It’s just a word – that’s all. Just a little group of letters that form a little group of sounds, but say it aloud today and you’re sure to provoke a reaction: ‘Feminism’. There it is. Have you rolled your eyes yet? Stifled a yawn? Because feminism, as we all know, is an outdated concept. We’ve achieved equality with men now, more or less. OK, maybe not every country is quite there yet, but on the whole we’re allowed to work if we want to, vote if we want to, own property if we want to – hey, we don’t even have to squeeze ourselves into whalebone corsets and 8kg bustles any more! We can actually wear trousers, or shorts – heck, we can even wear dresses made out of meat now (if we want to).
So what’s all the fuss about? Why has there been this resurgence in books and hashtags and websites and Ted talks about feminism over the past few years? We don’t want to burn our bras any more (they’re pretty and we bought them with our own money, thanks very much) and we don’t hate our husbands or resent the fact we’re not men – please can the humourless women with strident signs and hairy armpits pipe down and let us get on with our egalitarian lifestyles?
Well, allow me to let you in on a little secret: you don’t have to burn your bra to be a feminist (historically speaking, bra-burning never actually happened in the name of feminism at all – but that’s another story).
You also don’t have to hate men to be a feminist (in fact, that would make you a misandrist, not a feminist – they’re not the same thing at all, but we’ll get on to how language can perpetuate prejudices later on). You can have a sense of humour, and shave your armpits and love and be financially dependent on your husband, and still be a feminist. Because feminism isn’t about restricting women’s (or men’s) lives – it’s about opening them up. And, contrary to popular opinion, there’s still a long, long way to go.
The pay gap
Much of the most recent dialogue about feminism has been inspired by some high-profile celebrities’ focus on the gender pay gap. In January 2014, singer Beyoncé wrote an essay in The Shriver Report in which she bluntly laid out her feminist credentials: “We all need to stop buying into the gender equality myth,” she wrote. “It isn’t a reality yet. Today, women make up half of the US workforce, but the average working woman earns only 77 per cent of what the average working man makes. But unless women and men both say this is unacceptable, things will not change.”
In November 2014, the Sony Pictures Entertainment email hack made it clear that even Hollywood stars with cut-throat talent agents can fall victim to this sexism: the correspondence revealed that both Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were being paid significantly less than their male co-stars (Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper) in American Hustle – this despite the fact that at the time the two women had more Oscar nominations and awards between them than the three men.
In February this year, Patricia Arquette dedicated her Academy Award acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress in Boyhood to the very same topic, prompting the likes of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez to stand up and applaud.
Since then, numerous personalities have been using their influence to raise awareness, with everyone from Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks to Frozen singer Kristen Bell making video parodies for comedy website Funny or Die to highlight the absurdity of our modern-day gender inequality; Bell’s Mary Poppins spoof has the tag line ‘Practically perfect in every way, except grossly underpaid’.
Yet as much as our hearts might bleed for the unfairness experienced by rich Hollywood actors, the statistics are grim reading for women at all levels. In the US, women make 82 cents for every dollar a man makes*; the pay gap stands at 19 per cent for women in the UK†; while in the Middle East it is estimated to be between 20 and 40 per cent‡. Think you’re doing well in your job? Take a look at the man working nearest to you; the likelihood is that he’s being paid significantly more than you for doing the same role, according to a 2010 study by Zayed University, which found that female managers in the UAE are on average paid about Dh8,000 less per month than males in the same position.
So we might not be paid quite the same as the guys, but at least it’s a nice, clean-cut problem that can be worked on – gradually pay women the same as men for doing the same job, and gender equality will be sorted, right? Sadly, it isn’t that simple. The pay gap is a symptom of a much deeper condition in society. Despite our surface equality in the West, women are both undervalued and under-represented in almost all areas of their lives.
Laura Bates – the founder of Everydaysexism.com, a website that encourages both women and men to share their stories of gender imbalance – states that only one in five people in parliaments across the world are women. In addition, according to the UK’s The Independent newspaper, only 1 per cent of titled land is owned by women globally, and only 12 of 294 world leaders in the United Nations are women. Even in our fictional worlds, there is gross under-representation: A University of Southern California study found that just 30.2 per cent of all the roles in 700 recent popular films were female. That’s not the percentage of leading female roles, or stories with central female characters, it’s just female roles full stop. Which might make sense if women were the minority, but across most countries in the West, we’re actually just in the majority.
In our day-to-day lives too, there are countless examples of how the roles women hold are undervalued, how we internalise the expectations put upon us, and how we undervalue ourselves.
