The challenges that feminism as a critical and activist paradigm faces come from academic fields existing outside feminism and also from within feminism as an ideology. Since the advent of feminism, it has struggled a lot to get accepted and gain legitimacy as a theoretical and research paradigm in the academic community. First, it faced opposition from classical thinkers, especially functionalists, who didn’t think there was any need for a separate theory focused on women. In contemporary times, Feminism, to actualize its true potential, will need to navigate its way through the following challenges:
- Multiple Perspectives: Feminism encompasses within itself heterogeneous and differentiated ways of explaining and interpreting the social reality of women. Most of the time, reconciling such mutually exclusive perspectives becomes a challenge. For example, Liberal feminism sees the unjust treatment meted out to women due to their non-recognition as autonomous beings in legal terms. So to bring balance and justice to women’s situations, they campaigned to get women’s recognition as autonomous, rational individuals through the law (the movement for the right to vote). On the other hand, Radical Feminism explains women’s situation as a result of the oppression they face due to patriarchal structures that put men in positions of power. Their solution inclines towards the extreme end of the spectrum, where they argue for demolishing the entire social setup that favors men over women.
- Multiple interpretations of concept ‘woman’: Even though they all try to bring attention to women’s position and experience in society they use different concept of ‘woman’. Cultural feminism, radical feminism etc. all have given their own conception of what it means to be a woman. Thus different tools of analysis have significant impact on the way they see contentious issue. For example, the issue of sexual behavior of women brought out two opposite frameworks within feminist circles. During second wave feminism, Andrea Dworkin and others saw pornography as derogatory for womanhood and objectification of her body. But during third wave feminism this idea was completely flipped on its head. A new concept “sex-positivity” was introduced which reinforced the view that a woman has full autonomy over her body and she can express her sexuality as she deems appropriate.
- Controversial women-specific issues: Being a women-centric perspective, it also caters to sensitive issues like abortion, pregnancy, maternity leave, army induction of women, etc., which tend to invoke strong emotional responses from the masses. Alimony, divorce, and rape laws in many countries seem to be women-centric, which makes them biased towards men and does not account for their sufferings. To justify this, feminists base their arguments on the different biological makeup of women. Some factions of feminists strongly resist the inclusion of male-centric provisions to make such laws gender neutral. This gives a bad reputation to the cause of women and weakens support for the movement towards gender equality. And they get wrongly accused of taking advantage of women’s biology when it suits their interests.
- Divided opinion over Women-only provisions: The provisions made for women’s safety, like women’s only trains, women’s reserved seats in legislatures, etc., divide feminist opinions. Some welcome the provision of a safe space by correlating it with the cause of women’s empowerment, while others see it as restrictive because it hampers the cause of gender equality. Gender equality as a goal is based on establishing mutual trust and respect for different genders so that all genders can thrive with equal opportunities. Giving differential treatment creates a barrier that ultimately makes achieving a goal difficult.
- Rise of toxic masculinity: A recent trend that threatens the cause of feminism is the emergence of misogynistic alpha male content. Many YouTube channels (e.g., Andrew Tate) that cater to and propagate such content are rising tremendously in their influence and fan following. Majority of their followers are teenagers who are still not that mature to understand the implications of what they are learning from such channels. Their content not only promotes objectification and devaluation of women and see them but also gives rise to bullying behavior towards men who do not fit into the mold of the alpha male. Another related issue is the rise of the “incel” movement, which stands for Involuntary Celibates who blame the feminist movement for the lack of sex in their lives. What is most disturbing about them is their call for rape as a legitimate means of procuring sex.
- Lopsided idea of ‘empowered woman’: The idea of female empowerment appears to have a lopsided view of what it means to be an “empowered woman”. A 21st century empowered woman has a job, is self-sufficient, financially independent and does not need a man “to feel good”. Increased penetration of social media among the masses has lead to some sort of universalisation of this image. Rather than focusing on affording women freedom and the right to choose, this one-dimensional way of looking at women, empowerment, has done a lot more damage than good. For example, American feminist Andi Zeisler has explored how female empowerment is now used to sell women anything from cosmetic surgery to guns. She calls this trend ‘femvertising or empowerment’, which gains legitimacy by using feminist concepts and discourses to engage potential consumers while still perpetuating female insecurities and stereotypes.
- Misuse of law by women and Fake Feminism: There has been an increase in cases where women have falsely accused men of heinous acts of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence, to name a few. These incidents hinder the cause of justice for women, who are actually victims of these offenses. Without properly understanding the social context of situations, the distortion of feminist concepts has led to the birth of a movement against feminism called “fake feminism”, which seriously hampers “real” feminism and its progress.
- Image of Feminists: In the beginning (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), they were portrayed as ugly and mannish. Feminists are often portrayed as irrationally angry, combative, man-hating lesbians, unhappy, feel entitled to privileged treatment, and humorless people. For example, If a person voices her hurt against the jokes and discriminatory words that she finds hurtful, she risks being immediately labeled as a feminist Killjoy.” Sara Ahmed used this term for the first time in her essay called “Feminist Killjoys”. In 2013, she started a blog by the same name to connect with people beyond academia.
