“Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” ~ bell hooks
I used to be a bad feminist.
Like, a really bad feminist.
In that I called myself a feminist, because I thought that’s what everybody did who thought that women had as much right to vote, and go to school, and own their own things as men, but further than that I wasn’t actually a feminist at all.
In my defence I didn’t start off with any role models. My parents think feminism harmed women even in so far as they don’t recognise equal employment rights as being a good thing. They think that the goals of feminism should have started and ended with the suffragette movement. They don’t believe that women should hold positions of authority. And my dad referred to the man in any heterosexual relationship, heterosexual relationships being the only kind he recognises, as ‘the main one’.
But they didn’t like me dating a Muslim boy because they believe that Islam is oppressive to women. They know this because it says so in the Quran. A book they’ve never read.
They were more okay with dating a Sikh boy because there have never been any Sikh suicide bombers. What do you think? Google it.
Anyway, my parents were anti-feminist, my sister aspired to be Malibu Barbie, and if any of my extended family were any more enlightened I certainly never noticed.
I grew up on a street with forty-six houses in seven of which it was well-known that the men beat their wives. Everyone knew this because they’d heard the fighting and the screaming, and seen the bruising. And everyone blamed the women for not suffering in absolute silence and thus making them have to be aware of the situation.
But then at this point it still wasn’t a criminal offence to rape your wife in this country.
Anyway, I knew that I didn’t agree with most of that but as I got older I didn’t really think about it much. Because nobody had ever made me feel like I was unequal, or consciously unequal might be a better way of putting it, because looking back now I can definitely see where I was being treated unequally. And because I was benefiting from the status quo.
I was really pretty when I was younger.
Like, random men bought me bottles of champagne and randomly paid for my groceries when I was next in line at the supermarket pretty.
And, like, random women never used to waste their time waiting for me to speak before making up their minds that they definitely didn’t like me pretty.
Except that I never used to spend all that much time with other women. And the most of the women I did spend time with where just like me.
Because for most of my life most of my friends have been male, and most of the courses I’ve taken have been male dominated, as have most of the activities – debating, Muay Thai boxing, jujitsu, local politics – I’ve participated in, and my first real job was in an ultra competitive, almost exclusively male industry.
So, anyway, being pretty and constantly surrounded by – for the most part heterosexual – men I for a while became used to being the centre of attention, getting everything my own way all the time, and being treated as though I were the most witty, attractive, and interesting person in whatever room I happened to walk in to.
And while this validation was more than making up for the lack of it that I’d received from my father – and is still chiefly the reason that I’m not half as damaged by the relationship that I had with my parents than I might have been – not to mention giving me an ego the size of Jupiter, it was easy to dismiss the casual sexism that came along with it as being trivial, irrelevant, or simply meaningless banter.
And I’ve been good at working and at fighting. And for the most part this has come easily to me.
And so because I was young, and thoughtless, and unaware I couldn’t imagine why it should be any harder for other women than it was for me; or if I could I thought the solution was for them to be more like me and the women I knew and less like, well, ‘other women’. I was equal just because I had decided to be and everyone else simply needed to do the same.
Shamefully it took seven years of working in social welfare law, involvement in an excruciatingly frustrating attempt to set up a refuge for male victims of domestic violence, and witnessing the bizarre and hurtful reactions of people who I had simply assumed would be supportive after I was attacked before I decided that I should probably become a proper feminist.
Even then I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it.
What I saw of feminism and other feminists didn’t sit well with me.
The only feminism that I’d seen, the kind of feminism that you can’t avoid even if you aren’t consciously looking for it and seeking to learn about it, was filled with rage and aggression. And I was repelled by it.
And I told myself that this was because the approach of those angry feminists was off putting.
In reality I was scared by them and didn’t want to admit it.
Scared because their anger too closely resembled the burning rage of my own that I’d spent the best part of a decade trying to suppress and refusing to acknowledge because I’d thought that was the only way to deal with it. Scared because they were angry for all the same reasons, big and small, as I was. And scared because if all this anger on the part of all these women was legitimate then I’d been doing life wrong, evaluating the world incorrectly – and then I wasn’t as equal as I thought I was.
I still try my best to limit my exposure to this kind of feminism. I’m still only just beginning to work through dealing with my own anger about the things that have happened to me as an individual and that on its own has been playing havoc with my mental and emotional stability. I find that if I spend any significant amount of time engaging with anyone else’s anger about the same issues, not mention collective anger about women’s shared experiences, it becomes too overwhelming and triggering so that I can’t evaluate what I think and feel about it rationally.
On one level I feel slightly guilty about that but for the most part I think I have to take care of my own broken brain before I can start worrying about the rest of the world. Incidentally I’m completely comfortable with righteous anger on any other set of issues.
But then all this mental health stuff happened.
And as a part of addressing it I’ve had to work through how I feel about my gender and sexuality and acknowledge the way this has contributed to my sense of identity and my place in the world.
And there’s no way you can do all that while continuing to avoid thinking about the issue of feminism.
And in thinking about feminism I finally, belated, arrived upon the realisation that believing yourself to be equal isn’t even half the battle. You don’t become equal simply by declaring that you are.
Being equally, really equal, means that you get treated equally.
And I haven’t been and I continue not to be because the society, not to mention the world, that I live in does not consider women to be equal to men.
I’ve got half the jobs I’ve ever had because of the way I look. Which means that those jobs weren’t open to women who didn’t look like me or to any women at all on merit. And this has surprised nobody. Because there’s still a large enough swathe of the workforce where it’s culturally even if not legally acceptable to treat women as other than equal.
When I lived in the flat almost every time I went anywhere or came back from anywhere on my own I was followed and harassed. Until I had to develop a pattern of walking past the casino round the corner every time I went out, even if it wasn’t on my way, so that the bouncers could lose the jerks for me. That happened because there are still a huge number of people who are culturally conditioned to believe that they’re entitled to do that regardless of how unpleasant and unsafe it is for me because I’m a woman and how I feel doesn’t matter. The fact that the rest of the time those people don’t mix in the same circles as me doesn’t make this any less of a social problem. Can you imagine how those men must treat the women who are unfortunate enough to be in their lives every day?
A state that considers women equal wouldn’t systematically cover up the sexual abuse of vulnerable women and girls to protect powerful men.
In a state that considered me equal I would be able to report the things that have happened to me with the confidence that something would come of it other than the total destruction of the rest of my mental health.
In a society where everyone believed that I was equal I wouldn’t have spent most of my life refusing to be treated by male doctors because I couldn’t get them to take me seriously because of my gender.
And then in France they’re passing a law that says women can’t wear what they want. In Italy if a woman was wearing jeans it’s not rape. In Nigerian girls are being kidnapped for trying to get an education. In Pakistan they’re being shot. In parts of America women can’t safely access contraception or abortion. And Saudi Arabia is, well, Saudi Arabia.
All of which is worth desiring to change regardless of whether I can find a healthy way to process being angry about it.
So I have embraced the concept of feminism and the idea of myself as being a feminist. A proper one this time.
I’m fine with the idea that I’m an equal but I’m going to keep calling myself a feminist until I can go wherever I want and do whatever I want safely in the knowledge that the rest of the world thinks of me that way as well.
Now I just need to decide what exactly it is that I’m going to do about it.