Feminism isn’t about dictating your choices or experiences; that’s the very antithesis of feminism. If you want to bake all day, wrap your child from head to toe in Cath Kidston, swap your career for kids, or be a mummy blogger, then flippin’ go for it. Feminism argues that we are entitled to do what we want. However (and it’s a big however) feminism also argues that we shouldown our choices, that we should be our masters, and that we shouldn’t be subservient to men. These things can only happen if we acknowledge the impact of patriarchy on our decision-making. We must try to establish whether the choices we make are truly free, or whether they are just disguised as free. And that’s not always an easy thing to work out. We are institutionalised from a very young age to accept gender inequality, and in extreme cases we are made so vulnerable that our agency and our freedom of choice is removed.
The illusion of choice
If you’ve read this blog before you may be aware that my family converted to a strict form of Islam when I was younger. My stepfather reverted to his faith and as children we were expected to follow. There was no discussion, no compromise and life as I knew it – my friends, my school, my appearance, my identity, my voice, my autonomy – was ripped away from me. I was helpless to the changes and I felt like I was drowning. I realise now, in hindsight, that I had a breakdown that spanned a few years. Bear with me, there is a point to this cheery anecdote. I lived a life in which my freewill was made defunct because of patriarchy. One day I woke up (no exaggeration, it really was thatinstant) and I was expected to become a different person – subservient, ‘modest’ and weak. I did it, not because I felt it was the right thing to do, but because I was terrified of the male voices ordering me to do it – the voices of my step father, the religious leaders, the men screaming out from all the religious books I was told to read. Even when the women in our new religious community offered help and advice about ‘my’ new faith all I could hear in their words were the fears and desires of men.You’d think that the experience would have left me cynical and jaded, but I was brainwashed and I couldn’t see that patriarchy had pushed me to the point of breakdown. And when I finally broke free I became an apologist for the ideology that had controlled me. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised how blind I’d become. I was on the phone to a journalist who was considering running a story about my experience of conversion. She questioned my unswerving and aggressive support for the hijab (I was defensive and angry towards anyone that questioned it and at the time I thought I was standing up for tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism and women’s rights) and she introduced me to an idea that turned my blind faith in male authority on its head: the illusion of choice. Suddenly I became aware that my ‘conversion’ and the decisions I’d made in the years following it hadn’t been born out of choice. Instead, I and many of the females I’d grown up amongst had been stripped of our freedom by patriarchal values and behaviour. I was fed dogma and religious doctrine that imposed such guilt it undermined my intelligence and my confidence and it made rational thought virtually impossible. I was taught that ‘my’ new faith was all about submitting to the will of God, but in reality all I ever did was submit to the will of men. I wasn’t beaten into covering up (although I know girls who were) but the threat of violence always loomed. Just as terrifying as the violent methods of control were the concepts of duty, purity, honour and shame – they wormed their way into my psyche, made me ashamed of my body and my gender, and paralysed me with fear.
I don’t suppose the specifics of my patriarchy experience are shared by many women; however I believe the fact that I spent a good chunk of my life being ignorant to the illusion of choice puts me in the majority. Gender expectations and sexism are present in all cultures and they skew women’s decision-making. It means that often, when we think we’re making free, autonomous choices, we are actually being herded into lifestyles and decisions to fit the sexist principles of our culture.
We are not sausages
Aside from the silly opening question the final session at Mumsnet Blogfest proved contentious for other reasons. A panel of women discussed a range of things related to feminism, gender and motherhood. But it wasn’t until Sarah Ditum explained her return to university after having children that the atmosphere in the room shifted. There were terse exchanges on Twitter about her comments and those of us who couldn’t attend Blogfest were intrigued. I wondered what on earth she’d said to generate such upset and because I had nothing better to do that day *ahem* I found a video of the discussion and read a few blogs to try to figure out what had happened. Hercule Poirot: Eat. Your. Heart. Out.
