when it comes to feminism. This time, we had a sober debate on a recent event, after which he said, “It’s nice that you’re calm when we talk about feminism these days. I see a change in you.”
I chuckled. Had he said this to me four years ago, I’d have given him an earful.
I’d been around long enough to know the intention behind that statement. His way of life was undeniably feminist. We had had countless arguments; we had seen the worst of each other. I didn’t feel obligated to be his friend and listen to him arguing about women’s rights ﹘ which, essentially, was an argument around my very existence ﹘ but I stayed. Not as a favour to him.
I stayed because over time, I realised that there’s a certain liberation that comes with the friendship of progressive men who have a different viewpoint than yours.
Can an empowered woman have a cordial relationship with the men in her life?
I’m about as feminist as they come. I was raised by liberal parents; I have been able to access resources that encouraged me to learn about feminism, and my feminist awakening catapulted me straight into the women’s studies department of Pune University, where I pursued a master’s degree in gender, culture and development.
My feminist journey, like many others, was riddled with anger and disappointment that I often felt towards the men in my life.
Reading and absorbing knowledge produced by women had a life-changing impact on me. But it also, quite naturally, made me averse to anything my father, my brother, my partner or my male friends had to say. They simply don’t understand, I’d say.
There were days where I wondered if I would ever be able to have a fulfilling relationship with a man.
You see, being a feminist is tricky. Our oppression ﹘ regardless of how deeply we feel it ﹘ is so intertwined with our everyday lives that it’s impossible not to take every instance of sexism seriously.
I was 21 when I was thrown into a pool of knowledge that made me question my place in the world. It was a lot to take in; revolutionary ideas take time to digest. And since I was surrounded by many clueless, detached young men and women who didn’t quite understand this whole feminism thing, I was alone in my feminist awakening. I had no one to turn to question, debate, and argue with. So, naturally, my anger was directed towards men who were getting through life without the need to know (much less apply) these revolutionary ideas in their lives.
But, eventually, time did its thing. As I sat with my knowledge and let it test my relationships ﹘ with men and with myself ﹘ I let my learnings percolate and refine my definition of feminism.
My relationship with my partners became less about hostility and more about empathy, which, turns out, is what I needed all along.
What seemed utopian at first ﹘ having fulfilling relationships with men ﹘ now seemed like a delicious possibility.
What I learnt about feminism and empowerment from my relationships with men
Before I begin, there are a couple of things I would like to state outright.
First: I earned my sense of empowerment by reading and learning about women, which cannot be substituted. The men in my life helped me define it better, but they weren’t the sole reason behind it. I attribute my feminism to all the women I have seen, heard, and read about.
Second: in this article, I speak about my personal experience with men I have been romantically involved with, as they had been the most present in my life when I embarked upon my feminist journey.
Over time, my journey with my feminism changed. It ceased to be only about proving women’s oppression and became more about the whys and the hows.
I knew of the patriarchal pressures on men, but I only understood it when I fell deeply in love. Every disagreement taught me a little bit more about men as much as it did about myself and my own sense of empowerment.
My relationships came with their own unique set of conflicts, but it was feminism that gave me the language to resolve them and emerge victorious.
Now, at 28, I feel wiser, calmer, and more feminist in my beliefs than ever. And my relationships helped me get here.
A good relationship entails sharing labour ﹘ physical, emotional, and mental
As women, we’re conditioned to perform a large chunk of labour in our relationships. My understanding of labour was limited to unpaid domestic work, till I met T ﹘ that’s when I experienced emotional and mental labour.
T was a good guy. He was sweet, sensitive, and caring. But he was also indolent, which I later realised was a product of the way he’d been raised. Since he was a boy, he hadn’t really been taught to take care of the household. So, on the rare occasion that I went over to his house, he wouldn’t offer me a glass of water or ask me if I would have some chai. I’d have to remind him to order food before we could start watching the movie we’d picked or to drop me home when it was late. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even call to check if I had reached safely. Because I was raised to always ensure a person’s comfort, this was where our upbringing became gendered ﹘ and it became my duty to remind him constantly.
A good relationship comes with shared responsibilities.
It’s not enough for a man to bring home the groceries or put the clothes in for a wash ﹘ it’s important that a woman doesn’t have to remind him to do it.
As a feminist, I was dead against the idea of explaining this to T, but it made sense for me to do it when I spent more time with him. But, there’s only so much you can do.
This brings me to my next point:
Self-preservation is important
The labour of love is real. I felt no obligation to perform emotional and mental labour for T, but my self-preservation eventually kicked in.
