“When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before”
– H.D. Thoreau
Learning is fundamental to human existence. Every inch of progress made right from the day we learnt to harness fire, to craft spears, to grow our own food and to build houses is owed to our wonderful ability to learn. Without it, we would have ceased to evolve. Standing alongside learning in importance is unlearning and relearning. As far as feminism is concerned, they have an integral part to play.
Feminism is certainly a movement that has become more inclusive and dynamic over the years. At its root it is an egalitarian movement working against social discrimination. Beginning with the demand for suffrage and reproductive rights, feminism grew over the period to encompass various concerns of oppression in an ever changing world, as and when they came up. It goes without saying that understanding the onset and course of a movement is crucial to further its cause.
However, learning in feminism cannot be limited to the history and development of the movement.
The first step in learning, as far as feminism is concerned, is to open oneself up to the ideas of the movement. Our understanding of the world and its inhabitants is largely guided by the stereotypes we have internalised. Take for instance the portrayal of the trans community in Indian films. Not only do most films propagate stereotyping, they are often fundamentally offensive in nature. In this light, learning is also a synchronic awareness of the varied and complex expressions of patriarchy. The pandemic for instance has facilitated what V (formerly Eve Ensler) terms disaster patriarchy in her famous essay “Disaster patriarchy: how the pandemic has unleashed a war on women”. It is the opportunistic usage of a crisis to reassert male dominance and patriarchal norms.
The absence of learning signals complacency, and thence begins the stagnation of a movement. If not for the readiness to learn, feminism would have long since shut itself within the chapters of the past.
Caught within the large system of patriarchy, none of us are truly free. Patriarchy is a stringent restriction upon genuine expressions of self. To put it in simple terms, in a patriarchal world we cannot be who we truly are. Instead, we have to be a certain kind of someone based on our intersecting identities of caste, class, gender, nationality, sexuality and so on. Instead of authenticity we recommend stereotypes. Instead of honest self-expression we promote pretentiousness. Through an intricately crafted reward-punishment system the majority of us are made to conform to social norms.
From a very young age we have learnt a good deal about the way the world allegedly works. We’ve learnt even more on what is ‘normal’ and what is not. Unlearning is not a process of reversal. You don’t wipe existing knowledge from memory and start again. Instead you learn that what you thought to be right and what you were taught to be right is not so. Without unlearning, any attempt to transgress stereotypes and normative behaviour only reaffirms the misogyny, the homophobia, the transphobia and the several other products of our jaundiced outlook.
A girl who wishes to resist normative femininity would abhor ‘girly’ traits and those who exhibit it. She would disapprove of girls who genuinely like the colour pink or makeup and dismiss them as being stereotypical. Discrimination will still remain in play. The purpose of unlearning is to realise that as long as we work within the design of an oppressive framework, we ultimately validate it.
On a more intimate level, relearning is to reform yourself. In addition to learning and unlearning, it is important to relearn so that when you look around and see a woman in a miniskirt, a guy with painted nails, a man expressing emotional vulnerability, an adoptive parent, a girl in control of her sexuality, a gay couple or a stay-at home dad, you wouldn’t toss your head in disapproval. Instead, you would celebrate the diversity of human expression and experience, and the emancipation from stereotypes. By doing so, you grow as a person.
Unlearning and relearning will cause great perplexity. It will stir up a battle in your inner self. You will be torn apart by the already internalised patriarchy and the growing feminist. An anonymous reader of an advice column by Eleanor Gordon-Smith in The Guardian poised a succinctly phrased question. In it, they wrote, ‘There are two wolves inside me. One is a feminist. The other wants to be thin and beautiful. I am so tired of being caught between them” Chances are, most of us committed to the feminist cause experience this rift between feeling and awareness. What makes patriarchy a formidable opponent is that it is sown into us and nurtured from a very tender age. Young minds are like wet clay, easy to impress upon. That way, gender socialisation scores big in corrupting us. But we are all the wiser for having realised the oppressive nature of patriarchy. Relearning is an effort to reconstitute ourselves, and I admit it is a massive project. But it is one truly worth the effort.
Feminism is a constant process of learning, unlearning and relearning. A feminist is not someone who has it all figured out. What matters is to commit to the cause of social equality across socially constructed identities, to embrace what could be a lifetime’s worth of relearning, and never look back.