It turns out Sarah Ditum went back to university because she believed having interests and ambitions aside from her child made her a better parent. I was shocked, not by the choice she made or the reasoning she gave, but by the fact that people were offended. It seems her personal choice was misconstrued as an attack against mothers with different experiences. It made for uncomfortable watching and reading. Feathers were ruffled, angry murmurs were audible on the video footage of the debate and a consensus was reached amongst many that what Sarah was really saying was that mothers who don’t go to university or who are satisfied by motherhood alone were less than her. People ‘retaliated’ with anecdotes proving how going to university isn’t necessary and that being a SAHM isn’t failure. Blogs were written lambasting Sarah and feminism.
In my short time as a mother, and my even shorter time as a blogger, I’ve noticed a lot of this kind of reaction. There is a dangerous assumption that being part of a mother community predicates conformity. When women dare to deviate from the norm (for example by admitting that motherhood alone doesn’t fulfil them) they are seen as antagonistic and judgmental. I don’t understand it, especially in the context of the Mumsnet session. To me the very nature of a discussion panel is that it should draw on a plethora of views. Like Sarah Ditum I need something other than my children to be fulfilled, to be happy, and to be a good mum. Without my job I’d be a miserable person and therefore a miserable mother. But I understand that there are masses of other women who get complete fulfillment from motherhood alone. My life choices and experiences don’t negate theirs and vice versa. We can co-exist happily with our differences, people! The diversity of the motherhood experience should be celebrated, talked about and shared, not stamped out through fear of difference and insecurity over our own lives. It seems that unless we mothers sugar-coat our views and pander to the expectations of one another we’re demonised. I’m not just talking about the Mumsnet debate. Mothers are viewed (and are encouraged to view each other) as an eerie homogenous subculture with uniformed beliefs, values and aspirations. We’re expected to mimic the values and voices of the majority, and to conform, like an endless chain of identical, mass-produced sausages…hmmm, probably should have thought up a slightly less phallic example. But my point is if we dare to strike out with voices of our own it’s assumed we’re attacking everyone else, never mind the fact that our experiences make our lives as unique as our fingerprints! Sharing a gender doesn’t mean we should act like nodding dogs (or sausages?) for fear of upsetting other women. As Glosswatch so succinctly puts it, “no one owns motherhood. No one owns the articulation of this experience”.
And it’s a similar situation with feminism. Somewhere along the line feminism has been misconstrued as a monolithic ideology and feminists as a flock of sheep bleating out man hating rhetoric. The reality is that feminism is embraced by huge numbers of women with differing backgrounds, experiences, value systems and beliefs. As Natalie Reed explains, the only principle we share is the belief that women are equal to men, “Just like skepticism and atheism, feminism is a HUGE tent, united by a very simple tenet and assumed value. Everything else is up for discussion”.
But I guess it’s easier to dismiss those demanding more from society if you corral them into a single group and claim they are crying out for an irrelevant cause. But that would be a lie. We are not the same, nor are we an irrelevant cause.
Why I am a feminist
I’m a teacher and a couple of times a year I ask my classes to think (critically) about feminism. Each year without fail a number of the girls (not the boys) in my class become uncomfortable and embarrassed by the topic of feminism. They try to undermine and brush off the idea of gender inequality. They insist that feminism is out of touch with contemporary society and that it hates men. After a couple of lessons, some fact-finding and a lot of discussion they are more open to dialogue and understanding. But I’m starting to think that those first couple of lessons reflect a wider social issue – some women are embarrassed by feminism. The attitude I see demonstrated in my classes (and online) reminds me of that inherently British custom of apologising for everything. Sorry you stood on my toe. Sorry you drove your shopping trolley into me. Sorry for feeling discontent about the oppression of women, and double-sorry for suggesting that female emancipation is a topic deserving of discussion and activism. I’ll just go slink off into my corner and stop moaning…
The Mumsnet debate raised a fundamental question: is feminism relevant? It’s obvious to me from what I see in my classroom and online that many think not. It’s argued that feminism is a restrictive, unnecessary label, that it unfairly blames men, and that it ignores the male experience. I understand where these points come from but none of them convince me to disregard feminism.