- Preference to western model and concepts: Western thinkers, theories, and their concepts continue to dominate the scene even today. There has been a tendency to put western models and concepts on pedestals. And the main reason behind this is that the origin of feminism is associated with the western world. The key actors at the forefront were women who belonged to white, upper-class families. The situation at present is such that the feminism of other countries is seen as merely an imitation of western grand narratives. This tendency creates a power imbalance and thus perpetuates a form of intellectual colonialism. For example, In India, issues of female infanticide and female foeticide, son preference, bridal markets, and missing women are unique to Indian culture and history. Thus, western concepts can’t fully explain these phenomena. Thus, there is a need to create an inclusive space where all standpoints are given due importance and no one is put on a pedestal at the expense of others.
- Navigating with LGBTQA+ Rights: The crucial achievement of the feminist movement has been the conceptual separation between sex and gender. It has opened up discussion on what it means to be feminine and masculine. It has led to research that has discovered a plethora of sexualities. But this progress has also created confusion as far as applying these concepts in real life. For example, in 2022, Lia Thomson, who was born a male but later transitioned to a female by hormone therapy, She participated in a women’s swimming competition, where she won gold. However, it was strongly opposed by other female athletes, who cited that just taking hormonal therapy does not make her a full woman, and she still has the advantage of the long limbs of a man. Incidents like these make us realize the need to strike a balance between LGBTQA+ rights and cis-gendered women’s rights.
- Resolution of women’s issues: Women’s issues like abortion, reproductive choices, prostitution (Sex work), workplace discrimination, maternity leave, gender bias in laws, etc. still need a holistic resolution. Different women are placed in different circumstances complicate this process further. For example, Gender pay gap is a grave reality that many women live with. Employers usually show less preference when it comes to hiring women of childbearing age and mothers viewing them as distracted workers and liability for company. Many women leave their jobs because of the sexual harassment they face at their workplace. Cases of sexual harassment have a spillover effect on other women’s career choices. Women still don’t exercise autonomy as far as their personal lives are concerned. When to have a child, what kind of job to do, whom to marry, etc. These are the crucial decisions in any person’s life. But these decisions in her life is influenced more by the convenience of people around her rather than her own thought process. In countries where such discrimination against women is state sponsored, fighting for women’s rights become even more challenging. For example, In Iran, a woman who was roaming outside without a hijab was brutally tortured by Iranian Police and ultimately died in police custody. This triggered an outcry from all corners of the world. Similarly, in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, they are strictly enforcing restrictions on women’s rights to education.
- Challenge posed to its legitimacy: There have been increasing cases coming to light where women are misusing laws that are meant for their protection. For example, NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau, India) report data from 2022 revealed that around 74% of rape cases were proven to be false later during the investigation process. However, careful reading of the report revealed that the majority of such cases were lodged by the parents of the girl. They pressurized these girls through physical and emotional violence. So saying that women are misusing laws will be a blanket statement. Deep analysis shows that it’s not women but the parents with a patriarchal mindset who are misusing the laws. Such incidents not only desensitize people towards women’s issues but also become a roadblock in the path of justice for women who are actual victims in such cases. Another challenge is posed by policies promoting women’s stereotypes in the name of women’s empowerment. Forexample, ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ mission was launched by the Indian Government to promote girls’ education. In this mission, Sukanya Smariddhi Yojana is a sub-part of the mission that provides for the provision of a bank account for the girl child. It is a form of fixed deposit that reaches full maturity when the girl turns 21 years of age. However, the scheme provides for partial withdrawal of the amount for the marriage of a girl when she turns 18 years of age. The scheme is promoted as a way of empowering girls so that they are no longer seen as financial burdens. However, careful analysis of such schemes reveals unsettling truths. The scheme does not question the foundational structure of society, which makes women a financial liability. It does not condemn dowry but gives it a boost through the backdoor. In India, marriage as a monetary transaction is quite uneven, with the bride’s family having to bear the majority of the expenses along with gift giving and dowry. It does not address the root cause of this inequality. It’s like giving a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Secondly, it does not create equality as far as the marriage age is concerned. The kind of norms India has put greater value on girls’ getting married as compared to girls’ getting education and jobs Most of the students do not have clarity at 18 years of age on what they want to do in their careers. So allowing partial withdrawal at 18 years of age (for marriage purposes) is like taking girls empowerment away. It also promotes hypergamy in the name of women’s empowerment. Similarly, the Ujjwala Yojana was launched to provide free gas cylinders to women belonging to BPL families. The aim was to replace dependence on firewood chulhas, which posed a threat to the environment and women’s health. Although the initiative proclaimed to empower women, it propagated the stereotypical image that women are for the kitchen. While cooking food as an activity has no specific gender prerequisite, Many more policies have the same ideological problems where they are misrepresented as women’s empowerment. In reality, they do nothing to enhance women’s capabilities to make choices for themselves. They simply serve them breadcrumbs to survive in a patriarchal setting. Thus, opposing such schemes becomes controversial.
