Recently, many people have asked me why I still choose to identify as a feminist, especially since I dislike some of the excesses of contemporary Western feminism. I am wary of those strands of feminism which encourage young women to think of themselves primarily as powerless victims, a school of thought sometimes called “fainting couch feminism.” I reject the idea that Western countries like the US and UK are “rape cultures” (rapists are widely abhorred by the majority of the public in both societies). I am also skeptical of the reality of the wage gap. While women certainly earn less than men, on average, I have yet to see convincing proof that we earn less than men for exactly the same work. I even believe that, in the West, men are in some regards the disadvantaged sex. I share at least two of the concerns voiced by the men’s rights movement: divorced and unmarried fathers are often unjustly deprived of access to their children and male circumcision (a barbaric practice) is legal in most Western countries and widely practiced in the United States.
However, I still believe it is important to fight for women’s rights. On a global scale, far more women than men suffer disadvantages, discrimination and oppression on the basis of their sex. In a wide slew of populous countries, female genital mutilation is commonplace – generally in forms which cause unspeakable lifelong pain and suffering. In many parts of the world, child brides are legal; marital rape is condoned; women are beaten and imprisoned for dressing “immodestly” or doused with acid for not bringing sufficient dowry. Our safety, bodily integrity and health are under threat almost everywhere outside the developed world. Double standards abound. Sky-clad Jain monks live their lives completely naked and are venerated, while women are shamed for the natural functions of our female bodies: made to cover our hair and faces; starved and ostracized as widows; banished to menstrual huts during our periods. We are even denied the right to life itself, simply because of our sex. In India alone, nine million girl babies are missing, the victims of sex-selective abortions, often forced on the mothers.
In the secular West, women have largely achieved legal parity with men and most people support the equality of the sexes. But I fear that some of that support may be only skin deep. A man who has repeatedly expressed complete disdain for women, who has intruded into women’s dressing rooms to ogle half-naked beauty contestants and boasted about forcing his Tic-Tac scented kisses on the unsuspecting (whether this was a confession or mendacious bragging is irrelevant here) is in the White House, attempting to pass laws to restrict women’s access to reproductive health care. Meanwhile, on the left, many mealy-mouthed cultural relativists and apologists for conservative religions are willing to overlook horrific injustices against women so long as the perpetrators are brown-skinned or the customs colorfully “ethnic.” Many are so afraid of appearing racist that they are willing to gloss over crimes against women. As a result, a mass gang of child rapists in Rotherham went unpunished for an extraordinary length of time and there has yet to be a single prosecution for FGM in the UK. Magazines, TV presenters and pundits on the left have been glamorizing modesty garments such as hijab, while some right-wing commentators are nostalgic for an age in which women were restricted to the traditional roles of wife and mother. While people call for boycotts of Israel, we turn a blind eye to the abuses of our “ally” Saudi Arabia, a country whose women are kept in literal slavery. Linda Sarsour, an apologist for sharia, even helped organize the Women’s March. Even in the West, too many people are simply not consistently or wholeheartedly committed to women’s rights and are far too ready to sacrifice the wellbeing of women and girls on the altar of political correctness. Our dignity and freedoms as women are under attack from religious conservatives (of all religions) on the right, cultural relativists on the left.
My feminism is not about demonizing men. I don’t want to fight a battle of the sexes. This is not about men versus women. Women can hold deeply regressive and sexist ideas about other women, while men can be passionate advocates of gender equality. Women can be oppressors of women and men can be our supporters and allies. It’s also not just about the label. I share many ideas and views with those who call themselves gender egalitarians, humanists and even, in some cases, anti-feminists. What people choose to call themselves is less important than what they believe and how they speak and act as a result.
But I remain a feminist because I strongly believe that the sex chromosomes you have inherited (or the sex you choose to transition to) should never be allowed to determine your opportunities in life or your worth as a person. Even in the West, we should not take women’s rights and freedoms for granted. We need to make sure they are consistently upheld and defended. And I’d like to see those same rights and freedoms extended to my sisters all over the world.
Iona Italia is a former academic who now works as a freelance writer, editor, translator and general wordsmith. With a mixture of Scottish and desi ancestry, she has lived in five countries and speaks four languages. Iona is currently based in Buenos Aires, where she teaches Argentine tango and is completing a book on the culture of the dance. You can connect with her on Twitter @IonaItalia