I fully accept that men get a shit deal. I have 2 boys (no girls) and I worry (a lot) about the crazy social expectations imposed on men. Boys in Britain have little to no opportunity to learn in ways conducive to their learning styles, they are overwhelmed with unhealthy media messages about masculinity, sex and aggression, and they often grow up unprepared for real women’s bodies, how to behave in loving relationships, or how to take ownership of their emotions. I could go on. But the fact that men have unfair hurdles to jump over doesn’t detract from the reality that women have it harder. It’s not a competition, it’s a fact. The sweeping assertion that everything is ok now for women (so feminists should quieten down or disappear) is just plain false. Everything is not ok, far from it, and here is just a brief list of why we shouldn’t be sorry or embarrassed to call ourselves feminists:
- The gender pay gap still exists
- There is an under-representation of women in government
- There is an over-representation of women in poverty
- Worldwide girls are still being denied an education
- Gender related violence is still a huge challenge, as highlighted by this
- Despite more than 24,000 girls being at risk of FGM, a practice that’s been illegal in the UK for 24 years, there is yet to be a single conviction
- Honour killings and forced marriages are still a problem in the UK
- ‘Sex object culture’ persists in our media
- Women are most likely to be victims of modern-day slavery
As well as the heart-breaking social injustices women face there are other issues, inextricably bound to my life, that make me feminist. At the moment I’m feeling pretty peeved that I’m expected to take time off work to look after our kids when they’re sick. My husband’s workplace is less than understanding about him sharing the responsibility of childcare. It’s frustrating not least because I feel conflicted by the fact that *whispers* I want to be at work! I love my job (most of the time) but it’s hard to be a good teacher when I’m taking huge chunks of time off to look after my poorly babies. I’d much prefer to split the childcare 50/50. That doesn’t mean I love my children any less, it just means I trust my husband implicitly with their welfare and I feel entitled to my career. It also means my preferred definition of motherhood doesn’t involve being with my kids every second of the day. I should be able to work without guilt but I live in a society that often demands I’m the emotional and domestic caregiver in my family.
The religious and cultural sexism I experienced growing up also plays a big part in shaping my political thinking. I was stifled by rigid gender roles and an assumption that I shouldn’t aspire to anything more than the ‘pinnacle’ of the female experience: marriage and motherhood. I was taught that feminism was a dirty word and the significance of women’s rights was undermined, but that only furthered my interest. So for me feminism isn’t some abstract concept that poses silly questions like can mummy bloggers be feminist, nor does it only argue for the rights of women half way across the world who have it so bad that we should be ashamed of the human race. No, feminism is what saved me. And the fact that it was my husband who taught me what it really means feels like a pretty sweet victory.
We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY? – Caitlin Moran,How to Be a Woman
Let’s cut the jargon
I think misunderstandings about feminism occur because it’s inaccessible. Apparently some feminists find this view patronising. Well, they should probably get over that. As is reflected in all spheres of society, the economically and culturally privileged become the voice of the majority. The voice of feminism is no different – it’s overwhelmingly white and middle class. As was hinted by some of the commentary after Mumsnet-gate, feminism comes across as exclusive and elitist – not just in terms of the issues that are focused on, but also the language used. Overly complicated academic language and jargon puts off, if not completely excludes, those who should be empowered. I’ve been to university and I’m used to reading academic literature, but I still find a lot of feminist writing comes across as self-righteous and intimidating. It makes me picture an old man sneering over his glasses and telling me to “hand back the feminism dear, it’s far too complicated for you to understand”. I know some feminists would turn their noses up at my rather enthusiastic use of Moran quotes, but I couldn’t care less. People need to be less territorial about feminist thinking. We need to share and we need to play nicely. Yes there is a place for academia, but if women are to understand the relevance of feminism, and if they’re to stop feeling embarrassed by the concept, then it needs to be accessible.
