By Ila Ananya
I have a darling, darling, friend who has taken to sending me memes about feminism ever since I began to work at the Ladies Finger. Let’s call him Friend 1. They are lovely memes. You know, the ones in which men who don’t understand feminism talk about feminism, like they talk about every other thing they’re sure they have a really deep, well-informed understanding of? That type. Like the one in which a snake says hiss, and a feminist snake says herrr. The comments on this one are even more ridiculous – “Snakes don’t have poi-son, they have poi-daughters,” someone has written.
I’ve got so used to these messages that I know what’s coming as soon as I see that little message box on Facebook light up with his name. I hate that I’ve got used to them. But Friend 1 means them as a joke in the way that I imagine the makers of these memes, whoever they are, defend themselves. Arrey, don’t be so uptight, yaar, see the humour. You can just imagine the deep, manly voice they say this in, shaking their heads at us unrelenting women with no sense of humour. In one meme, a man is telling a woman that he thinks he’s in love with her, and she asks angrily, why, is it because I’m a woman? Come on, you know you smiled, Friend 1 says to me. After almost ten years of knowing me, I wonder if I should be a little insulted that these are the kind of things he thinks I’ll find funny.
Sometimes I wonder where he finds them. There was a time when Friend 1 sent them so often that I was sure he was just sitting hunched at his laptop all day looking for these things to send to me. The feminist snake one must be his favourite because he’s sent it to me twice. But it recently struck me that I shouldn’t be surprised at this. Friend 1 is the guy who’s told me that feminism’s hardly been around for a few years, and that feminists should have an organisation to prevent radicalization of the word, because the existence of a term does not guarantee a movement. I don’t know what that means, or how many movements he’s felt strongly enough about to be a part of. But he’s also the same guy who told me two years ago that domestic violence happens at home, and that it’s none of our business.
Let’s just forget Friend 1 for a moment, and I’ll introduce you to my super popular Friend 2. I’ve known Friend 2 for longer than Friend 1. We used to sit in Hindi classes together, and talk endlessly on the phone every day, and sometimes he’d play the guitar. A few days ago, he messaged me after months, and asked me how work was going. So far, so good – at least he’d asked me about work, remembering that it’s only been a few weeks, instead of sending me anti-feminist memes with endless laughing emojis. I answered Friend 2 seriously, like I’m used to doing with him; I told him all the things I loved, what I was expected to do, and the things I was worried about.
You know, you should write a piece on why feminism is such an unpopular word, he said finally. I laughed. I was silly enough to assume he was talking about men hating the word. You’ll understand soon enough if you haven’t, he explained – the problem is, feminism is a marketing tool, and you can relate it to Islam. By this time I was just frowning into my phone screen in disbelief. To cut a long conversation short, apparently, feminism might have a good cause, but women take advantage of it, with false accusations, taking advantage of being a woman, impaired judgement, falana dikhana; and sure it’s good, but in its limits.
I should have just channelled everything my English professor has taught me about giving cutting, sarcastic responses to people. When I failed at this terribly, I should have just sent him random unicorn emoticons. It was strange, because we’ve never talked about this before and in that tone, and there was no reason for us to begin talking about this now; we could’ve just continued in our happy state of assuming we both thought the same way. Except that now I was working at a feminist magazine, and he was telling me about real women’s experiences. Friend 2 then sent me links about what he was saying, and told me to read up, because it’s everywhere.
I don’t want to say much about the links, because one of them is from Mens Xp magazine, and that’s telling enough. But that piece had eleven ways in which some women have ruined feminism for everyone – by demanding reservations, by getting irritated at people who keep telling them their bra strap is showing, and by wanting the sympathy of being a woman. Like everything else in the world, the writer (man) was telling us about which women’s experiences were genuine, which were ridiculous, and which were medium level important, more important, less important. I ignored Friend 2.
Friend 3, like Friend 2, has taken to telling me that I don’t listen to him enough – which is true, and it’s because he’s started making rape jokes – and in all his wisdom, he attributes my dramatic silence to it being my time of the month every day of the year. In the last month, Friend 4 has taken to sending me fat jokes that always end in chairs with legs that snap like matchsticks – but for him they’re always about women. Once he’s had a few drinks, Friend 5 will begin to assure me that he’s on my side, and that he’s not the one I should be fighting with, even though he doesn’t understand anything when our friend tells him that the reason her parents are hesitant to let her travel alone, is because she’s a woman. When I tell Friend 1 to just read the Ladies Finger, he asks me if I’m referring to the article on bras that I had written, before saying with lots of wink wink winks that it was an interesting piece, and adding, aaan, naughty, because that’s really relevant to the conversation.
This is unlike other friends, of course. I tell them about the things people have told me in interviews, I message them when I can’t write, I show them pictures of my table with a laptop and a strategically placed coffee cup, and the beautiful green balcony. They were the ones who rejoiced when I told them people had said not-so-nice things about a piece I’d written, and I was scared but couldn’t help laugh at their excitement, and they told me they visit the website more now, to see if there’s something new that I’ve written. One tells me to ignore Friends 1 to 5, and asks me what I’m working on next. Two others listen to endless work stories, and the fourth loves calling me a working woman.
But maybe this can just be flattering. It’s funny that my joining work has bothered Friends 1 to 5enough to send me these memes, and links, and jokes, as though this is the only way they have found to deal with something they are uncomfortable with. It must mean that something is right; it’s as though their antennas have gone up a little guiltily, that they’re pushing, and prodding, like when you touch some creature you’re scared of with a stick from a safe distance to see what will make it react, and how much they can get away with. I mean, Friend 1 is the person who very sweetly said to me when we were fifteen, that if I was to have children, I should stay at home as they grew up so that they’d be just like me. Friend 3 is the one who has dramatic reactions to break-ups and has once asked me what to do because his girlfriend didn’t want to sleep with him. Friend 4 annoys the girls he knows by noting exactly how much they drink and smoke, and saying this is because he just wants them to take care of their health.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that they’re worried.