The Problem with Feminism is…

Chris Rock is a funny guy. Sometimes, his jokes are a little out of line, but most of the time, he’s a really funny guy. I bumped into one of his stand-up clips a while ago. He explains that it’s okay for fat girls to talk about skinny girls and short guys to talk about tall guys, but not vice versa…

Life is full of double standards, and I accept a whole lot of them. Just like fat girls can get away with calling bitches skinny, men can walk bare chested but women can’t. When a (non-married) couple loses virginity (to each other), the guy becomes a hero and the girl becomes a slut. A single dad is brave, but a single mum is flawed. A dwarf can insult a giant, but an NBA player gets fired for calling his team-mate a midget.

That’s why I hesitate to call myself a feminist. In the house where I grew up, there was no difference between girls and boys. I have three brothers, and they were raised the same way as I was. We all did chores. (Or rather, we didn’t do chores – we had three house helps; one for house work, one for shamba work, and one for business errands. I didn’t do any cooking or cleaning until I moved out of home at 22. No, washing uniforms in boarding school doesn’t count).

We all played with dolls, legos, and cars. We all rode bikes and played video games. We all did well in school (or else!). We all got spanked for breaking rules. Usually in a straight line with a mwiko, slippers, or a big stick that we had to fetch ourselves. (And yes, choosing a small stick meant you got extra lashes.)

At school, I was never consciously aware of my gender. Sure I had breasts and wore a skirt instead of shorts, but nobody treated me differently. I was pushed towards sciences because I was ‘Index 1’ not because of how I wore my hair. The boys in my class had too cook and knit during home science lessons, and I had to make a dove tail joint, dig in the school shamba, use a hacksaw, and work a jack plane, just like they did.

In high school, I didn’t fail math because I have an extra X in my genes. I failed because it was tedious and I didn’t like it much. In campus, I choose the arts because I love literature and music, not because I lack a Y chromosome. At work, nobody makes mention of my gender during meetings or appraisals. I’ve never been denied a job or salary on the basis of my gender.

My stunted career progression is about my priorities. It’s about the fact that I’d rather sit at home and read a book than go networking in heels, and I prefer to spend my evenings at home with my (12 year old) baby instead of scaling the corporate ladder. It would be nice to earn more than I do, but I lack that driven nature and relentless ambition. It has more to do with my nature than my breasts. When I list my defining roles, I think dreamer, writer, mother, lover. Womanhood is just not a major facet of my identity.

That said, I know there are women whose choices in life are stifled by their gender. I know many women have been denied promotions because they (might eventually) have children. I know some female executives are paid less than men for doing the same jobs. I know that when a girl uses the same words or makes the same decision a boy would, it’s considered bossy, aggressive, or unattractive. And when a boy says or does something sweet, kind, or gentle, he is mocked for being ‘effeminate.’ I know the average person is more accepting of lesbians than he is of homosexual men. I know when a man that hits a woman it’s a crime, but a when a woman hits a man, it’s a joke.

Emma Watson (Hermione from Harry Potter) made a beautiful speech at the UN a few weeks ago. It’s a pretty long speech (13 minutes) but worth a listen. In it, she says that like me, she was never victimised or excluded for being a girl. She hasn’t missed out on any opportunities because of her gender. It hasn’t stunted her expression, her choices, or her earning power.

By the time she was 17, she had made enough money (over £10 million from Harry Potter) that she admitted she would never have to work for money again. That was in 2007. In 2009, she almost doubled that. £19 million. In one year. And both her parents are lawyers, so it’s unlikely she’ll ever go broke.

So why would a woman like that need to be a feminist? Well, because feminism isn’t about hating men. It is – by definition – the theory that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. It’s not about putting men down or raising women up. It’s not even about women being equal to men. It’s about women having the same RIGHTS and FREEDOMS that men have.

im-a-feminist

That means that I can walk out of my house at any time, wearing anything I want, and come back home without being sexually assaulted verbally, physically, or mentally. (On a typical day, men fear robbery. Women fear rape.) That means I can plan to have a child without thinking about whether or not it will cost me a promotion. That means I never have to wonder if my salary depends on standing or sitting when I pee.

That means the part of my body where life comes from is NOT thrown around as an insult, or considered the worst thing you can call another human being. That means the worst insult in the world is NOT a violation of the average person’s most treasured relative – their mother.

When was the last time you heard anyone being called a father-sodomiser? Or why is it that calling someone a dick is a joke, but calling someone a cunt is an insult worthy of murder? Why is such violence attributed to the description of a woman’s vagina? Why can’t you debase someone by calling them an arm, or a leg? Why did this level of shame have to be associated with p-? How does pointing this out make me a feminist b- … and why is that such a bad thing, even in my own eyes?

Chimamanda Adichie gave a famous TED talk on why everyone should be a feminist. She describes herself as a feminist that loves shoes, wears make-up, dresses sexy, and has a wonderful husband. She gives examples from her own life that fed her feminism; like wearing dull, boring clothes while teaching because she thought that if she wore stylish feminine clothes, she wouldn’t be taken seriously. Or tipping a valet at a restaurant only for the valet to immediately turn and thank her male date for the money.

