Although women make up a majority of the global population, they make up a minority in the social world. Women’s rights is an issue that has been expressly debated and highlighted across time and culture. Unfortunately, it remains a pressing matter to this day. Feminism has gone through multiple waves or eras, as some may call it, over time, and although the focus has shifted across these different waves, the core message remains the same. In order to understand women’s empowerment, it is necessary to map out the different movements that have led up to this point.
The First Wave began around the late 1800s and went on until the early 1900s, however, it could be argued to have started in the late 1700s as works surrounding issues that feminism tackles were discussed. This period was about political equality and birthed the suffragettes’ movement, and massive protests were held demanding the right to vote. Revolutionary icons of this era had a single goal: women were to be viewed as full citizens, not as property. However, they did have a significant shortcoming. First-wave feminists were rather exclusionary and only fought for the rights of white women.
The Second Wave of feminism commenced around the 1960s and was seen through till the 1980s. Around this time, the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. The Women’s liberation movement essentially grew out of the Civil Rights movement because they were beginning to see the disparity between the way men and women were treated both in interpersonal relationships and from a systemic perspective. Second Wave feminism built on the work produced during the previous era and expanded on it, focusing on challenging the idea of what a woman is supposed to do. They advocated for institutional reforms in the public sphere and highlighted the oppressive nature of traditional gender norms. This era saw the Women’s Liberation Movement and implemented major reforms such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The torch was passed to the Third Wave during the 1990s and lasted two decades. Around this era, more women were working in male-dominated spaces, and conversations surrounding feminism, women’s rights, and women empowerment took place more frequently.
Many argue that the third wave is still going on, while some have proposed a fourth wave. There is no distinct end of the third wave, and many issues and demands brought during this era are still being discussed. Therefore both waves exist simultaneously. Intersectionality was an idea that was prominent in the Third Wave, and that has developed further in the current wave. The most significant characteristic of the Fourth Wave is the introduction of online activism and solidarity. Women began to use the advantages of the internet’s interconnectedness to speak out about issues pertaining to sexual assault, harassment, and the micro-aggressions experienced daily. For example, the #MeToo Movement was so widely spread and provided a platform for women from all walks of life to speak out about their experiences.
The Fourth Wave is interesting because it challenges many ideas presented during the earlier waves and questions what it means to be empowered. This will be discussed elaborately under the issues and debates regarding the notion of ‘The Empowered Woman’. Most importantly, this wave firmly advocated for trans rights as trans issues were always disregarded when discussing feminism. Even today, society as a larger structural power tends to gloss over trans and non-cis individuals by denying them certain rights and passing bills that are detrimental to the community. The idea that trans women are women is still something many have difficulty digesting, and this complicates our understanding of what exactly it means to become an empowered woman. More specifically, who can and cannot be this woman.
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The Empowered Woman
What does empowerment mean?
Throughout cultures, women have been advocating for their rights to be viewed as citizens with the same rights as dominant sections of men. They also began viewing their imposed role with a critical lens and began challenging the idea of womanhood. However, many have dismissed these arguments and refuse to move forward from these narrow gender roles. This conflict is what led to the idea of creating ‘empowerment’ for women. According to the dictionary definition, empowerment [in the given context] is “…the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights”.
As established earlier, women were labelled as unfit to control aspects of their lives and hence were denied basic agency such as the right to vote, own property, and control finances. The long and arduous fight earlier generations of women went through is finally what provided the women of today with their fundamental rights. Empowerment in each era changes as the needs and perceptions of women change. Today, although we no longer have to fight to be viewed as whole citizens, there are many systemic and institutional problems that women face. Women are still a minority.
Although a very muddled concept, women empowerment could be understood as a social process promoting women as independent individuals with the right to make their own choices. Women empowerment is about encouraging women to do things that raise their self-worth; it is about attaching self-worth to themselves as individuals and not the person they are within other institutions such as marriage, religion, and family. Women empowerment argues for women’s agency in all aspects of their lives and provides opportunities through which women can influence and challenge society and societal norms.
Women empowerment is closely related to female empowerment- a basic human right- and therefore, a lot of the principles and issues women empowerment tackles is pertaining to gender equality, gender discrimination and the overall upliftment of female lives. These issues are tackled in all sections of society, from religion to education to the workplace. Women empowerment campaigns have greatly aided in implementing laws that help provide a platform for women and girls. As our socio-economic position in society influences our quality of life, one of the biggest challenges to tackle is poverty. Poverty is similar to a ship anchor as it ties one down and alienates them from resources, education, job opportunities and much more. Though poverty is being tackled on a broader scale, women empowerment looks explicitly at how it’s possible to provide an exit path for women. This specific emphasis is laid because of patriarchal norms that plague society. In developing and third world countries, although there are laws against it, women cannot own property, control their finances or get an education. Women empowerment schemes focus on bringing women to a standing where they can exist independently.