Take the full-time mum, for example. The human race needs to procreate – it’s one of the most fundamental and important elements of our existence. Somebody has to facilitate that happening and, as it is women who are biologically capable of bearing and breastfeeding children, this task has historically fallen on them. But while Salary.com recently worked out that mums should be charging $115,000 (Dh422,400) a year for the manifold tasks they perform in taking care of the house and children, ‘prestigious’ is not a word that usually goes hand in hand with the full-time mum position – “I’m only a housewife” was the way one reader described her occupation to us recently…
This undervaluing of traditionally female roles and traits leaches into how we conduct ourselves in the professional sphere too. Although women are customarily expected to do the majority of the household cooking, how many of the world’s leading chefs are women? It’s also widely believed that women are hardwired to be better at communication and emotional engagement than men, yet the number of celebrated female authors, politicians, journalists and comedians pales in comparison to male ones. Are men just better at cooking, writing, talking and being witty than women? Or could it be because women are taught from a young age to take a back seat, to be careful what they say, to be ladylike rather than take a stand or be amusing?
Nigerian novelist and academic Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives her explanation: “All over the world, girls are raised to make themselves likeable, to twist themselves into shapes that suit other people,” she says. We teach boys to be masculine, to suppress any signs of vulnerability, and we teach girls to pander to the fragile male ego that inevitably stems from this pressure to be macho. It doesn’t do either gender any favours, and it’s about time it changed, says Adichie. “Most of the positions of power and prestige are occupied by men. And this made sense 1,000 years ago. Because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival. But today we live in a vastly different world. The person more likely to lead is not the physically stronger person, it is the more creative person, the more intelligent person, the more innovative person, and there are no hormones for those attributes. We have evolved, but it seems to me that our ideas of gender have not evolved.”
Along with the resurgence in feminist dialogue has come a backlash. The hashtags I’mNotAFeminist and WomenAgainstFeminism have gone viral, with women posting pictures of themselves holding signs explaining why they don’t want to be associated with the movement (think “because I like to look after my husband” and similar). The disparaging term ‘Feminazi’ has emerged, along with the #Meninism movement (a parody of feminism), as well as a growing trend to troll any woman voicing a feminist opinion online – Everydaysexism’s Laura Bates talks of the ever-growing stream of violently misogynistic comments she is confronted with daily, many including details of how the writers plan to “rape, kill and disembowel” her.
For certain demographics there’s a sense that feminism is a bit embarrassing somehow, a bit uncool, with celebrities such as singer Lana Del Rey publicly announcing their detachment from it: “Whenever people bring up the issue of feminism I’m like… I’m just not really that interested.”
Views like this have also brought about a revival of the term ‘postfeminism’. While some see it as a negative term that implies feminism is now dead, others use it to describe a deluded form of feminism, seen in the likes of so-called feminist media products, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City, in which the leading female characters see themselves as liberated, but are nonetheless constantly searching for the one man who will make everything worthwhile.
And it’s this wilful delusion of equality that the latest wave of feminism – of the type put forward by comic writers Caitlin Moran and Bridget Christie – draws attention to. In her 2011 book How to be a Woman, Moran points out the ridiculousness of the backlash: “It’s technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism,” she says. “Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on women’s place in society.”
Meanwhile, Irish comedian Christie highlights in 2015’s A Book For Her how in many ways the women’s liberation movement has taken steps backwards in recent years. We’ve been empowered to look after ourselves financially, to more or less do, say and wear what we please, even to objectify ourselves if we want to, rather than be objectified by men. And what have we done with these new powers? Switch on MTV and the answer seems to be that we’ve spent that independently earned money on hot pants and G-strings and chosen to writhe around in front of lascivious men.
We’ve embraced our hard-won liberty by assimilating ourselves into lad culture, by being totally cool with the way porn has trickled its way into the mainstream, by striving to become the perfect woman who has a great career, a great body, who never ages, banters with the guys and is anything but the stereotypical nag. All of which would be fine, if it was actually making us happy. But is it? Have we been handed the keys to liberation only to shut the door and throw them away ourselves?
“Women now have more power and money and opportunity than ever before, so how did we end up a generation of women crippled with self-loathing, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and agitated montes pubis?” says Christie, referring to the staggering rise in cosmetic labia surgery, whereby women with medically normal genitalia want a reduction in the size of their labia minora (which Christie puts down to the mainstreaming of pornography in Western culture).