Her talk didn’t convert me, because I didn’t relate to her experience. I’ve never been discriminated for my gender. Emma’s talk got to me though. She says that even though she hasn’t experienced gender bias, she recognises that many other women have. She realises that ‘feminist’ has become a dirty, polarising word, and she’s launched a movement that she hopes can change that perception. It’s called #HeForShe and it invites men into the conversation.

She says that if men weren’t taught that they have to be aggressive in order to be manly, then women wouldn’t be oppressed by men that were trying to be ‘manly.’ I agree with her. If men weren’t taught that women are a threat, they wouldn’t feel the need to control that threat. So we really can’t have equal rights for women without shifting the perspective of men.

equal_rights_by_stickworldcomic-d5f5ihl

I don’t know if that can be done, or if it’s just one of those things like how fat people can make thin jokes but thin people can’t hit back. Actually, I can say ‘thin’ whenever I want, but am more likely to say ‘big boned’ or ‘plus sized’ when I speak of my own proportions. In this twisted world, ‘thin’ is an adjective, ‘fat’ is an insult; ‘Christian’ is a declaration of faith, ‘Muslim’ is a badge of terrorism; ‘Knee’ is a body part, ‘Vagina’ is a request for rape. That’s just the way the world is.

Before I listened to Emma’s speech, I was quite happy to begin each statement with, ‘I’m not a feminist’ then proceed to point out some inequality between women and men. That – and my loud voice – makes people call a feminist regardless of my disclaimer. And in her speech, Emma talks about the people in her life that gave her a chance despite her genitals. She calls them inadvertent feminists – the parents, teachers, industry leaders, and agents who helped her become who she is, never once telling her what she could or couldn’t do ‘just because she was a girl.’

She does mention the inequalities she noticed. Being called bossy because she wanted to direct the school play, even though the boys wanted to direct it too. Having the press paint her sexually at 14, something that never happened to Rupert Grint or Daniel Radcliffe (Ron Weasley and Harry Potter), even though they were starring in the same movie. Those differences didn’t prevent her progress, but she did notice them. And she realises that they’ve stopped a lot of OTHER women from getting ahead.

Ron, Hermione, and Harry

It’s true that a lot of feminists are overtly against men. They think the only way to make women equal is to bring men down. That’s not a strictly male-female thing. A lot of people in the world drag others to their level so they can feel good about themselves. Just look at any internet troll or tabloid staffer.

People begin gender debates with a simple question: Are men and women equal? Seems legit, it elicits a yes-or-no response, right? Wrong. The very basis of that question is flawed. Is land and water equal? Are birds and fish equal? Are mammals and reptiles equal? Are planes and boats equal? Is any of those things less vital than the other to human survival?

Are men and men equal? No. They’re complementary. Do men and women deserve equal rights? Absolutely. Do men and women HAVE equal rights? Not by a long shot.

The world’s first feminists earned me the right to vote, to have property in my name, to get an education, to have my own ambition, to allow the possibility of being more than a mother and a wife. And that’s why today, thanks to a speech by Emma Watson, I describe myself a s a feminist, a person who believes that women should have the same rights and freedoms that men have. In case you didn’t watch the video, here are my favourite bits:

  • We want to try and galvanise as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change.
  • Fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. This needs to stop.
  • I’m among the ranks of women whose expressions are considered too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men, unattractive even.
  • Feminism is the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
  • I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body.
  • I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men.
  • Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive.
  • Both men and women should feel free to be strong.
  • How can we change the world when only half of it is invited and feel welcome to participate in the conversation?
  • I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society, despite my needing his presence as a child (just) as much as my mother’s.
  • Men can also be imprisoned by gender inequality. When they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.
  • It’s time to perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.
  • If men take up this mantle, their daughters can be free from prejudice, and their sons can have permission to be vulnerable and human.
  • If you still hate the word, it is not the word that is important. It’s the idea and ambition behind it.

It’s interesting how this term draws so many (negative) connotations. You don’t get that kind of reaction when someone says ‘I’m black. I’m white. I’m a Kenyan. I’m a Martian.’ But open your mouth to say ‘I’m a feminist’ and all hell breaks loose. That’s why Emma is advocating #HeForShe. If we can start to approach the men as equals instead of oppressors, then maybe they will see our point of view, maybe they will stop feeling so threatened, and maybe they will see their role in making all gender rights equal.

♫ Lullaby ♫ Nickelback ♫

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Feminism is…

  1. I love this. I absolutely love it. The most sober argument I have heard in a while about gender equality. I still don’t think of myself as a feminist. I hate the word because it carries more than the definition(which I subscribe to) and also carries the weight looking at things from one lens. If you don’t agree with some things you are a bad feminist or you aren’t one. I however like the fact that I can feel okay about hating the word but still being behind the idea. I have always wondered why it is so important to not consider yourself feminist if it is really the idea that matters.

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