10 reasons not to be afraid of feminism

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“I call myself a feminist. Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?” – The Dalai Lama

“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back” – Malala Yousafzai

Feminism seems to be something that sparks a lot of heated debate although I’m not really sure why as essentially it’s just about equality between men and women and I think that’s hard to argue against. But to help clarify things I thought I’d present ten reasons why people don’t need to be afraid of feminism.

1. Not all words ending in -ism are bad

Yes ‘Nazism’, ‘Stalinism’ and ‘terrorism’ are definitely some bad -isms but this doesn’t make all words ending in -ism are inherently evil. If you do google-search for words ending in ‘ism’ you will probably find more rubbish examples than good ones, but without ‘ism’ we couldn’t have ‘heroism’ or ‘idealism’. Heroism (art by B. Potts)

2. Feminism remains necessary as people are still treated differently because of their gender

Even just looking at things from a Western perspective although women may have equality in theory it doesn’t always amount to equality in practice. I could go on about female representation in public spheres like the government, legislature and judiciary but that would probably add another thousand words to this post so I’ll just invite you to check out Laura Bates’s everyday sexism project to get an idea of why feminism is still required in the so-called developed world. Every woman I’ve spoken to about this has at least one story of when they have been made to feel uncomfortable by a man in a way that wouldn’t have happened had they not been a woman.

Some men, and definitely not all, because most men I know wouldn’t dream of behaving in this way, but some men think it’s alright to objectify women, to grab their bottoms, to shout obscenities at them from moving vehicles, to comment on their tits and genuinely treat them as objects for their amusement. I suspect that some of the men that do this would actually be quite shocked by how much this sort of thing can really get under a person’s skin and make us feel uncomfortable. So a comment on our booty might be meant kindly but please forgive us if we react badly, from our experiences of this sort of thing happening quite frequently we are likely to be more sensitive about these things and, perhaps not wholly surprisingly, we will take personal comments well… personally.

This kind of unwanted attention is more likely to happen to women but yes this does also happen to men. Behaviour that intimidates, harasses or upsets anyone in this way, whatever gender they are, isn’t acceptable.

3. Feminism isn’t about hating-men

Being a feminist doesn’t mean you hate men. It’s not like racism (another bad -ism) where you want to assert the superiority of one kind of person over another, so being a feminist doesn’t mean you believe in female superiority and eagerly await the subjugation of all men to the complete domination of women.

Alright some people who call themselves feminists might want that but they have sort of missed the point and shouldn’t be considered representative of all feminists. Feminism is actually about wanting gender equality for both men and women.

Men hating (art by B Potts)

4. Feminism doesn’t mean all men are rapists

Feminism often focuses on rape because this is a problem, it happens far too frequently, often goes unreported or isn’t always taken as seriously as it should be. Feminists highlight the dangers of rape because it’s a terrible thing no-one should have to experience, it doesn’t mean feminists think every man is a rapist.

A bit of a tangent about the nail varnish thing…

There was a bit of fuss recently after some chaps invented a nail polish that changed colour when dipped in a drink that had been spiked. At first everyone thought this was great because helping people not be raped is surely a good thing. Then there was a bit of a backlash from some of the angry feminists types who tend to put people off the whole thing, who were getting up in the grill of the inventors faces and saying things like ‘how dare you assume rape is just women’ and ‘why should the onus be on women not to get raped, why not figure out how to stop people thinking rape is okay’.

I would like to respond to these two points. Firstly why assume men wouldn’t wear nail varnish and even if they don’t want to that doesn’t stop this being useful. If you discovered a cure for cancer that could only help ginger-haired people but couldn’t cure cancer for everyone it’d be pretty dastardly to say to ginger-haired people sorry you can’t have this until we’ve figured out a fix for everyone.

To the second argument it’s not like the inventors were saying ‘hey it’s okay to rape anyone who doesn’t use our nail varnish’ it’s simply that they thought they could do something to address a serious problem which sadly exists in the actual world we live in as opposed to the utopia we’d all like where rape doesn’t happen. Saying the inventors of rape-deterrent nail varnish are saying it’s up to women not to get raped is like saying I should be able to leave my bike unlocked in Geneva outside without anyone taking it. Yes I should be able to leave my bike unlocked because stealing my bike would be wrong. However as some people would steal my bike whether or not I think it’s wrong I’m grateful someone invented bike locks.