I had to look out for myself because I would often feel that it had become my responsibility to take care of him taking care of my needs. It made me feel less valued over time, and I decided it was time to make a change.
You don’t owe anyone more time and effort just because you understand where they’re coming from.
As women, our emotional labour is almost always assumed – we’re expected to be more understanding, more accommodating, more tolerant. It’s important to remember that a good relationship will not drain you; it will teach you how to balance your needs with your partner’s.
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Many women are empowered, but men aren’t taught to accept it
This sounds super cliche, I know. This is also stated ironically by people who want women to tone their feminism down. But there’s a grim truth to this statement.
R’s mother is a homemaker. A native Malayali, she moved to Gujarat with R’s father, owing to his job. R’s mother doesn’t understand much of any language except Malayalam, and she doesn’t step out of the house as much as R or her husband.
When I met R, he was the most unapologetic feminist I had ever met as a 23-year-old. He didn’t even know he was.
In theory, a boy who has been raised in a quintessentially patriarchal setting is bound to believe that women are more suited for domestic roles. But the more I talked to R, the more pleasantly surprised I was.
His mother was responsible for everything home-related, meaning she was solely in charge of the money that her husband would give her for household expenses. Not a single rupee went past her without her permission; not a single meal went uneaten when she was around. She ensured that her children were fed and clothed well; that they had full dabbas when they left for school; that they had hot food to eat when they came back. While she cooked and cleaned, R’s father would bathe the kids. Each parent dominated one domain wholeheartedly. R’s inherently egalitarian outlook came from the fear and respect he had for his mother.
He had imbibed her domestic habits the way he had imbibed his father’s professional ethics. After all, a woman need not be providing only paid labour to be respected.
This is why women find themselves compromising in matters of relationships and marriage. Their education does not matter to men who only see it as a stepping stone to wifehood. This forces women to become all-rounders at the cost of their ambitions.
There’s no room for gendered expectations in a good relationship. P, the person I am currently with, has never let a moment pass without telling his close friends and family about my tentative plans to pursue a PhD, or bragging about how good a writer I am. The pride in his tone makes my heart sing.
There is a difference between having preferences and having demands
Men’s sensibilities play a huge role in how women can feel more comfortable in their skin.
In my many conversations with women, I have heard that they get xyz treatments done because their partners ‘prefer it’. While there’s no apparent issue with that, it’s enraging to sense a disappointment in their tone ﹘ meaning they’re not happy, but they’re doing it anyway.
For all my feminism, even I felt a little conscious of my soft, fuzzy hair when I first met P. It was a habit ﹘ I would get rid of hair in areas where having it was ‘unacceptable’ during the first couple of months of dating till I got comfortable. I felt apologetic when I realised I had forgotten to shave once, but it didn’t so much as strike P. When I consciously brought it up, he didn’t shy away from it. He expressed his preferences and left the rest to me. The ability to choose is all I needed.
Women have, through no fault of their own, deeply internalised beauty standards. Some women manage to get rid of the shame, and others are unable to. But putting the onus of unlearning the conditioning on women is unfair.
A good relationship entails open conversations about what two people desire and how they can meet each other halfway. Desiring something is acceptable; expecting the partner to do it regardless of how they feel is not.
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We need more vulnerability in our relationships to empower each other
I’m glad I have my girl friends to rage about oppression and misogyny, but practising feminism can still feel lonely when you’re in a heterosexual relationship.
So, my solution was to bring my big bag of feminism into the relationship, and keep it there.
All the fights, arguments, and fierce debates later, there came a space to be vulnerable.
When I was 21, my own struggle with absorbing feminist literature made me unsure of handling my relationship. As I grew older, the nature of my relationships changed; as did my tolerance and acceptance for men who weren’t ‘perfect’. I realised, along with them, that my feminism wasn’t ‘perfect’ either ﹘ in fact, it would never be.
When we allowed each other to make mistakes, to say the ‘wrong’ things and correct them without judgement, we grew within ourselves and in the relationship. Our vulnerabilities pushed us to learn and unlearn ﹘ something we wouldn’t be able to do had either of us been angry and hostile.
In a good relationship, two people are able to learn from each other; the day that stops is the day the relationship ceases to add value.
The men in my life are far from perfect. I too have my bad days. But knowing what they’re inherently like has allowed me to choose to stay with them and practice my feminism with them. I learn from them; they learn from me.
Feminism for me began as a way to give my struggles a language. Gradually, it became about something much more than myself. I attribute this journey, quite largely, to the men in my life, who reiterated that feminism, while being about women, is also about men in some capacity, simply because we coexist in this world.
“I see a change in you,” said R. I chuckled. If only he knew why.
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