There appears to be a lot of confusion going around about what it means to be a feminist, especially among the younger generations. Admittedly, supportive videos and feminist bloggers make me hopeful that it’s not as bad as it may sound, yet the situation is far from ideal. What ticks me off on a regular basis are women proudly declaring they are not feminists. It’s like men declaring they don’t need a right to vote, get education, or be respected as fellow human beings. And it is not so much that these women disagree with me, it is the holier than thou tone they use, and the disregard for problems and injustices women around the world face daily. Have some compassion and historical awareness about these issues before writing off a social movement, please.
To help clear the murky waters surrounding feminism in its various forms and incarnations I decided to write down reasons that have made me a proud to be feminist since age 10 or so. They are listed in a more or less random order.
1. I’m a woman.
It’s kind of a no-brainer, really. Why shouldn’t I strive to better my own rights and create a society where I can feel safe and accepted? Feminists want to be men’s equals, not superiors. We are fighting a persistent social inequality not creating another one. Feminism is not about superiority of one gender, so if someone says it is they are talking BS.
We’ve come such a long way since first women demanded more rights for themselves – we got a right to get education (for a long time, girls were not required to read or write at all), to divorce (remember, it was quite unheard of outside of the highest strata of society and the taint was placed solely on the woman), have property (we were the property of men – first our fathers, then our husbands, followed by our sons), a right to vote, have sovereignty of our bodies and so on. But the situation is still far from ideal and we may have equal rights on paper, but the reality is that we are held to a quite different standard than men. We are supposed to behave in a certain manner or we are sluts, asking for it etc. This double standard is why we still need feminism.
2. Reproductive Rights
Let me get this out of the way – I’m firmly pro-choice. That does not make me a monster or a slut, like some pro-life people would have it. This just means that I understand the plight of women who had abortions and that I support their decision, which certainly wasn’t an easy one. But I also believe that having access to safe contraception would lower the numbers, not make them higher, or make teenagers have pre-marital sex. Everyone decides for themselves when to have sex. I myself had my first experience in early twenties (kind of late compared to my friends and schoolmates), but then again, I was always a person who did things my way.
The situation varies across the world: we have countries where girls are married and give birth in their early teens with no knowledge of either, countries where abortions are forbidden and thus done with dangerous methods in secret, and countries where access to abortion and contraception is getting more and more restricted. I believe that all women should have access to contraception and be educated about sex. I myself learned most out of books I found on the topic in the local library (my school’s sex-ed was poorly done, but we kids knew enough to have safe sex), from talking about it with girls, and internet. Perhaps that is why I hope things are changing for the better.
I’ve used oral contraception or condoms with my two boyfriends, knowing that I wasn’t ready to have children. There is nothing wrong with that. I’ve never had an abortion, but knowing that there is a way for me to safely end an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy is a comfort. Of course, if I think of the ob/gyn department of my local hospital, I have no idea how I would go about it. Waiting lines are a bummer, so telling the nurse at the counter (in front of a full waiting room) why I have to have a check up immediately would be an unpleasant experience. Then again, all kinds of unpleasant things happen to me there. But that is neither here nor there.
There is one story I wish to share with you. I believe it illustrates the pro-choice movement in the best of ways:
A schoolmate of mine broke up with her boyfriend (better said, she got dumped). A week later her period still did not start (despite using condoms as protection), so she bought a number of early pregnancy tests. Two came back positive, one negative. Conflicted and raw, she asked a group of friends and schoolmates for advice during a free period. I personally though she should wait a few days and do the test again; if still positive, she should have an abortion. She was only 17 and in school, not to mention that there were virtually no pregnant teenagers that I knew of in my town. I believed this would be the less painful choice, but I kept my mouth shut (it was not my business). Then another schoolmate spoke up and said this: “I support you whichever way you decide. I will be an aunt to your baby if you wish it, or I can be the one holding your hand in the waiting room. It’s your choice.”
Thinking back, I wish I were the one uttering these words, but I always knew that if in this situation, I would make the choice that would be the best for me at that time (it would have been an abortion). Ultimately this is what the pro-choice is all about – giving each woman a choice to decide to either have or not have the baby, and supporting them either way.
3. Equal Pay (Wage gap) and Employment Rights
Women are still paid less than their male colleagues for doing the same job. Why is that? We are no less professional or competent; we are just as educated and inventive. Hiring us for half-time only or not giving us better job opportunities is not right. Potential pregnancies and maternity leaves are not an excuse for not hiring or paying us less for our hard work. (Sometimes I get the feeling we are damned for having children, and damned for not having them and focussing on our careers. We can never win.)
