Earlier this month in India, close to five million women literally joined hands in Kerala, a state in the southern part of the country, to form a 385-mile human chain to demand gender equality. They were protesting right-wing Hindu hotheads who, in defiance of a recent ruling by the country's Supreme Court, were preventing two women from entering an ancient Hindu temple that banned menstruating-age women because, as per its lore, they are considered "impure."
Meanwhile, back here in the good old U.S. of A, the third annual Women's March planned for Jan. 19 is in serious trouble, thanks to irreconcilable political disagreements.
This suggests perhaps that, in contrast to India, the felt oppression of American women may no longer be strong enough to sustain a mass feminist movement. The sooner American feminists realize this, the easier it might be for the left to identify an authentic social justice movement focused on eliminating real oppression faced by genuinely marginalized groups, not relatively marginal concerns of powerful ones.
In the wake of Trump's victory, a collective "yuck" gave the Women's March a spectacular turnout for its first event in 2017, when about one million women showed up just in Washington, D.C., making it the largest single-day protest in history. However, as I noted at the time, this was clearly unsustainable. If you cut through the hype, it was evident even then that the march was a "feel good exercise in search of a cause" that would run into problems for the simple reason that the fear and loathing of Trump isn't a sufficiently strong glue to keep the movement together.
People set aside their political differences of caste, creed, and class and come together when they are being oppressed along one dimension more than others.
That is the case for women in Kerala — and in other repressive traditional societies. However, that's arguably not the case in America where, thanks to the progress made in the last half a century, women don't confront as much discrimination — at least not by virtue of being women. This does not mean that American women don't face serious issues. They do. But it does mean that these issues aren't the stuff of a mass movement.
The Kerala temple's ban in and of itself wasn't a big deal. After all, it was just one eccentric temple out of literally thousands that Indian women are free to visit without restrictions. Still, it symbolized the galling discrimination that Indian women confront in every sphere, every day of their lives: They can't use public transportation without being teased and harassed and worse; their parents can't get them married without coughing up large dowries and courting penury; with modernity, they have faced added pressures to hold jobs without any relief from domestic responsibilities even as their husbands, thanks to entrenched gender-role norms, are absolved of any quid pro quo; they face Mad Men-style objectification at work but pay a price if they "stray."
Under such circumstances, it's hardly surprising that enraged Indian women of all stations and walks of life would show up in droves when their sisters were faced with the ignominy of being banned from a place of worship of their choice for their normal bodily functions.
That is in stark contrast to the Women's March where in-fighting has reached a fevered pitch.
Despite a carefully curated rainbow of organizers that include a black, white, Hispanic and a Palestinian Muslim woman, the outfit has been accused of all kinds of "isms," starting with anti-Semitism. It initially raised eyebrows when not only did it oust the Jewish co-organizers who'd been instrumental in getting the first march off the ground, but also issued a statement of Unity Principles that listed support for "Black women, Native women, poor women, immigrant women, Muslim women, and queer and trans women" but conspicuously omitted Jewish women. Any doubt that this was a mere oversight was put to rest by Tablet, a magazine devoted to Jewish issues, whose recent expose revealed that three organizers — Carmen Perez, a Hispanic civil rights advocate, Tamika Mallory, a black single mom and activist, and Linda Sarsour, a controversial Palestinian firebrand who had earned ire (some totally justified and some not) for her outspoken slams against Zionism and Israel — openly expressed their discomfort with white women, especially Jewish ones. At one meeting early on, they reportedly told their Jewish colleagues that their "people" had engaged in the black slave trade, a lie that historians have repeatedly debunked.
But what triggered the latest round of outrage was that, last spring, Mallory and Sarsour attended an annual Nation of Islam event where Minister Louis Farrakhan told the black gathering that the Jewish people are "Satanic" because they hold "the door to anything you want." And nor is blatant anti-Semitism the only problematic aspect of Farrakhan's message. He's a misogynist who rails against women who know how to "make babies" but are too lazy to cook for them. He told Jay-Z to cover up Beyonce. And he's a notorious homophobe who believes that homosexuality is a government conspiracy to castrate black men.
