Archive for equality

Why Saying “I’m Not a Feminist” is NEVER an Okay Thing To Do

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism in the world.

There are many different reasons for this, of course.  Feminism is a complicated topic.  It’s hard to look at approximately 50% of the world’s population — women of all races, all nationalities, all ages, all sexual orientations, all income brackets, all political affiliations, all education levels, etc — and define a simple, clear message that everyone can agree upon.  Especially since the advent of 3rd wave feminism, there are countless splinter and “niche” groups working under the greater feminist umbrella, and often working directly at cross-purposes to one another, or talking about completely different topics.  In an age where information is readily accessed with the click of a mouse, we’re faced with an overwhelming glut of information regarding feminism, and very little of it is concise or clear or speaks with a single voice representing all of us.

But when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, feminism *does* have one simple, easily expressed goal:  gender equality, and the elimination of sexism.  We disagree (sometimes vehemently) on how best to *achieve* that goal, of course, but the goal remains the same for all.  And when you strip it back to that — when you say, “gender equality” instead of “feminism” — there are very few people who’ll argue against it.

And this is why the way we express ourselves about feminism, and the way we self-identify, needs to see some serious change.

If you believe that sexism is a bad thing, and that a person’s gender does not determine their worth, then you’re a feminist.  You may not agree with *every* feminist group (no one does — there are simply too many of them out there) — but you’re a feminist, of some description.  That’s all there is to it.  Saying “I’m not a feminist”, then, is a lie — and worse, it’s hurting feminists (and people) everywhere.

When most people say “I’m not a feminist”, it’s because they’re misguided about what feminism means.  They’ve bought in to a harmful stereotype — the man-hating, (often) lesbian, radical feminist who burns bras, thinks men should be slaves, and considers all penetrative sex to be rape.  This is a stereotype that was created by (and has been largely perpetuated by) the oppressing class, as a way of discrediting the perfectly logical claim that women are people and should be treated as such.  It’s a caricature, designed to make feminists look laughable and ridiculous and unfeminine, and unsexy, and unlovable, and criminal.  So when you characterize all feminists this way, it’s no different than characterizing all Scots as “cheap”, or all Irishmen as “drunks”.  You’re buying in to a bigoted stereotype, rather than learning about the individual people.

And when you buy in to that bigoted stereotype, and say “I’m not a feminist”, you’re also lumping yourself in with the people who actually ARE bigots.  You’re aligning yourself with the people who believe that women’s rights should be taken away so we can go back to the “good old days”.  You’re aligning yourself with sexual predators and rapists who don’t want their victims to have rights or be treated as people.  You’re aligning yourself with the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting an education.

Do you really want to be on the same side as those people?

I’m not saying that you should blindly help any cause that identifies itself as “feminist”.  There’s no “supreme guiding council of feminist elders”, and no peer-review process, to determine the validity of any particular group’s claim to feminism.  There are plenty of self-identified “feminist” groups out there who have views that may not, in fact, be particularly helpful ones.  There are radfem groups who call themselves feminist but believe in the subjugation of men (I happen to strongly dispute their use of the term “feminist”, since by definition any group that advocates sexism is not, in fact, feminist — but that’s an issue that’s still considered up for debate in the broader feminist community).  There are feminist groups who are anti-choice, or who align themselves with religious organizations, or who are sex-worker exclusionary, or trans-exclusionary, or classist/racist/etc in their aims, and I disagree vehemently with all of those things.  And there are many feminist groups advocating for very specific, niche causes that may or may not be relevant to a particular person’s life — for example, a group dedicated to eliminating sexism in the medical profession might have a very good point, but not be relevant to me personally, as I’m an arts worker, not a doctor (dammit, Jim!).  So just calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t make you right, and it’s still important to research the motivations and background of any group you’re looking to join up with or support.

