Misconstruing the idea of feminism appears to be a pastime of choice for a disconcerting number people across the Western world. “Feminist” is treated like a dirty word and regarded with a level of suspicion, if not smug ridicule and derision. Unfortunately, much of this treatment arises from those on the political right, and, surprisingly often (in my own experience), men.
This is deeply disconcerting for two reasons: first, it is indicative of the bastardization of a word which, though it once recalled the noble ideals of those who first led the charge for women’s rights around the world, now calls to mind hordes of women donning pink kitten hats—or, worse, very little at all; second, it is symptomatic of the sharp gender divide which still exists when it comes to the legitimate concerns of and for women around the globe. The support of both men and women is imperative to the advance of equality and justice within this sphere. Such clear misunderstandings of the nature of feminism can only be detrimental to women everywhere.
Though not without a little hesitance, I have thus set forth to shed some light, however slight, upon this misunderstanding and clarify what is meant when I say that I am a feminist. (This is not to negate what others deem to be their own understanding of feminism; each person is entitled to their own interpretation. The following description is my own, and I make no grandiose claims to be a voice for all women everywhere.)
When I say I am a feminist, it does not mean I hate men. I bear no animosity towards men on the basis of their sex. It means that I believe in the intrinsic equality of the sexes, morally, intellectually, legally, and socially, and that, as such, women ought to be afforded precisely the same rights and freedoms that are guaranteed to men. Justice and equality are not limited goods in a zero-sum game. Ensuring justice for women will not lessen justice for men, but rather minimize collective injustice, and establishing equality will not undermine any current rights or freedoms, but only reduce superiority and the unequal enjoyment of those freedoms.
When I say that I am a feminist, it does not mean that I believe men and woman are precisely the same. It means that, regardless of their differences, I believe women ought to be granted every single human right granted to men, and that I am horrified that this is not yet a universal reality. It means, further, that I am aware that there exist places in the world where women are considered inferior beings and treated like chattel, where women’s testimonies are considered to be worth half that of their male counterparts, where they are bartered by their fathers as a means of settling disputes, burned by their husbands for unpaid dowries, sold by their brothers for outstanding debts, and where honour killings are still executed. To demand that woman are treated with the intrinsic dignity entitled them as humans is not to be confounded with a demand for “sameness”.
When I say I am a feminist, it does not mean I blame men for all that is wrong in the world. It means that I am pained by the long history of violence, subjugation, and injustice that women have suffered and still suffer at the hands of men, and, though I openly acknowledge the immense accomplishments made by men throughout history, I also recognize that these were, almost without exception, achieved amidst (and sometimes as a result of) gross inequality and injustice.
When I say I am a feminist, it does not mean I believe a repressive patriarchy exists in my own country, but that I acknowledge the draconian patriarchies of countries outside of my own, where fearless women continue to fight, bleed, and die in order to secure for their sisters and daughters the same basic human rights that are granted their brothers and sons at birth, and that to ignore the reality of these women’s struggle is an unforgivable injustice.
When I say I am a feminist, it does not mean that I necessarily disapprove of the practices of any particular country, religion, or people group. Discrimination is, ironically, indiscriminate about where and how it emerges. Rather, being a feminist means I believe that cultural relativism does not justify discrimination against women in or by any country, religion, culture, or group in which it rears its cruel head. Religion and culture have been used to legitimize normative sexism throughout the preponderance of history and yet, although modern sentiment casts a sharp eye upon historical chauvinism, there are those who nonetheless embrace it in its contemporary forms under the guise of cultural tolerance. This is a sickening farce. There is nothing tolerant about accepting intolerance. There is nothing honourable in enabling the suffering of others out of respect of cultural differences. Cuisine and art are culturally relative; justice and equality are not.
When I say I am a feminist, it does not mean that I am disgruntled by the progress that has already been made in women’s rights. It means that I am dissatisfied with what has been done as long as there are women in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Afghanistan, or any other country, who shockingly enjoy fewer rights and freedoms than the generation of women before them. Slow progress forward is tolerable, but retrogression ought to be unacceptable.
When I say I am a feminist, it does not mean that I expect everyone else to label themselves in such a way. I do, however, expect that thoughtful citizens of the 21st century deeply consider the gross injustices and unspeakable horrors experienced by women across the globe every day before deriding the notion of feminism or questioning its indispensability in the modern world. Feminism is necessary as long as inequality and injustice persist.
Curious how can you help, regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a “feminist”? There are hundreds of organizations aimed at assisting women across the world. Donate, volunteer. Speak up. Here are a few of my favourites:
Kiva – A crowdfunding international non-profit aimed at providing microloans and financial access for communities and individuals around the world who would otherwise be unable to receive loans from traditional banking institutions. A shocking 81% of their borrowers are women—students, entrepreneurs, farmers, and business owners. These loans are later repaid and the money recycled and allocated to another deserving borrower. Win, win? Start lending now at https://www.kiva.org.
Malala Fund – Founded by Malala Yousafzai, who, in the unlikely chance you haven’t heard of her, is the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work in securing education for girls—first in Pakistan, her home country, and now across the world—work for which the Taliban shot her in the head. Malala has since set up the Malala Fund and continues to be a fierce advocate for girls’ education. Such an inspiration. Read all about it here: https://malala.org.
Girls Not Brides – This organization aims at combatting the shocking prevalence of child marriage across the world. Not only can you donate, but you can also use your own wedding to help end child marriage by linking your gift registry to Vow to End Child Marriage, or by shopping for wedding rings, dresses, decor, and hotels through their partners. Get married and help save the world? I see no downside. Explore for yourself: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org; https://vowtoendchildmarriage.org.
CAMFED – Fully known as Campaign for Female Education, this organization is pretty self-explanatory, systematically tackling the barriers which keep 33.3 million girls of primary and lower secondary school age out of school in Sub-Sahara Africa alone. Shocked by all of that lost potential? See how you can help: https://camfed.org.
Or maybe you’d like to read more about the first for women’s rights around the world? Here are a few books to get you started:
- The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, by Minky Worden
- I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai
- Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn
- With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote, by Ann Bausum
- Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists, by Jean H. BakerHill