“We think we have more control of our bodies because we now have more money to spend on them, but is that control? Surveys and polls consistently prove that women would rather lose weight than achieve any other goal in life. In 2011 alone 40,000 women had cosmetic surgery (not including lunchtime procedures like Botox). Women had 90 per cent of all cosmetic surgeries in 2011. If we don’t start valuing ourselves as more than just a commodity… all the progress we’ve made will be a complete waste of time. What’s the point in holding up a mirror to female oppression if we can’t even look in it ourselves?”
A men’s issue
One of the most encouraging developments in the gender debate is the increasing willingness of men to get involved. In September 2014, British actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson launched the HeForShe initiative, “Because gender equality is [a male] issue too,” said Watson. “I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society, despite my need of his presence as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.”
When a man speaks out for gender equality, there’s no doubt that a new set of ears sits up and listens. Actor Mark Ruffalo’s response to the ‘I am not a feminist’ internet phenomenon in March this year stands out amongst the many, if only because critics are less able to dismiss a man’s argument for feminism as self-serving. “You know not what you speak of,” he says to those women in support of the internet campaign. “You reap the rewards of other women’s sacrifices every day of your life. When you grin with your cutesy sign about how you’re not a feminist, you bite the hand that fed you freedom, safety, and a voice.”
American activist Jackson Katz is another high-profile male anti-sexism campaigner. His brilliant Ted talk on violence against women outlines how men’s problems have been spun to look like women’s problems by switching the focus to the victims rather than the perpetrators. “Men are rendered invisible in the discourse about issues that are primarily about themselves,” he says. When it comes to violence against women, our whole cognitive structure is set up to ask questions about the women’s choices and what they’re thinking and doing and wearing, says Katz – ‘Why did she marry that violent man? Why does she keep going back? What was she wearing at that party? Why was she in that room with those guys?’ But the real questions to ask should be about the men themselves – why is domestic violence still so rife? Why do so many men abuse the people they claim to love? What’s going on with men?
But that F-word, feminism, is one of the most problematic words of all. It’s uncomfortable, it alienates people, it elicits resistance. So if you don’t like the word, that’s fine. It’s not the word that’s important – it’s the idea behind it.
Now let’s clear this up once and for all: if you believe that women and men should be equal, you’re a feminist (that’s the dictionary definition after all).
If you enjoy the fact that you can choose whether or not you drive a car, go to work, or own property, then you’re a feminist.
And finally, if you’re still not sure, do the test that Caitlin Moran suggests: Ask yourself: “a) Do you have a vagina? And b) Do you want to be in charge of it?”
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist too.
What genital surgery says about our attitude to women
A group of MPs and campaigners in the UK want to outlaw cosmetic female genital surgery (in which women opt to have their inner labia shortened in the search for a ‘designer vagina’), because they claim it’s too similar to the maligned practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), in which women’s genitalia are cut in the name of culture, tradition and religion. While FGM is often practised on girls who are too young to consent, and in dangerously unhygienic conditions, the campaigners argue that the two practices are rooted in cultures that dictate how a woman should look for the pleasure of men.
The crucial difference is that labiaplasty patients have consented, of course, but FGM campaigner Nimco Ali controversially argues that these women haven’t consented at all: “I don’t think there’s much difference between a seven-year-old forced into it and a 24-year-old forced into it by the media and porn,” says Ali. “Women saying they want it to look better down there is the same as a woman in Africa being told she should have it done. People are just consenting to a before and after picture.” She thinks that the influences of pornography, and sexualisation in the media, are always the root cause of a woman undergoing this type of surgery: “If a woman were coming out of a cave, with no porn and magazines and saying I really want to have my labia trimmed, that’s weird.”
Don’t call me feisty!
The way our language reinforces gender prejudices is a whole book in itself, but let’s take some simple examples. Think about some of the words that we use to describe certain women: words like ‘feisty’; ‘fiery’; ‘sassy’; ‘bossy’… Would you use any of these words to describe a man in the same context? If not then why use them about women? They’re patronising, twee – a little bit comical even. The Women’s Media Centre lists ‘feisty’ as one of the words that should be avoided, describing it as “normally reserved for individuals and animals that are not inherently powerful”. Although it’s unlikely to be the intention, calling a woman ‘feisty’ where you’d just call a man ‘strong’ reinforces the idea that women are expected to be submissive little things, and any female stepping out of her gender box isn’t to be taken entirely seriously.
* The Bureau of Labor statistics; † The Fawcett Society; ‡ International Labour Organisation