This kind of discrimination is frustrating for any employed woman or a woman searching for a job. Legally, we can’t be asked whether we plan to get pregnant in the next few years at a job interview, or made to sign a contract stating we won’t have children in the next 5 years (yes, that sort of thing still happens).
Often, women are overlooked at promotions or are the first ones left off. Not to mention that some professions hire women predominately because they can pay us less or that certain professions get classified as women’s jobs. Think housemaids, nurses, kindergarten teachers, social workers etc. All things centred on taking care of people or rearing children – and even if men perform these functions (male nurses), they are often the first ones to be promoted or placed in position of power. My school with about 95% female teachers still had a male headmaster. Think about it.
4. Education Rights
There is millions of girls denied education nowadays, which is absolutely horrible. Basic reading and writing is denied them due to various reasons – poverty, social norms, religious reasons. It can be difficult to imagine not knowing how to read, or be denied knowledge about all kinds of things because your culture or religion says girls don’t need that to be good wives. I’m especially sensitive to parents denying their children public schooling because they might learn something they don’t want them to know (evolution comes to mind here). Children should have the opportunity to make their own mind about things they are taught.
The other problem here is that even when we have access to schools and universities, there is a marked gender bias on how many women actually graduate. How many get their PhD-s? And how many women are graduating in natural sciences? Sometimes we are ‘told’ in unmistakable ways that we aren’t smart enough to get chemistry or physics. A teacher of mine comes to mind here – thankfully, he knew of my father and his guest lectures at various schools, so he believed that he taught me physics at home, and my grades did not suffer the usual ‘female affliction’ (i.e. being markedly lower than that of the boys simply because a female wrote the answers in the test). I still remember his remarks about women not getting physics or math – I call BS.
This reminds me of a time when women could attend lectures, but could not matriculate. This changed about 1920, but various faculties and disciplines still barred women from attending. Of course, there is still sexism present in schools. Don’t make me start on how many female surgeons we actually have in our hospitals – they are quickly educated on all the reasons why they should not follow that path during their lectures.
(More about the power education brings to girls – http://www.girleffect.org/)
5. Objectification of Women
This is one of my hot buttons, I’m afraid. Women and girls are treated as objects of men’s gaze – i.e. we must be pleasing to look at at all times, always aware we are performing to an audience. Have you ever walked down a street, uncomfortably aware of every gaze following you? It might be all in our heads, but we are taught to be self-conscious about our appearance all the time. We have to be fashionable, of certain age or shape (slim is always good), have to wear a certain amount of make-up… etc.
Being slightly overweight as a teenager, this was a big problem for me for a long time, especially since my friend turned anorexic. You can’t imagine what that can do to a person’s psyche. If I had not been strong enough or had my family’s support, I would have probably turned out like her as well. Damaged self-image is a big problem.
Thus objectification of women is really harmful and demeaning. We are more than our looks, though society makes it clear that we should be pretty if we want to be appreciated. Problematic is also the hidden ageism in this attitude. And even when women are pretty, their minds are suddenly secondary. You know – she has the looks, but she’s dumb.
If you wish to know more, I encourage you to watch Jean Kilbourne’s: Killing us Softly 4. I believe I’ve recommended it before, but it never hurts to spread the message.
6. Rape Culture
This one’s big in the social media at the time. I find it abhorrent that victims of rape are the ones being blamed for the crime. That so many women are quick to call women speaking up about the horrendous experience whores or even worse is too cruel. Yes, you may know the man being accused, but get all the facts straight before throwing such words around. If women don’t speak up about the rapists, the chances are they are going to do it to another woman. They are called serial offenders for a reason, you know?
If men learn that they will be held responsible for the crime, they will think twice before taking advantage of women who are perhaps too drunk to give consent, or women who are known to be more sexually active than their friends. Having an active sex life does not make her easy or available to everyone. And the excuse that she was dressed provocatively or flirting isn’t an excuse. Also, the stupid notion that men can’t help themselves is just demeaning to them and us. They are rational human beings, not animals. Desiring a woman is all fine and dandy, but if she says no – back the heck off!
Nobody asks to be raped because consent is the crucial point of the crime – victims are forced into sexual acts against their will or without their consent. If a woman asks to stop in the middle of a sex act – you have to stop. She’ll admire you for respecting her wishes, trust me.
