Flipping Perceptions of Feminism How a student-run magazine in Mumbai is redefining Indian portrayals of feminism, one issue at a time.

By Charlotte Borland

Amongst the hedonism of Bollywood and the destitution of Asia's largest slum, Mumbai is home to an ever-growing feminist movement. The fight for gender equality, however, has proven divisive thus far, as traditional values grapple with Western-centric ideas of growth and change.

Mobilising young women through education has been perhaps the most prominent and effective means of achieving gender equality. Hundreds of innovative projects aimed at promoting feminist ideals have cropped up around Mumbai in recent years.

However, the Indian approach to feminism has been criticised in Western media for focusing heavily on the upper class rather than addressing the concerns of marginalised women. In a country where 21.9% of people live below the poverty line, this is clearly not an all-encompassing perspective.

In 2013, a group of high school students from Cathedral and John Connon School, in Mumbai's Fort region, identified this problem and sought to change it. The best platform for this, they decided, was a magazine. They saw their private school-educated backgrounds as vessels that could be used to create change for the underprivileged members of their community.

Thus began The Flipside, a feminist publication that tackles multifaceted issues from rape culture in Mumbai through to the stigmatisation of mental health problems in young Indian men. Each year, new seniors are elected to take over the coveted position of editor. This year, both Kahini Mehta, 18, and Abhimanyu Kapur, 17, were victorious. Since being appointed as co-editors, they have made it their mission to continue the legacy left so proudly in their hands.

Kahini Mehta (left) and Abhimanyu Kapur rifle through The Flipside, Vol. 4

"A group of my seniors, two or three years ago, they banded together and realised they didn't like the way feminism was portrayed in most magazines, especially in India," Kapur says of the magazine's inception.

"The concept isn't very well explained or defined. They realised that most of the time when people talk about [gender issues], they always talk about the negative aspects...'there were these many rapes in India', 'all these crimes have been committed against women'. A lot of people talk about the negative aspects but they don't ever talk about change."

“A lot of people talk about the negative aspects but they don’t ever talk about change.”

So, change is what The Flipside has set out to do. Kapur and Mehta have high hopes for what they can instil in others using The Flipside as their platform. The magazine is already freely distributed to schools, colleges and local spaces like coffee shops, in the Mumbai region.

"We think that [free distribution] is really important. No one should have to pay to read our opinions about the matter. This is something I realised our classmates greatly appreciated...a lot of them complimented me on some of the articles that were in the magazine and how they feel like it brought out a different point of view about certain obstacles women and men both face,” Mehta says.

This is an important achievement considering the state of affairs in India. As Western media often points out, the gender divide is akin to a vast and irreparable chasm. Although a small percentage of the Indian people are slowly becoming more open to feminist ideas, the majority are still wary that the term signifies misandry rather than equality.

Poonam Sharma, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Amity University Mumbai, agrees that the understanding most Indians have of feminism is greatly erroneous, and generally leans more towards misandry.

Poonam Sharma, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Amity University Mumbai

"There will be always some individuals who think that feminism is about empowering women over men, and many view it in a negative sense," Professor Sharma says.

"The perception that 'females were once suppressed, now it's time to suppress males' is giving the wrong message to the masses. Feminism must come to the people. It's about getting one's right in an equal way."

This misconstrued idea of feminism is a jarringly common thread that underscores many conversations about feminism worldwide, and particularly in India. Kapur and Mehta agree that they were sceptical of the concept at first, as were their classmates.

These misconceptions have certainly left an indelible mark on the Indian people, many of whom are fearful of believing or endorsing anything that challenges the current status quo. In the video below, Mehta and Kapur discuss their journey to becoming feminists, and later editors of The Flipside, in an often unsupportive environment.

Feminism is a tender concept even in the halls of higher education. Professor Sharma recalls the mixed reactions she received when discussing feminism with her psychology class at Amity University. Just as Mehta and Kapur suggest, feminism can still appear as somewhat of a 'dirty word', and acceptance can take time.