One of the biggest groups who commonly say “I’m not a feminist” are, unfortunately, men.  They’ll say, “I believe in women’s rights and equality, but I can’t be a feminist ’cause I’m a guy”.  And that’s just ridiculously misguided.  Not only is it perfectly possible for a guy to believe in gender equality (thus making him a feminist), it’s supremely important for people who are NOT women, who are NOT a part of the oppressed class, to take up the banner of feminism and make a conscious choice to support feminist aims.  Because it’s the oppressing class (in this case, males) who has the majority of the power — and thus, it’s males who have the most power to change things.  It’s been proven time and again that it’s easier for men (and especially white men) to get top positions at most jobs — they’re the bosses, the ones in charge of salaries, the ones in charge of hiring, and the ones in charge of policy.  They’re the majority of the politicians.  They’re the educators at universities.  They’re the police and the lawyers and the judges who enforce and influence the laws.  So if they’re working with feminist aims in mind (ie, a CEO who implements fair hiring policies, or a politician who fights for women’s reproductive rights), they’re in a position to do much more to help the cause than almost anyone else would be capable of.  They’re the ones who, by and large, have the ability to tip the scales and start the workings of a fair society.

Another group that commonly denies feminism is people of colour.  This is a more problematic issue — people of colour are already a part of an oppressed class, whether they are female or male or anything in-between.  They’re already fighting for fair wages, fair representation, and fair application of the law.  And many feminist groups are, unfortunately, very whitewashed.  Because it’s white people who have traditionally had more education & wealth, it’s white women who largely spearheaded the early feminist movements, and it’s white women who have remained at the forefront.  Many feminist groups are blatantly racist (or at least racially insensitive), and when you bring religion into the equation (people of colour are traditionally more attached to their faith, for a variety of reasons not worth going into here), it gets even more difficult — many feminist groups actively attack religious organizations, without regard to the people who worship that particular god, and this can be a massive turn-off for otherwise pro-gender-equality types.  And because feminism has historically been white, it’s difficult for people of colour to break that barrier — too many, already exhausted from spending a lifetime being oppressed for the colour of their skin, walk into a feminist meeting only to see a sea of white faces and no one who looks remotely like themselves, and they feel automatically excluded.  It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way.  In the end, though, we’ll never be able to make feminism more POC-friendly without having some people of colour standing in those rooms.  Some are going to have to break down those barriers, and walk into those rooms full of white faces, and decide they’re going to stay.  And those of us who *are* white need to recognize this difficulty, and welcome such people with open arms, so that more of them will feel comfortable saying “I’m a feminist”.

What I find, personally, the most painful, are those women who believe that identifying as feminist will make them seem unattractive.  They’re victims of fear — fear of being hated, fear of being spurned, fear of being alone.  These are the people who media depictions of feminists are directly attacking, and directly oppressing.  I just want to take those women and say, “It’s okay! What they said on TV was a lie — you can be a feminist and still be beautiful, and feminine, and a stay-at-home-mom, and people will still love you”.  And they tell me that they’re “not as strong” as I am, or that they “don’t belong”.  And that’s so wrong, because you don’t have to be an exception — or an exceptional person — to be a feminist.  You just have to believe in equality.

In most media depictions, it’s the loudest and most strident voices who get the most airtime.  These are the people who are easy to pick out of a crowd, and they give entertainment and good sound bites.  They’re also the people who are easiest to ridicule and discredit.  So we need more of the “normal” people, the ones with perfectly rational and moderate views (the ones that the majority of us espouse) to stand up and say clearly, “I’m a feminist”.  We need to drown out those radical voices, and get voices of reason to be standing at the forefront.  Because until we can “normalize” feminism, it’s never going to be fully successful.

And it really should be perfectly “normal” to believe that all people should have equal rights, right?