I would like to walk down the street or enter a friend’s car without worrying about my safety, or how people would construe that in case something untoward happened. I want to trust men, I really do. That also means that I can go out into the world and be sure that people will respect my boundaries and my decisions. And even if I’m in a relationship – that does not mean I don’t have the right to say no. It’s my body – respect that.
7. Stereotypical Gender Roles
I believe this is where feminism could have the biggest impact in the future. By allying ourselves with the LGTB movement, we could rewrite the patriarchal roles that we are constantly being pushed into.
Women are not just wives and mothers – we are not either saintly virgins or whores either. Our sole role in life is not to bear children, but to be inspiring human beings. If that includes motherhood, good for you, but it should not be one of the criteria for judging a woman’s worth. What if a woman can’t have or won’t have children – does that make her any less a woman? Just because I’m a woman does not make enamoured of children and infants, or that my one dream is to marry a tall, dark, and handsome man.
It also does not mean that I have to have a man to feel worthy or socially acceptable. What if I love being single or if I’m attracted to women? Maybe I’m just getting over a relationship. And even if I am walking down the street alone it does not give you the right to show your appreciation by yelling after me, or that being single makes me available in any way or shape.
Having female parts does not automatically mean I’m into frilly things and dresses, or being unable to set up a computer. Not all women are technologically challenged, you know. What if I’m good with a hammer and repairs? Perhaps I’m into anything that society perceives to be masculine. Also – just because chores were usually the province of women does not mean you should expect women to do all the work. I believe in sharing things, cleaning included.
If you want to learn more, watch Miss representation documentary (here).
8. Domestic Violence, Poverty
The fact is that women are victims of domestic violence in a greater proportion than men are. They are also the ones most hit by poverty, especially in the developing countries. Patriarchal nature of most societies makes it difficult for women to exercise their rights or to gain them. Just remember the Taliban in Afghanistan and how their regime enslaved women. There are other countries where women are still without rights, where the established order of things gives their husbands the right to beat them, or where the in-laws can kill a bride for having a too small dowry. Not to mention the places where children are married off to much older men (child-brides) and where girls frequently die of complications during pregnancy or child labour. An article I read even talked about girls dying from injuries from their wedding nights.
Women and girls are also more often victims of trafficking and forced prostitution. These issues are tied in with poverty and general state of a society. Women are often the ones hit the hardest during armed conflicts. Rape has been classified as a weapon of war for a reason.
Often even the most ‘civilised’ of societies turn a blind eye on what is happening behind closed doors. No matter the number of campaigns to raise awareness, the reality is that we only care when it is too late. Women’s shelters (transitional houses) are one step closer, but when a woman is economically dependent on her husband or is taking care of children, getting out of such a situation is a big problem. You can live in the shelter for battered women only so long.
9. Devaluation of Our Achievements
Even when women do fantastic things, or when their achievements as scientists or politicians (etc.) are highlighted in the media, the very next thing pointed out is their femininity, their marriages and children, even when it has nothing to do with their job. Women in the public eye are quickly put down or viewed with suspicion – as if their being female has infected them with incompetence. How many politicians have done or said stupid things and they are still in office and how many women had to disappear because they got tired of the pressure?
The one thing even more harmful is the absence of women in important positions – we have many examples of female celebrities, but few female CEOs, high ranking politicians and scientists. Even in history class, we rarely learn of important women – we might get a queen or two, but that’s it. It takes a class on gender and feminism to actually realise there are many women who have achieved great things. And no, suffragettes were not the first to demand a right to vote, although they are the only ones mentioned.
The reality is that our achievements as artists, musicians, writers, even chefs (cooking supposedly being the province of women) are devalued. I can vividly remember the lecture when we were taught that poetess or actress carries a slightly negative connotation. How many female writers use male or gender-neutral pseudonyms to avoid being slighted by readers even today? Remember J.K. Rowling?
10. Fighting against Injustices
As a white, middle class and arguably privileged western woman, I’m not morally entitled to speak in the name of women from other regions or to dictate what they should do, but I can give them my voice when they demand rights for themselves. All societies have their own specific biases and sexist barriers that keep women subjugated – it can be tradition, religion, a political regime…
I have no true idea what women of colour, Hindus, Muslims, lesbians, Chinese women, or any other category there is face on a daily basis. I can offer them support and give them my own perspective when they ask or point out things, but ultimately we all try to do our best to put an end to injustices. That is why Feminism needs diverse voices, views and ideas. That is why inviting male supporters is not a crime; they must understand, though, that they can’t speak in our name or force their own views on us. We have our own histories and voices. Listen to us.