What Feminism Means to Me

Shazneen Limjerwala

            Feminism, to me, is woman-centredness. It is the belief that women are important: they need to be respected and alllowed to live a life free from fear.

 

            To me, woman-centredness is not something I consciously think of. In fact, it is not even something I planned to practise. Rather, having observed my behaviour and felt the need to name it, I christened it woman-centredness. Feminism was way too eschewed and had taken on so many meanings that if ever I were to articulate one of them, there was sure to be someone who would point out the polar opposite to me. Additionally, somehow the reaction to ‘feminist/ feminism’ even by women is one of antagonism. Being a peace loving person, and avoiding controversy where I can, I chose woman-centredness. Or, rather, it chose me.

 

            Now to its genesis. Two years ago, the writing of my thesis gave rise to this need. I had conducted an ethnography exploring the experiences of rape victims in the aftermath of rape in Gujarat. I was writing the concluding chapter of my thesis and wanted to describe my stance. Woman-centred is the word that came to me. I had exercised it throughout the research. It was evident in my selection of topic: rape, as I wanted to throw light on a much exploited and yet seriously evaded issue. It was evident in my methodology. I went to great lengths to make women research participants feel safe and comfortable. This, in my opinion, was crucial to rapport and trust building, and led to some rich conversations. It was evident in my focus on listening to women, on privileging their experience as the source of their expertise. It was also evident in my search for women oriented literature.

 

            Having said that, I must admit that woman-centredness has been an abiding strain in my life. It is evident in the work I choose to do, the books I read, the topics I research, the workshops I conduct.  These all centre around women: their lives, struggles, joys, exhilarations, realizations, fears, fantasies...The list is endless. It’s evident in my choice of roles. In Lancaster, I’d acted in the play, Vagina Monologues. Written by Eve Ensler, an American, based on her conversations with women across the globe centring on their vaginas, it is funny, tragic, hilarious, thought provoking and gut wrenching in parts. I enacted the monologue of a rape victim in Bosnia titled, ‘My vagina was my village’. Her vagina was described as her village: before and after she had been raped. It was a gut wrenching piece: it pulled, and sometimes gnawed at heartstrings. Sometimes, it left me sad, angry,  pained. But, on the day of the final performance, in the dark silence, it was she the audience heard. Later, the audience shared how touched they had been by this piece. 

 

            There were other instances too where I realized my woman-centredness. Like the lunch cum play get together I’d organised at the end of my fieldwork. I’d invited a motley crowd of women: NGO heads, fieldworkers, counsellors, workshop participants and my friends too. We all had a good time playing, eating, and sharing stories. 

 

            Another expression of my woman-centredness is in my abundant emphasis on listening to women. When a man interrupts a woman as she talks, my response is to finish listening to the man and then revert to the woman. If she needs it, I remind her what she was talking about. That way, she picks up the threads of the conversation again. Sometimes, I inadvertently interrupt a woman, in which case, I apologise and pause, so she can once again speak. This practice follows from my view that women are thinking, feeling individuals and need to be heard, rather than merely seen. Their views, as mothers, citizens, nation builders, repositories of experience and knowledge are important.

 

            I also pay considerable attention to women in an attempt to understand them . Often, this is daunting, as some of them are not used to articulating their thoughts and feelings. It is left to the listener to heed the unspoken word, the silence, the pause. Sometimes, as in my workshops , I encourage them to express themselves verbally, either orally or through writing, or through alternative mediums: dance, music, drama, pottery, drawing, amongst others. It is fascinating to observe women unravel their mysteries through these media and discover themselves. Often, delightfully, the discovery is shared.

 

            Another important expression of my woman centredness is through an acknowledgement of women’s work. Often, specially in the area of their care work, such as their looking after children, parents, in-laws, family members, neighbours, loved ones, this is unnamed and therefore unacknowledged, except for its recognition as a woman’s role and responsibility. Beyond that, there is no recognition of it, in terms of acknowledgement of the resources it involves (time, talent, thinking, attention), or its consequences for the woman. There is no remuneration for it. In turn, women earn the respect of their dependants and loved ones; they are taken care of by them in their old age and when they are vulnerable. However, this is an unspoken expectation and need not always be fulfilled.

 

            And finally, a rejoinder. I’m a wife, daughter, sister, cousin, friend, student: I love men too.

 

(Shazneen Limjerwala, PhD Health Research)

 

My PhD researching women who had been raped and their supporters centred on my aim and subsequent efforts to listen to women and understand them within their lived contexts. It is here that the role of silence/s, pause/s in our conversations was realized.

As a Psychotherapist, I conduct workshops with women to facilitate expression of their hitherto denied feelings, dilemmas and thoughts.