Compared to women, men have had a jump start on education and prospering in society as these rights were not always available to young girls. Education for girls is still an issue that exists today. Families believe that educating girls is a waste of money, time, and resources. Many children drop out of school because they were forced to or they themselves begin to believe that their education is futile. Education till the age of 14 has been constitutionally demanded as a requirement. However, not all have access to education and more often than not, the quality of education provided is of poor quality. Schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao aim to eradicate this problem and empower young girls to focus on their education and independent life.
The workplace is another sector in which women empowerment is given a lot of importance. Reservations have been passed to ensure that women are present in different job sectors, especially in government jobs and higher-positioned jobs (such as directors). This allows women to have an influence in the workplace. Within the workplace, there are multitudes of issues that must be deconstructed. The root of all these issues lies in misogyny, sexism, and long-standing patriarchal norms. The gender pay gap is an issue that is discussed from corporate jobs to high-paying jobs in the film industry, women are paid significantly less compared to their male counterparts even if they are doing the same work. Women empowerment schemes look to address this issue and put it in the spotlight because many still believe these claims to be false or have little regard for them.
The workplace is a scary world to step into for any woman because from the very get-go, she will face problems that her male counterparts probably would not have to go through. Companies prefer to hire more men than women. If they are hired, it is very possible to face sexism and micro-aggression daily. During the #MeToo movement many top directors and producers were accused of forcing and manipulating women to do sexual favours in order to land a role. One of the biggest reasons as to why women are less favoured when compared to men is because of maternity leave. It is interesting to note that in the majority of cases, it is always the woman who is expected to put her career aside to look after the child. There are exceptions where households have stay-at-home dads and working mothers, but from a larger scale, this is not much. The examples mentioned above only touch on a few of the issues that women face in the workplace because of their gender.
Debates and Issues within ‘The Empowered Woman’
While women empowerment is a needed step to uplift women of all kinds, there are issues with how it is progressing in today’s time. A lot of what the third-wave feminists focused on was the idea of ‘Girl Power. They wanted to project the idea that a woman could be strong, capable, and independent, they could enter male-dominated fields and still be considered a woman. Though this gave rise to a lot of young feminists, companies, particularly the media, have reverted to viewing women empowerment as this shallow, one-dimensional act that falls within the walls of ‘Choice Feminism’.
According to choice feminism, anything a woman does is considered as women empowerment simply because a woman chooses to do it. Choosing to wear lipstick and make-up, choosing not to; Choosing to work and become financially independent; Choosing to give birth or choosing to remain childless; Choosing to become a stay-at-home mom; Choosing to reject traditional gender norms or choosing to enter a patriarchal structure that actively practices these norms. Everything is termed as ‘empowering’ and ‘powerful’ simply because a woman is choosing to make these choices. However, it is crucial to understand that these choices do not exist in a vacuum; they are made and influenced by societal norms, media, and the male gaze. For example, the choice to wear alluring and provocative clothing in an attempt to look ‘sexy’ is a concept that is marketed as empowering. However, the idea of what is considered ‘sexy’ stems from the male gaze and is palpable to the audience it was meant for: Men.
Choice feminism understands the inability to make individual choices as oppression, therefore it only extends to very individual, personal and small-scale issues. It does not try to tackle the more significant structural issues at hand. As long as a woman is able to actively participate in the choices she wants to make, choice feminists consider it as liberation. Critics of choice feminism argue that the choices a woman makes have a social component to them and cannot be simply viewed as an ‘individual choice.’ For example, a woman may choose to become a stay-at-home mom, but when viewed from a larger perspective, the disparity between stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads is too large to be ignored. Having said that, it is essential to point out that both sides are inherently flawed because they conflate the personal with the collective. While choice feminism is only concerned with individual choices, critics are only concerned about collective ones. Both fail to recognise that the individual and collective co-exist, and when discussing an area with a large grey area, both must be taken into account.
Coming back to how the media and corporations exploit the existence of choice feminism, women must be critical of what is being sold to them for consumption. Publishing a video that talks about women having the freedom to make choices and parceling it as ‘women empowerment does little for the community. Rather, they should focus on how women can be empowered by deconstructing iron-clad gender norms and addressing systemic, institutional oppression.
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