What does being a feminist mean?
So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.
a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist – Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman
There seems to be a divide within feminism about who is entitled to call themselves a feminist. Personally I think that the very principle of feminism is so simple that we shouldn’t be quibbling. As Natalie Reed puts it, “to insist on being skeptical of feminism is to insist on being skeptical of the concept that women are not inferior human beings, and therefore to posit that men are indeed the superior sex. Or that we should not be thinking or talking about social and cultural treatment of gender, and that it is all fine as is”. As far as I’m concerned anyone willing to acknowledge the indisputable truth that men and women are equal is entitled to call themselves a feminist. But others argue that feminism is a political ideology necessitating a certain degree of activism and an adherence to ideological principles. Well, there’s certainly more I could and should be doing for the cause, but that is true of all human rights issues. Life gets in the way. It’s a shit excuse, but it’s true. But unlike other human rights issues that I support and care about, I feel the very act of identifying myself as feminist is a political statement. I know that if I told people I was deeply concerned about the rights of those with disabilities, or children, or dolphins, or badgers, I’d get a lot less stick than for being vocal about my unwavering belief in the liberation of all women. It’s a strange one, that. Strange and utterly depressing.
The issue of activism does play on my mind though. I want to be doing more and I feel it’s my social responsibility to raise awareness of what feminism is about, especially when I see my students flinching at the mere word. Once my boys are a little older and a little less dependent I’d love to be more active in raising awareness about gender inequality. But for now I will continue to embrace and discuss feminism. I will continue to use this blog to expose the religious and cultural sexism I experienced, in the hope that it reaches one of the many girls and women who are in the incredibly lonely situation I was. I will continue to discuss feminism with students who are socialised to disregard gender equality issues. For now, that will be my activism. I won’t be burning my bra, or plaiting my armpit hair, or hating on men, or jabbing fingers at women who do motherhood differently from me because none of that is relevant or helpful.
Feminism is simply the fight for gender equality. I refuse to accept that it’s a dirty word or an unnecessary label. It’s what set me free. If I’d been a little less active, a little less rebellious and a lot less feminist my life would be so different right now. I’d have been bullied into leaving university in my first year, I would have submitted to an arranged marriage, covered my hair and lived a life in which I had little to no control. Luckily I had just enough confidence to hang on at university. A few months later I met my husband and my tiny seed of self-belief grew beyond measure. He taught me that I’m born equal to all men. He taught me to be fierce and demanding and uncompromising with regards to my gender. He taught me I should never apologise for being a woman.
One of the reasons I love reading mummy blogs is because
I’m nosy I love reading about the diverse experiences and opinions of mothers, but I won’t lie, the blogging angst directed at feminism this past couple of weeks has made me a bit ragey. More importantly though it’s put fire in my belly. We should all be made to question our ethics and values otherwise we become passive and inert to the reality of life around us. So, YES, I am a feminist. As is my husband. And I truly hope my children grow up to embrace feminism too – not because I want to restrict them to a label, nor for some selfish desire that they become political clones of me, but because I think the principle of political, economic, and social equality between the sexes is essential in a humane society. Fighting for women’s rights is in no way being overly dramatic or militant, neither does it emasculate men or negate the problems they face. Feminism goes some way to remove the blinkers that society imposes on us. Feminism is about liberating women from the physical and psychological shackles of sexism. Feminism is about allowing men and women to build healthy, respectful relationships based on that fundamental, incontrovertible truth: we are equal.
Littlee and Bean: I’m a mummy and a blogger. Sometimes I’m all about the saccharine, other times I’m all about the rage. Motherhood doesn’t define me but right now it’s the biggest part of me. I record moments with my boys, from the sacred to the profane. I discuss how I’m trying to find that elusive work/life balance. And I reflect on how breaking free from fundamentalist religion and sexism has shifted my horizons and my psychology. (https://twitter.com/mummytolittlee)
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