But even as accusations of anti-Semitism roil the organization, minority women are upset that its predominantly white membership, especially at the local level, does not reflect their concerns. Meanwhile, many progressive white women can't understand how their skin color can make them part of a privileged class when every woman is a "second class citizen."
The upshot is that the movement is fissuring along many different fault lines. A sister organization of the Women's March in Humboldt County, California, has cancelled its march this year because of insufficient representation from women of color. It is planning instead a separate event in March to celebrate International Women's Day.
Meanwhile, the Washington chapter of the Women's March has called off its participation because of the organization's anti-Semitism and the Denver chapter has expressed major concern as well. The New York march has split into two, one being led by women of color and the other stressing the denunciation of anti-Semitism. The national event is having its own difficulties with prominent celebrities such as Alyssa Milano, a vocal leader of the #MeToo movement, refusing to participate so long as Sarsour and Mallory don't quit.
The baffling thing about the duo's embrace of the Nation of Islam of course is that Farrakhan disses not just Jews but many of the causes they themselves enshrined in their own Unity Principles. They finally issued a mealy-mouthed statement distancing the Women's March from the Nation of Islam after widespread outrage, but never condemned Farrakhan himself or recanted their previous lavish praise.
But there might be reasons why not every feminist — and progressive — bone in Sarsour's and Mallory's body revolted against the minister.
In Sarsour's case, it might be because, as a Muslim, she finds strength from him in pushing back against Islamophobia — not to mention her Palestinian advocacy against the Jewish state. Meanwhile, as a black mom who has raised her son alone after his dad was murdered, Mallory finds it easy to disregard his reactionary side because he speaks to the broader concerns of her community. Indeed, she repeatedly praises what Farrakhan has done to uplift black lives. In both cases, their other identities trump their identities as women.
Women who take their identities as women most seriously are relatively well off white women who don't experience much discrimination along other dimensions. Their primary concerns, therefore, revolve around advancing their careers while raising children and balancing a family. It is no wonder that Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's message of Lean In sisterhood on how to break through male-dominated workplace hierarchies speaks more to them and less to minority women — which is why former first lady Michelle Obama criticized it, noting "sometimes that shit doesn't work."
Given this discord, unsurprisingly, the Women's March has deferred announcing a revised agenda until after the march. But if its track record is any indication, the new agenda will revolve around removing the wage gap, #MeTooism, and reproductive rights, all of which, except for the last, are big concerns of professional, working women who tend to be white rather than others whose big problems are different.
To be sure, progressive feminists are aware that the simple majoritarian math means that there's a built in bias in the movement toward the concerns of white women. They pledge to address that by going more "intersectional." Intersectionality is the notion that the march toward social justice requires prioritizing the concerns of groups that are oppressed along more dimensions rather than fewer. So, for example, elevating the concerns of a poor, black, lesbian woman because she experiences injustice on three counts over white women.
But intersectionality will slice and dice feminism further, making it far more difficult to craft a cohesive message that unifies rather than divides women. Indeed, the very need for intersectionality shows the relative irrelevance of feminism in today's America where the major injustices aren't felt by women writ large but immigrants, inner city minorities who bear the brunt of, say, onerous sentencing laws enforced by a draconian justice system, and cultural "others."
Feminism will be relevant again once these injustices are addressed and discrimination by sex becomes the major remaining injustice — or if a resurgent Farrakhan-style patriarchy once again returns women to the kitchen, bare-foot and pregnant. Until then, American feminists will serve the cause of social justice better by disbanding the Women's March and joining other fights rather than trying to herd everyone under its umbrella.
If they are looking for an authentic women's movement, they should join hands with their Kerala sisters.