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These Bollywood actresses are undoing all the hard work of India’s feminists

By Shelly Walia

An idiom that perfectly captures the pace of India’s feminist movement is “one step forward, two steps back.” 

It might be hoped that Bollywood celebrities would stand at the forefront of the country’s much-needed gender equality movement. In a country boasting one of the world’s biggest film industries, celebrities wield enormous influence on their audiences, who, at many levels, are also their imitators. Yet, more often than not, actresses (and actors) shy away from taking pro-feminist positions.

As Quartz has argued before, that reluctance has to do with a misconstrued notion of what feminism is. The term doesn’t imply hating men or sex. It is simply believing that “men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”

Earlier this week, we witnessed yet another example. On Monday (Oct. 26), Ameesha Patel—whose career in Bollywood has slumped after initial success—took to Twitter to rant about another celebrity’s accusation on social media that she had been disrespectful by not rising during the national anthem at a theatre in Mumbai. Her accuser, Kushal Tandon’s biggest claim to fame is his appearance in Bigg Boss, a TV show based on the Dutch Big Brother series.

Patel said she had a reason for not standing up: “the monthly girly problem.”

Ouch.

Let’s just be clear. Periods are not a “problem.”

Sadly, an urban and educated Indian celebrity seems to share the same regressive attitude towards a totally normal female bodily function that plagues most of India.

Patel proved that she is no different from the millions of Indian women who have been conditioned to believe that menstruation is a taboo subject. They are ashamed to talk about it—let alone question the stigma that forbids them from carrying out the day-to-day work during periods.

If she felt she had to respond, she could have done it gracefully. A straightforward acknowledgement would have worked.

But Patel is not the only Bollywood actress to undermine the achievements of feminism in India. Many of them, it seems, have a problem with the actual label, feminism.

Priyanka Chopra

Despite her international acclaim, Chopra rejected the idea of being a feminist in an interview to Refinery 29, a lifestyle website:

I don’t think it’s feminist, but it’s empowerment… It’s got very strong female characters, and I don’t think it’s a bra-burning feminist show where you’re like, we hate men, but we have really strong male characters, too… It gives females an opportunity to be equal with the boys, and I think that’s really progressive.

Parineeti Chopra

Earlier in October, Priyanka’s cousin Parineeti made this problematic declaration: “I do want to be a role model but not a feminist.”

Ironically, Parineeti is the brand ambassador of Haryana’s “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” campaign that talks about ending female infanticide and of the need to educate girls.

I am very often confused to be a feminist but I am not. I am really not. Coming into Bollywood, I think definitely it has made me stronger and more responsible. I do feel proud of my gender, of being a woman. I do speak against gender inequality.

… I understand and accept that anything that I do, could and I hope should inspire young girls. Now, I am very particular about what I say or do. If that makes me half a feminist, then that’s okay. I want girls to be treated the way men are. Somewhere we lack that in our country.

Madhuri Dixit

In 2013, ahead of the release of popular actress Madhuri Dixit’s film about female empowerment, she too denied being a feminist.

“I don’t think I’m a feminist. I am independent and strong, which is what women should be like,” Dixit said at a press conference.

Her film Gulaab Gang, however, was out-and-out feminist—it captured a women’s liberation movement in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Katrina Kaif

In a recent interview to Vogue, Kaif confessed she wasn’t a feminist either:

People say I am not open, but is being open only talking about your relationships? I don’t think I am feminist but I don’t think an actress should be made to speak about the men in her life when there is so much more to her and what she has achieved. We need to respect that.

Until celebs take the first step towards feminism by embracing the word, gender equality will remain far removed.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.