"When I teach them gender perspectives and these very serious issues, I see that they are sensitised about the female gender and they are quite pro-gender equality. However, females who are brought up in [Indian] families, they are brought up in a traditional way only," Professor Sharma explains.

"To give an example, [in India] girls have to follow so many rituals. During special days, if they are menstruating, they cannot go to a temple or do this or that. I had a discussion in my class regarding this. Most of the males said, 'that's wrong' but I hardly heard anything from the females."

These institutionalised norms that dictate how women should exist within society have proven very difficult to overcome. They are steeped and cemented in thousands of years of tradition and are often fortified by religious beliefs. Mehta and Kapur agree that due to India's unique religious and cultural origins, as well as social stratification, major discrepancies exist from generation to generation and class to class.

"In certain classes, the stigma has decreased openly, at least in terms of women getting jobs. In politics right now, if you look at the scenario, it's not like women are being suppressed there either and that's sort of represented throughout the upper class," Mehta says.

"In some rural places, though...it hasn't really improved. There are certain practices that were banned a long time ago - there's a practice called sati which means a woman has to jump into a fire once her husband dies, and that was banned a long time ago, but even quite recently, actually, there were a few cases where this continued to occur even though it was illegal. I think that circumstances like that show that it isn't progressing completely."

Despite these roadblocks, Mehta and Kapur remain positive that The Flipside can create meaningful change in young people growing up in the Mumbai region. Education through media has presented itself as the best way to combat these societal differences and caste-based clashes.

Recently there has been a push towards feminist media, with radio shows, books and web series all aimed at decreasing the stigma surrounding equal rights. Children's television programmes like Meena (a cartooned south-east Asian girl devised by UNICEF) depict gender equality in its simplest form to help educate the younger generation.

"It's a good change, because in India, earlier there wasn't really much [media] concentrating on social issues. Nowadays, there is a generation gap and that generation has grown, so things have to be presented in a different manner. In Maharashtra especially, media is playing a very good role in promoting the positive things, which we aren't seeing in other states," Professor Sharma says.

When asked about their future plans, both personally and for The Flipside, Mehta and Kapur are ambitious yet realistic.

"Ideally, we want to publish one or two more issues before we graduate, and then we want the next batch of seniors coming in to take charge of it. Honestly, more than anything, this has been a learning experience for me in a variety of ways. It teaches you a lot of valuable skills that any 16 or 17-year-old would be lucky to have," Kapur says.

"I really want to widen the area of distribution," adds Mehta. "We have a lot of organisations on the last page of the magazine and we talk about how you can get involved with them. They're not always located in Bombay, so I was hoping to spread the magazine to more parts of India so that we could tackle more organisations and have more people get involved with situations that they care about."

But, The Flipside's next venture is perhaps the most exciting of them all. Both Mehta and Kapur are evidently proud as they discuss a new opportunity in their midst, working with the United States Embassy located in Mumbai. They've already made plans to collaborate on new projects and cover seminars on gender equality issues. By connecting with a platform this well established, Mehta's dream of widening The Flipside's reach may happen in the very near future, with the potential to branch out nationwide.

For now, however, Mehta and Kapur remain final-year high school students with aspirations that would astound even the most seasoned magazine editors. I ask them for a final piece of advice for young people growing up in Mumbai who may feel unsure about what feminism truly connotes.

Kapur says he believes in the importance of free speech and challenging social norms, and so, encourages other young people to speak their minds about the issues that concern them, even when this may rub people the wrong way.

"The problem is that in a place like India, even among educated circles, you have a lot of people who carry negative concepts and stigmas towards this kind of stuff. Even if it's your teacher, I'd say go for it - shout at them. Don't be afraid of seeming like an idiot."

Mehta agrees wholeheartedly. "You shouldn't be afraid to state your own opinions, but more than that, you should be forming your own stance. People shouldn't be swayed to believe something that they don't just because that's what other people are saying. You shouldn't have to change your opinions to meld with society's."

For more information on The Flipside, head to their website or their Facebook page.

Created By
Charlotte Borland

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