What do young women in 21st century India want? Only a few insignificant things like fundamental rights and equal pay and claiming space(s) and sexual freedom and to wear what they like and marry who they like or not marry if they like. Women want to be mothers and want to be childfree. Women want to be accepted for and not despite their gender identity. Women want safety inside homes and on public transport and everywhere else.

Sometimes, even without the vocabulary or the articulation of the desire, women want to smash the patriarchy, and do it too, in the everyday actions they perform. Sindhu Rajasekaran’s book, Smashing the Patriarchy: A Guide for the 21st-century Indian Woman, is an attempt at studying the challenges that confront women in (mostly) urban India, and the subversions that are performed by millennial and Gen Z women in their pursuit of self-determination and self-empowerment.

Switching gears from the social activism and struggle for parity that has defined feminism in India and elsewhere, Rajasekaran locates contemporary women’s struggles as decidedly more individual and centred in the still-controversial idea of postfeminism. Owning the contradictions inherent in any “post-” ideological stance, Rajasekaran posits postfeminism not as temporally subsequent to or assumed antithetical to feminism but as coterminous to it.

Postfeminist thought, she writes, “always existed alongside earlier feminist narratives, albeit on the fringes.” Her omission of a hyphenation (not post-feminist, but postfeminist) is an echo of what Stephanie Genz and Benjamin A Brabon have put forward in their crucial 2009 text, Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories:

“We choose to omit the hyphen in our spelling of postfeminism in order to avoid any predetermined readings of the term that imply a semantic rift between feminism and postfeminism, instantly casting the latter as a negation and sabotage of the former. Also, by forgoing the hyphen, we seek to credit and endow postfeminism with a certain cultural independence that acknowledges its existence as a conceptual entity in its own right.”

Not a break from feminism then, but an exploration of new and multiple ways of being a feminist, as Rajasekaran puts it.

Postfeminism remains a contentious term in our postmodern, post-truth reality. Often criticised for moving the goalposts from wide sweeping political and social change to an emphasis on individual agency and multiplicity of political positioning, postfeminism is certainly a generational shift within feminism. It embraces femininity, celebrates sexuality, and shifts the focus from earlier, socialist goals of the feminist movement.

Distancing herself from the leftist-liberal model that has defined the feminist movement in India, Sindhu Rajasekaran sees millennial and Gen Z women as standing outside the theoretical framework of traditional feminism and finding new, strategic ways of undermining hyper-masculine hegemony, aligning with neoliberalism, in order to gain greater control over self and articulations of selfhood. After all, socialism has not meant gender parity even in the countries where it has succeeded as a welfare, economic model, she reminds the reader.

Breaking with the strict set of codes that she sees feminism as having thrust onto all women, she locates postfeminism within the plurality of female subjectivities and consequently, free from any larger, egalitarian goals. The exercise of choice, assertion of feeling, validation of femininity, and decoupling from both older political positions of Indian feminism as well as mainstream Anglo-American feminism is contemporary, millennial postfeminism’s quest.

Structured as five chapters detailing feminism(s)’s intersections with beauty, love, desire and sexuality, work (both paid and unpaid labour, outside and within the home), femininity and the ways in which women occupy and negotiate public spaces and social expectations, Smashing the Patriarchy becomes an important document for understanding and responding to challenges that women face in a rapidly transforming India.

Making a break with feminism’s stance against female objectification and its invalidation of the pursuit of beauty and the rejection of “beauty capitalism”, Rajasekaran makes a detailed study of how sartorial choices and make-up and performances of femininity (and masculinity) have become tools of subversion for women who refuse to be policed into subordination of either body or sexuality.

She asserts, “women aren’t putting on make-up anymore only to please the male gaze or in pursuit of some mythical beauty ideal, but to appear their best in a neoliberal economy where aesthetic labour is a focal point.” At the same time, a significant number of women continue to reject all beauty standards.

Postfeminism, then, drawing on Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, makes space for the performance of one’s gender, anywhere within this spectrum of “beauty” and individually defined aesthetic appeal. Rajasekaran also sees the millennial woman’s sexuality as similarly freed from its traditional subservience to male pleasure and asserting itself through self-fashioning.

She draws attention to how not just able-bodied and neurotypical women who meet traditional paradigms of beauty, particularly as represented in mainstream literature and cinema, but also women with “transgressive” bodies are both claiming and articulating their sexuality. The body remains a site of performance, yes, but the narrative is controlled not by patriarchy but by the performer themselves. Almost like they were following Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa”, women are writing their diverse bodies, and like the author points out, the bodies are being heard.