5. Admitting a need for feminism doesn’t mean pretending there are no other problems in the world

Sexism happens. It’s not the only awful thing that happens in the world. However the existence of other terrible things doesn’t mean sexism doesn’t exist and that it isn’t a problem that shouldn’t be addressed. It’s not a competition, it’s just about trying to improve the world in whatever way we can.

Feminism is about addressing discrepancies between genders and achieving real gender equality will help some people. It won’t solve poverty, famine and disease. But we aren’t ranking these things. Otherwise we would all have to agree on the one most single awful thing in the world and say we can’t even consider other issues until this was resolved. It would be like saying the police shouldn’t investigate kidnap cases until all murder cases have been solved.

Sadly there are many bad things in the world, happily there are lots of good people that want to work in different ways to try and make things better.

6. Feminism doesn’t mean women can never wash, shave, put on nice clothes or make-up

Feminism means women are free to make a choice about whether they wash, choose to shave, what clothes they wear or whether they want to apply make-up, and that no-one should feel they have to do these things just for the benefit of someone else. Although, actually, all genders should try and wash occasionally, for the benefit of your fellow humans who otherwise have to smell you.

Just last night I was painting my nails whilst reading a book on women’s human rights. This doesn’t make me less of a woman or a rubbish feminist because first of all, it’s not an either/or situation and second of all, I believe it’s up to me to be a ‘woman’ in whatever way I choose. Sometimes that involves painting my nails, sometimes it involves bumming around in jogging bottoms all day. It’s my call.

Not washing (art by B Potts)

7. Feminism isn’t about denying bad things happen to men

Feminism is about levelling the current power imbalance between genders. It tends to focus on women because on the whole the power imbalance is against women. However it doesn’t mean denying that issues which more often affect women than men, also affect men and can be perpetrated by women.

For example there are serious issues about disbelief of male victims of rape or domestic abuse by people who don’t believe this could happen. This isn’t something to laugh off, it’s a serious issue and changing attitudes towards these victims is all part of feminism.

Someone suggested that feminism should be renamed equalism so as not to irritate people so much. I see their point in that feminism is really an issue of equality it’s just that if we don’t give it a gendered terminology then it wouldn’t necessarily be clear as to what feminism is about.

I’m a humanist in that I believe everyone should be treated equally regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion or any other category you want to throw in there. I’m also a feminist because feminism is addressing one of these areas of discrimination and if I say feminist then we all, more or less, know what I’m talking about.

8. Feminism doesn’t turn all women into victims

Feminism isn’t about the victimisation of women, it’s not about saying women can’t do anything for themselves and that they will always be oppressed by men. It’s about acknowledging there is a problem, raising awareness of the problem in the hope that it might affect change and ultimately working together towards a world where we can say feminism isn’t necessary any more. Feminism can actually be quite empowering by helping people of all genders to realise they shouldn’t have to put up with gender biased behaviour that demoralises and demeans them.

9. You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist

As Emma Watson put it in her recent speech on feminism for the UN “Men – I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.” There are already a lot of pretty cool men who would identify themselves as feminists, including: Patrick Stewart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Gosling, Prince Harry and the Dalai Lama. 

As a lot of problems of the sort reported on everyday sexism stem from the way men treat women then actually we need more men to step up and make it clear that they think treating women as anything other than human beings is not okay. The more men there are acknowledging the need for gender equality the less feminism can be accused of being a vehicle for angry women to rant about pointless issues (which isn’t really what it’s about at all).

Equalism (art by B. Potts)

10. Feminists can take a joke

Some people think feminists can’t take a joke but that’s simply not true, provided your joke is funny. If your joke is highly sexualised about me and makes me and others in the vicinity uncomfortable, then it’s not really a joke. Jokes about rape are also never going to be funny, there’s a reason why people groan when such jokes are told and that’s because they are awful. Those telling them are going more for shock factor than comedic value and if that’s the best they’ve got in their comedic arsenal then maybe leave the joke telling to actually funny people or look up some new material online.