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Women in Elevators, Stray Dogs, and the Privileged White Male Delusion

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

As I’m sure all of my regular readers are well aware, I am far from being a delicate flower of dainty, ineffectual womanhood.  I don’t expect men to open doors for me, carry heavy bags, or take the driver’s seat when we go out (unless it’s their car, in which case I’ll probably still ask if they want me to drive; or I’m drunk, in which case I’ll make sure they’re sober before crawling into the back seat and falling asleep for the ride).  I don’t want them to walk me home late at night, or defend my honor when I get hit on at the bar.  I am deeply hostile to anyone who insinuates that there are things men can do which I cannot (unless those things involve physically having a penis, in which case just let me get my strap-on and we’ll just see how much I can’t do).  When it comes to traditionally “masculine” pursuits, I’m often far ahead of my male friends:  I own my own power tools, am pretty good with carpentry, can manage basic plumbing and electrics with ease, drive a standard, can carry my own body weight, spent nine years training and competing in martial arts, and regularly handle animals (snakes, lizards, rats, etc) that send a lot of men running and squealing pathetically.

I’ve also been the victim of multiple sexual assaults and attempted sexual assaults, and am continually harassed and accosted by men who don’t seem to know what is socially appropriate and what is just plain threatening and creepy.  Just being capable of defending yourself doesn’t make you immune — being female and attractive (in that order; there are plenty of men who only look at the first criteria) means that it doesn’t matter how capable you are, you’re going to be a victim at some point in your life.

So when I read about Rebecca Watson‘s encounter in an elevator with a creepy dude who didn’t know where the line was, I thought, “yeah, that guy was totally out of line.”  I didn’t have to consider it:  I know what it’s like to be stuck in a small space with an unfamiliar man who clearly finds you attractive and might or might not want to do something awful because of it.  Nevermind that I’m a black belt in karate and 90% of men, even if bigger and stronger than me, wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of successfully defeating me in an even fight — the fear is always there, because it’s impossible to know if this particular guy happens to also be a trained martial artist, or maybe he’s too drugged up to notice if I kick him in the balls, or maybe he’s got a gun tucked into his pocket, or maybe he’s got five friends waiting just around the corner to help him out.  It’s impossible to know, and the unknown is scary.

So I empathized with Rebecca’s situation, and figured that most other people would, too.  Elevator Guy was out of line, and everyone should understand that — right?

Well, apparently not.  The blogosphere has exploded with commentary on the incident, with many people (even women!) saying that Rebecca’s uneasiness about the situation was misplaced, that she had no reason to be afraid, and that she’s maligning the poor guy, who was just trying to be “friendly”.  (A side note to the men here:  it’s never “friendly” to approach a woman you don’t know at 4am and ask her out.  Especially in a small, confined space).  Richard Dawkins (yes, author of “The God Delusion”) has even said that she shouldn’t have been worried, because it’s easy to just push a button and get off the elevator at the next floor — threat averted, nothing to worry about.

Yes, really.

So I was getting all ready to write a long and rambling post, trying to explain to the unenlightened just what it is like to be in that sort of a situation.  Trying to think of some analogous situation that a male might find himself in, where he would feel threatened and unsure of what to do.  Trying to explain just *why*, in an enlightened society where we try to treat everyone as equals, regardless of gender, men should go out of their way to make women feel unthreatened by them.

And then I went on Scienceblogs and realized that Greg Laden had already written such a post, so I’m simply going to link to his example.

The most important point that needs to be made here, I think, is that for all that we want to believe that we live in a society of equals, we really don’t.  The white, heterosexual male is still the privileged “norm”, while anything else is subject to discrimination and abuse in varying shapes and forms.  And for every enlightened, completely non-threatening man out there, there are many who still subscribe to a belief that women are fundamentally different, lesser, and exist solely for male pleasure — even if they protest otherwise and, intellectually, can find no logical basis for such behaviours.  Media brainwashing and centuries of social conditioning aren’t overcome in a single generation, and it’s going to take a long time before equality truly exists (if it even can be achieved).