Increasingly, DBA (Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi) feminists have been distancing themselves from the feminist movement in India, on grounds of leadership roles occupied by Savarna feminists, calling them out as being exclusionary and as having failed to amplify voices, performing an appropriative activism instead. Rajasekaran takes cognisance of the microaggressions women face on the basis of caste, religion and other marginalities and makes a case for the theorisation of marginalised positions from within and not as a structure imposed from the outside.

Intersectionality, which feminism cites as one of its primary contemporary goals, cannot be achieved unless the rules of participation and allyship change. Rajasekaran quotes Divya Kandukari, a Bahujan activist, whose words could well be a manual for effective allyship:

“Acknowledge your privilege and stop occupying all the space. Redistribute the sources that you have to the marginalised without acting like a saviour. Use your social capital for amplifying the voices of the marginalised and pass the bloody mic. Reform your own casteist, racist, transphobic, and ableist households.”

We would do well to pay heed.

Representation remains key to gender parity. Social and cultural change cannot happen in the absence of legislation. Rajasekaran writes of the need for women from marginalised / minority communities “to enter the political arena and speak for themselves.” She also insists on the need for establishing allyship across political ideologies, an ideal that is far from being accomplished in our intensely polarised political climate.

In the meantime, change is being wrought from within, via sustained activism. For the millennial woman, activism is often digital, taking the form of tweets, memes, podcasts, and social media campaigns. Rajasekaran cites #MeToo as a shining example of real change brought about by “digital natives.” Foregrounding the idea of consent and highlighting the patriarchal tendency of victim-blaming, the relevance of #MeToo to having shaken up workplace hegemonies cannot be denied.

The internet also becomes a space where women cannot be silenced and have been able to “perform a meta version of themselves”. From Instagram to YouTube, the internet has broken women’s history of silence(ing) and opened up a whole spectrum of visibility, from being fashion influencers to talking about and validating taboo subjects like sexuality, sexual health, mental health, and body image. Activism, whether digital or on the streets, is visible like never before and needs only more political will and more representation to translate into codified, legal change.

Any movement/ideology that needs to stay relevant must necessarily re-invent itself. Postfeminism is inevitable then, in the face of the growing unease with traditional feminism and the gaps it has failed to plug in a neoliberal, urban space inhabited by a multitude of gender/caste/class identities. However, generational conflict between millennials and “older feminists” as a sort of leap between two disconnected points reads like a little bit of an overextension.

Opposition to period leave on the grounds that it validates biological essentialism that multiple generations of feminists have fought against is not the stance of an entire generation of feminists but of individuals, shaped by their own struggles against misogyny and casual workplace sexism. That period leave might well be transformative for women in the workforce who suffer severe menstrual pain and other concerns, is not difficult to understand or to identify with, irrespective of whether one is a millennial or Gen X or Gen Z.

Again, when Rajasekaran writes, “To get on with their real-world objectives, women these days collude with patriarchies when it suits their interests and resist it when need be,” the model of subversion by partial complicity that the author assumes is uniquely millennial has been witnessed in joint-families and workspaces (albeit not as a feminist strategy, one must concede) across regions and cultures for many generations. Compromise towards the accomplishment of a larger goal is pretty much embedded in the Indian political as well as personal ethos.

Many Gen X feminists, similarly, have been as aggrieved by Germaine Greer’s dismissal of #MeToo as have their millennial counterparts. The feminist continuum is perhaps more fluid than this rigid generational partitioning allows for.

There is much that my personal training as “older” (and therefore distinct from the intended subject positions of this text), non-millennial feminist finds problematic within the politics of postfeminism, not least of which is the fact in a country as deeply iniquitous as ours, feminism – grassroots, socialist, street-activist feminism – can never either be dismissed or made redundant, but examining that discomfort is exactly what made reading the book particularly engaging.

It repeatedly echoed for me, that irreverent and crucially self-aware opening line of a favourite feminist podcast, The Guilty Feminist: “I’m a feminist, but…”. The ellipsis, in each episode of the podcast, is filled with examples of acts people who identify as feminists deem less than perfect and yet, do anyway, because in that space between theory and everyday praxis, we are all flawed feminists. Or maybe, in our own ways, we are just the right shade of feminist, within the socio-politico-cultural-economic contexts that define us.

Sindhu Rajasekaran’s book is an excellent reminder of this need for self-reflection and the imperative to unpack and unlearn. Whether you are a millennial or a younger Gen Z or an older Gen Whatever, this might be a good place to navigate the choppy waters of the inexorable cultural shift that postfeminism is.

Smashing the Patriarchy: A Guide for the 21st-Century Indian Woman, Sindhu Rajasekaran, Aleph Book Company.