- Resurgence of Conservative Elements: Conservative elements have always been at loggerheads with the cause of feminism since its advent. In spite of resistance, feminism has been able to move forward and make progress towards its causes. However, the entry of conservative elements into the administration and judicial systems (2022 Abortion judgments in the USA; Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) took away the status of abortion as a constitutional right. Now that it will be possible for states to ban abortion at their discretion, this really pushes back on the progress made thus far.
- Threat of fake feminism: In contemporary times, with so much information accessible at our fingertips, very few people actually understand what feminism actually is. Most of the knowledge about feminism is gained through social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook posts, YouTube shorts, blogs, etc. The attention span of people has become so short that they don’t bother doing their own research. Feminism today has come to be understood as ‘anti-man, which justifies women’s actions as right no matter the context. The prevalence of misogyny on online platforms (Andrew Tate, Divine Masculine, and Alpha Male-related content) further aggravates this situation. However, feminists also engage with the internet (TikTok, podcasts, YouTube videos, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) torefute these over-exaggerated claims. But their stance does not get that much attention in comparison to Misogynistic content. The main reason behind this is the extreme digital divide between men and women.
- Participatory research: Feminist thinker Maria Mies was a strong proponent of utilizing this approach in research. However, it is often criticized for being less objective. Researchers who use this approach in their research are usually accused of divulging too much personal information and becoming too emotional, thus compromising rationality. When such claims are put under scrutiny, it becomes clear that they are erroneous. Utilizing this approach gives us insights into the subject’s life experience and makes us sensitive to the representation of information. It not only opens ways for lifelong collaboration between research subjects and researchers but also helps to loosen up the biases that researchers must have about people. It is especially important to bridge the gap between academic research and grounded reality by coming up with findings that reflect the truth of social settings from an insider’s perspective. In spite of these advantages, the spread of its popularity in academic circles has been gradual.
- Submerging diverse understandings of women: Another direction in which feminism needs to work is reconciling the diverse perspectives and diverse conceptions of what it means to be a woman. A thorough reconciliation is needed in theories, concepts as well as contexts. Through standpoint feminism, It is now a well-known fact that the interests of western women are different from those of third-world women. The antagonism and desensitization towards other ‘women’ have led to the belief that both of these factions have non-overlapping interests. And more weight given to the interests of western women due to power dynamics in international relations somehow increases the gap between western feminism and other countries feminism. Western feminism is seen as part of western development policies that are responsible for the exploitation and dominance of women from other countries. This distrust threatens the solidarity that is much needed in feminism. Thus, there is a need to build bridges between different factions so that the cause of women’s rights can be pushed forward with great strength.
- Reaching beyond Academia: In the 21st century, with the rise of SNS platforms (Social Networking Sites), it has become quite easy for feminism to reach the common masses beyond the walls of academia. There is feminist content on social media everywhere. However, it has given rise to another challenge, which is misinformation and misrepresentation of feminism. Among such a humongous and gigantic sea of content, it has become almost impossible to separate wheat from chaff (not true feminism). Thus, there is a need for more active engagement from the young feminist academic circle to curb this menace.
From the above discussion, it is clear that, in the future, feminists will have many loose ends that they need to tie. It will require carefully dissecting the confusing issues at hand, carefully treading the muddy waters of clashes of interests, and carving a path that is based on inclusivity yet creates a balance between diverse yet overlapping interests.
From the above discussion, we can conclude that the journey of feminist waves (as an activist and critical movement) is nothing but the journey of women’s struggle for a life that is based on principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality. From first wave to fourth wave, feminism has undergone rapid expansion in terms of theories, concepts and themes that it caters to. It has successfully provided women and their issues with a much needed attention in national and international arena. It is the result of these efforts only that women today are making their presence felt in all spheres of society. In contemporary times, it’s no longer uncommon to see women CEOs (Nykaa, MamaEarth, Sugar, etc.), women Administrators, women Professors, women Prime ministers and Presidents, women Software Engineers, women Judges, and women Chartered Accountants. All these facts definitely stand as a testimony to what feminism has been able to achieve for the cause of women’s empowerment. Not only that, but it has enriched the academic community too with its unique insights and research methods. Feminism, being a women’s rights movement, had spillover effects on other marginalized sections (LGBTQA+, environmental protection movements, etc.) in their fight for rights. However, gender equality has not been achieved completely. Before the vision of an equal world actualizes itself, there are still many issues that need resolution, as discussed in the ‘Challenges and Criticisms Faced by Feminism’ section. Thus, feminism still has much distance to travel in space and time and much innovation to undergo with new vigor to create a world that is conducive to harnessing the potential of all human beings in a just manner.