As Audre Lorde points out, “Black feminism is not white feminism in black face.” This means that while being a woman comes with disadvantages, there is a large difference in privilege between white women and women of color.
Global feminism takes this concept even further by looking at individual countries where ideas of feminism are similar to, or differ from, each other.
When looking at global feminism in my high school feminism class, we focused mainly on India. As a Bengali immigrant who was raised primarily in the United States, the first thought that came to mind when thinking about Indian women’s issues was skin bleaching.
This is, in part, due to my observations about mainstream Indian pop culture, Indian advertisements, and my own experiences. My sister has always been scrutinized for having darker skin – even my family members often tease her about being “too dark.” Yet, despite growing up with these comments constantly being thrown at her, my sister has never attempted to lighten her skin. Instead, she embraces it.
Although my sister never fell victim to the consumerism of skin lightening products, millions of other women have. While the majority of Indians have dark brown skin, the ideal for Indian women has become an almost pale face. Every time I turn on our special cable, which has access to Indian channels, I am bombarded with ads that promise lighter skin in the span of however many weeks, days, or hours.
In these ads, women are depicted as being more successful for having lighter skin. To say these commercials sicken me would be an understatement. Possibly the worst offense is the way that skin lightening has become an expected norm for women in Bollywood movies.
Growing up, my favorite actresses were Rani Mukerji or Kajol Devgan, both of whom are beautiful brown women. However, as new and younger generations of Bollywood actresses start to emerge, each one grows progressively lighter.
Bollywood is an integral part of Indian culture. Since most actresses in these films are beautiful and light-skinned, the idea that the only way to achieve beauty is through light skin will further instill the expectation that chemical bleaching is necessary.
Not only is this practice physically damaging, but it’s also detrimental to women’s mental health in general. The incredibly unrealistic standard of white skin in a predominantly brown country is only cause for lowering self-worth. These expectations only perpetuate the master narrative, in which the ideal norm is a white, heterosexual, and socioeconomically stable man. By extension, white women’s beauty becomes the ideal for all women. Thus, skin bleaching is an attempt to strive towards an unattainable standard in which “white” equates “beauty.”
In her essay, “If Men Could Menstruate”, Gloria Steinem writes, “Whatever a ‘superior’ group has will be used to justify its superiority, and whatever an ‘inferior’ group has will be used to justify its plight…oppression has no logic.”
When reevaluating my ideas about skin bleaching in India, I realized just how true Gloria Steinem’s words rang. In a country of mainly dark skinned people, where is the logic in making pale skin a beauty standard?
Fortunately, there have been new campaigns, such as the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, which is led by an up and coming actor, Nandita Das. Das refuses to lighten her skin in order to be cast in roles other than a character in the village slum, and in doing so, gives hope for a brighter future in which young girls aren’t pressured into changing their appearance in order to fit the white societal mold for beauty.
One of the issues I wasn’t entirely informed about prior to this high school feminism course was the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape, in which Jyoti Singh Pandey was brutally beaten and gang raped on a bus. This horrific crime inspired an immense awakening throughout India – the remarkable amount of protests and furious outrage led to women voicing their own stories about sexual abuse, violence, and harassment.
It also inspired the play, Nirbhaya, which was written by Yael Farber. Actress Poorna Jagannathan decided to contact Yael Farber and start the process of putting this powerful play together. They chose to tell the stories of violence against women, including that of Jyoti and all of the other women in the play: Rukhsar, Sneha, Priyanka, Sapna and even Poorna herself. The actors were essentially recreating their own stories of abuse and gender-based violence every time they performed the play.
Upon reading Nirbhava, I was amazed at the bravery these women expressed in not only sharing their stories through words, but reliving them. It was as if I could feel every ounce of pain the actors were going through and yet, I could never truly comprehend their struggle.
The most exciting part about studying the play was when Poorna, one of the actors, actually visited our classroom to discuss the play with us. We were the first school in the world to read this play in a classroom setting in our high school feminism class.
At one point, Poorna, some of the other students, and I became very emotional while talking about Jyoti. After her brutal gang rape, she was able to make a statement in the ICU describing her traumatic rape in detail. For this reason, Jyoti was dubbed as “Nirbhaya,” or fearless, as a testimony to her courage. The incredible amount of strength that she displayed inspired an entire nation and will never fail to amaze or move me.
To meet Poorna and be able to hear the ways in which this play influenced her own life, was additionally astounding.
She is incredibly invested in the play and is continuing to do amazing work. While writing the play, Farber was also very conscious of the sequence in which the stories would be told.
They choose Sneha’s story for the middle of the play because it’s one of the most horrifying ones. She is a dowry bride who is set on fire because she cannot afford to pay anymore dowry to her in-laws.
At this point in the play, people begin to realize that these are actually the individual stories of the actors themselves. It’s definitely a shock factor. They added Sapna’s story in the end as a way to bring the Delhi gang rape to a global scale. Sapna was gang raped in Chicago. While many learn about the Delhi gang rape and become informed about other acts of sexual violence and abuse in India, they may gain a type of mentality that makes them believe what is happening in India is only an “Indian problem.”
However, by adding Sapna’s story about being raped in Chicago, the play brings the focus outside of India and into the whole world. This relates to the ideas of global feminism. All oppression is linked, as each silk strand connects to a number of others in order to create a deathly trap. Oppression is not endemic to individual countries, rather it is global.
For our International Day of the Girl assembly at school, a classmate and I decided to do a dance using Hindi songs in order to convey domestic violence.
In this dance, we start out as children and we then grow into adults, all while cheerful music plays in the background.
As we turn away from each other and face our respective husbands, there is a dramatic slap sound that is heard.
During this moment, we grip our cheeks and in doing so, rub red paint on ourselves in order to symbolize the mark domestic violence has left on us. At this point, my partner and I turn to each other only to look away in horror as we don’t want the other to realize what’s happening.
In the end, we’re on the floor and reach our hands out to each other in solidarity before zipping our mouths shut and touching our hearts to convey the ways in which domestic violence is often silenced.
Reading the play Nirbhaya played a major role in inspiring this dance. While I’ve danced many times before, I’ve never been more proud to share my work with our entire school. It was a message I was proud to relay to the world, or at least my school for now.
They traveled to New York in order to show us the work they’ve been doing for LGBTQI youth issues in India.
Amazingly, they started the first gay straight alliance in India, which they named Breaking Barriers, and are continuing to do revolutionary work.
During their presentation, they explained the ways in which members of the LGBTQI community are shunned and heavily discriminated against in Indian society. What is surprising, is that many of the most important mythological texts in India actually feature LGBTQI people. We learned from our Tagore peers, that early Indian texts even consider transgender people as “God’s people.”
However, after British imperialism in India, discrimination against LGBTQI heightened. They were no longer accepted by society. Section 377 of the Indian penal code was created in order to outlaw gay relationships. The students in Breaking Barriers attended protests against upholding section 377.
They’ve done a lot of other work, such as speaking to other high schools and universities. They are currently working on a radio show that they hope will reach a wide spread audience in order to share knowledge and acceptance of the LGBTQI community in India.
The essay, “Oppression” by Marilyn Frye, is about a bird in a cage. It’s a metaphor for understanding oppression. It reads:
It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one…that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere. . . the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers . . . their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls.
This ties together the different oppressions we learned about that happen in both the U.S. and India. The discrimination of the LGBTQI community, the unrealistic beauty standards, and violence against women are all intertwined. Stopping violence against women in one country does not solve the issue until it is eradicated globally. One cannot be completely resolved without the resolutions of the others.
For this reason, oppression is like a cage that we must all break out of.