And one for luck…

11. You can still open a door for a woman without being anti-feminist

There’s no reason for common courtesy to go out of the window just because women want equality with men. No feminist is going to get mad because a man opens a door for her, just don’t get upset if a woman also wants to open a door for a man. You can still be nice to someone without trampling all over them and there’s no need to make this a gender thing. Surely it’s nice if you hold the door open for whoever is behind you or struggling with an armful of books or whatever, regardless of gender.

Opening door (art by B Potts)

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The ambition to be human

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“It comes to this,” Tarrou said almost casually; “what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”

“Perhaps,” the doctor answered. “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”

“Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.”

– The Plague by Albert Camus

As promised to one brother I am returning this week to a less heavy-going, non-political, more happy-go-lightly post. This will probably disappoint my other brother but hey ho, you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time.

This week in book club we were discussing Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which led to a discussion about post traumatic stress disorder and then about why some people care more about certain things than others.

There was general acceptance amongst the group, perhaps more readily by some than others, that to shut oneself off from the traumas of the world is an essential human coping mechanism.

I agree it simply isn’t possible to constantly feel for all the tragedies that are enacted out across the globe at any given time. Right now, current tragedies include the two Malaysian passenger air line disasters: one missing one shot down; the Air Algerian plane crash; the situation in Syria; the fact that there are now estimated to be more refugees than at any other time in history; the situation in Gaza; the rise of Boko Haram and the missing schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria; travesties of democracy in Cambodia; and Isis’s latest announcement that FGM will be mandatory. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are simply too many awful things for us to focus on at any one time, even if we wanted to, and so we don’t.(Perhaps this post isn’t quite so happy-go-lucky as I had intended after all – sorry bro.)

One book clubber asked does it take a crisis to make us care? Certainly when a crisis takes place many people are great at demonstrating that they do care. When I was a student I worked at a call centre, which often volunteered to man donation phone lines in response to global disasters or for Comic Relief. I took donations from a wide range of individuals, from all walks of life, many of whom giving sums they couldn’t really afford precisely because they did care about what was happening and wanted to help. So people really are wonderful.

And some people dedicate their lives to making the world a better place for others, providing their time, money or skills for the benefit of others. These people are exceptional. These people are saints.

But it doesn’t make the rest of us bad people because we don’t dwell on these things all the time. Yes, there are many terrible things that happen but there are also many wonderful things that happen too and it is important, at times, to hold onto the horror and the beauty. But being able to enjoy life at the same moment in time that someone elsewhere isn’t enjoying life doesn’t make us the antithesis of saints. It makes us human.

If you are a dedicated fan of my blog (a.k.a. my mother) you will be aware that I called the blog fearofthereaper and started all this as part of an ongoing evaluation of how my life is progressing. More often than not my focus tends to be on positive things I have achieved to become the person I want to be, but it is also important to reflect, from time-to-time, on the things I’m less proud of and on the kind of person I do not want to be.

I do not have the ambition to be a saint, I do have the ambition to be a human. Like so many things in my life, this is something I have the power to realise.

Let me give you a recent example: I had just moved to a new area in Geneva, my French was worse than it is now (which still borders on Yoda-like gibberish) and I was walking to the nearest shopping centre when I walked past an elderly woman who called out to me in French.

Thoughts that ran through my head went something like this: oh no, a human being wants to interact with me and I’m not in the mood, she probably wants something of me that I don’t want to give, she might be selling magazine subscriptions, my language skills are so bad I probably won’t understand anyway, someone else is bound to help, not my responsibility.

And I carried on walking. After about 10 metres I turned to look back, saw no-one else had stopped but walked on a bit further. But then it hit me that I didn’t want to be the kind of person that would just ignore someone calling out to them and so I stopped pretending not to hear and turned around and walked back.

I understood enough French to feel guilty when she thanked me for coming to help her (guilty for not stopping straight away) and to understand what she wanted, which turned out to be directions to a place I didn’t know. So it turned out I couldn’t help her but I did wait until we could find someone who could at least speak to her intelligibly in her language and I did, eventually, try.

I believe all humans are capable of both wonderful and terrible things and the capacity for good and let’s not say evil but instead let’s say less-good is something that resides within all of us all of the time.

How much we are influenced by the good over the less-good depends on a lot of factors: what’s going on in our lives, how we are feeling, how others are treating us and so on. Often we can’t control these factors but we can control how we respond. This I think is what it means to be human, if we take being human as deciding to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.