I’m not even saying that men who would sexually harass, assault, or rape a woman are in the majority.  In fact, I think the opposite — it’s only a small percentage of men who constitute enough of a problem to be an annoyance (people like Dawkins, perhaps, who might make sexist comments now and then, but aren’t truly bad people or prone to doing anything violent), and an even smaller percentage who could be considered a real threat (the sort who might actually grope, threaten, or attempt to rape a woman).  But considering that we might encounter dozens of different people on any given day, the laws of probability suggest that we’ll eventually encounter one of those truly dangerous elements.  And so we must always be on our guard, always prepared against the day when that guy in the elevator with us isn’t just going to make an awkward pass, he’s going to actually try to do something.  And by the same token, men must always be prepared to prove that they’re NOT a part of that tiny percentage of whom we should be afraid.

While I’m on the topic, guys:  here’s a handy list of a few things that women (especially the attractive ones) find incredibly annoying and/or threatening and creepy:

  • Staring.  If you want to look, be discreet about it.  Staring directly at a woman will make her feel threatened, as though you’re watching her and possibly planning to do something nasty.
  • Catcalling and whistling.  It’s demeaning, not complimentary.  It turns the woman into an object, valued only for her physical attractiveness.  Being constantly reminded that society views you as only a pair of boobs with legs attached is not a nice thing.  Catcalling is especially annoying when done from a moving vehicle, because there’s no chance for the victim to respond with a satisfying “fuck off, asshole”.
  • Approaching a woman just to tell her she looks pretty.  This includes telling her you like her hair, that she has the prettiest eyes, etc.  Attractive women get this ALL. THE. TIME.  Chances are you’re not the first — nor even the second or the third — guy to do this to her today.  And no, she doesn’t want to talk to you.  If she wanted to talk to you, she’d walk up and start the conversation.  The only exception to this rule is if you’re in a bar, nightclub, or other “singles’ spot” where women might conceivably be going to meet new people.  In that case, make eye contact and smile from a safe distance away.  If she responds positively, then move in with a compliment.
  • Standing too close.  Unless you’re in a situation where it’s totally unavoidable (really crowded bus, etc), don’t stand any closer to a woman than you would to an unfamiliar man at the urinal.  If you’d feel uncomfortable standing that close to a pantsless man while you’re both peeing, she probably feels uncomfortable standing that close to you when you’re fully clothed.  If you were pantsless she’d run screaming.
  • Walking too close.  Similarly to above: if you’re walking and find yourself falling into step with a nearby woman, either speed up to get ahead of her, or slow down and let her go on alone.  If you’re overtaking a slow-walking woman, leave plenty of space when you pass (crossing to the other side of the street is an option to consider if you’re in a situation that seems to have especial potential for creepiness, such as late at night on an otherwise quiet street).
  • Making a pass at a woman while she’s working.  Waitresses, saleswomen, baristas, female police officers, librarians, etc.  It doesn’t matter what her job is.  She’s at work, and is probably only smiling at you because she gets paid to be nice to the customers.  If you want to strike up a conversation with her, pick a neutral topic — the weather, or some piece of local news.  See how she responds to that, and let *her* guide the conversation to other topics, if she wants to.  She’s at a serious disadvantage in this social encounter, because being dismissive towards you might get her disciplined or fired for being “rude” to the customers.  Respect that and don’t be pushy.
  • Blocking the exit.  Even in a situation where it’s socially acceptable to approach a woman (a bar, for example), never corner her.  Leave her with at least one direction (better if you can leave more than one) in which she can simply walk away, without having to squeeze past you.  The same goes for situations where you’re not approaching and talking to her — if she’s standing in the bus shelter, don’t stand blocking the door, or if she’s sitting in the back of the train car, don’t stand blocking the aisle.
  • Following.  If you notice that you seem to be taking all the same turns as a woman, try to find an alternate route, or just wait a minute and let her get a little ways ahead of you.  If you got off the bus at the same stop, went left, and then turned down the exact same side street?  Stop and pretend to tie your shoelace or something so that she can put a “safe” distance between you.