One day, not long ago, I was in a Political Sciences class and my teacher asked how many of us viewed themselves as feminists. The girl standing by my side and I raised our hands. Nobody else did. Needless to say that I felt truly disappointed with my classmates. I’ll never forget it. At first I felt shocked, incredulous. I even wondered if I had maybe not seen somebody else raising their hand – but no one did. Just two people in a classroom. Two girls, coincidentally. Now, a couple of months later, I came across a Facebook post a girl shared which defended the idea that “men should be feminists too”. Her post gathered a lot of comments from boys who claimed, among other things, that feminism is for retarded people, that it is out of date and no longer important, or that it is only needed in “underdeveloped countries” because women in our societies are already treated with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings. I was so angry at what I read. I recalled that PS class and I instantly felt the need to express my outrage the best way I can – by writing it down. So here it is, what I wrote immediately after having read those unbelievable comments, out of my anger and sadness and frustration.
Today, (I dare to say) the word feminism seems to have more of a negative than a positive connotation. It is linked to “man hating” or “feminazis” and is often treated as synonymous to them. But if people took the time (and it wouldn’t even be that much time…) to do a little research, they would soon realise that feminism is no more than “the defense of women’s rights in favour of the equality of sexes”. But why is this word, feminism, so reviled, so misinterpreted and so misused? Because it disturbs the order of things. Because it bothers. Because, if we admit that there is a need to change the way our patriarchal societies work, then we will have to “bother” men. How? By empowering women. That’s right – by giving them power: equal power.
I find this a very powerful word. Empowering. There is much empowerment that needs to be spread across this world – we need to empower children, we need to empower the poor, we need to empower indigenous people, we need to empower animals and environmental causes, we need to empower women. Not in a sense that they will rise above any other individuals; but to help them achieve the same level, the same rights, the same dignifying treatment and respect. Equality. I don’t consider myself educated enough to enumerate big arguments here or to write a fancy, elaborate speech in favour of feminism (meaning = in favour of the equality of rights and conditions among genders). But what I do know, I know it because it is out there for everyone to see, I know it because I live it everyday and because I see many other women and men living it as well.
Many people (especially men, I dare say, but women too! Which is almost more shocking…) say they think feminism is important, yes, but in the least developed regions of this World, because in our “developed” countries, in the glorifying Europe and America of freedom, brotherhood and equality, it is no longer necessary – women are already treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. I don’t know how anyone can have this perception. Feminism is needed everywhere in the World, in different ways and adapted to different social and cultural contexts. In Arab countries, for instance, it might have to do with the right to education, the right to drive, the right to vote, the right to marry at whatever age you want to and to whoever you want to marry. There, it is about freedom, about life! In our “developed” countries, women already go to school, they already drive and vote, that’s true. But are we entirely free? No. Are we treated as equals before men? No. In Europe, women make on average 16% less than men (2015 data). Portugal, for example (which is my homeland), is the country where this situation has worsened the most during the crisis the EU is going through. Let’s look at the case of the new X-Files series, where the protagonist David Duchovny is going to earn twice as much as the protagonist Gillian Anderson… This is absurd. Of course this is a small, insignificant example when compared to thousands of others, but it is worth thinking about, because… If something like this happens in such a popular platform, with access and influence over millions of people, how can we stop it from becoming acceptable? From becoming the norm? If even popular TV shows are paying actresses less than they pay actors, then why shouldn’t it be normal for regular women to be paid less than their male counterparts?
There is a lot to be done in other parts of this World where attacks on gender equality are much more violent and atrocious. Of course there is. But that does not mean that feminism is only needed in those regions, or immeasurably more important there. People use this excuse to divert attention from issues that need to be addressed right here where we are – right in our homes. But, of course, it’s a lot easier to say that there’s something wrong with the way society is run on the other side of the world, isn’t it? If we begin to admit that there’s something wrong in our own backyard, then that means we are eventually going to have to be bothered if we have to do something to change it.
I wonder… Is feminism not necessary in countries where women frequently feel uncomfortable when walking down the street, when they are walking through a man or a group of men, because they are used to hearing obscene, dirty comments waaay too many times? Is feminism not necessary in countries where women continuously earn and get paid less than men, or where they are not given the same job opportunities “because they might get pregnant” or “because they might have menstrual pain and miss work”? Is feminism not necessary in countries where women continue to be seen as “the weak sex”? The weak sex, the one which has a job aside from having to deal with the house chores, the one which carries a baby inside their body for nine months, who gives birth to a child, who brings to this World a new human being, and who was to watch him grow in a society which continues to perceive women as inferior?
I am not putting women on a pedestal. Women are not special (well, to me they are, but that’s a personal opinion!). What I mean is: yes, we are different. Nobody can deny that men and women are different – physically, psychologically, emotionally. But that does not mean that we don’t share some very common features. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should not be entitled to the same rights or conditions. For we are entitled to the same respect, the same freedom, the same equality. Those who refuse to identify themselves as feminists are one of two things: either they are ignorants because they don’t know the true meaning of the word feminism (and, therefore, contribute to spreading the wrong idea about it), or they are being cowards, because they know that feminism, for the simple reason that it must change the order of things, is going to be a little bothersome for many men who take the most out of their priviledges, granted to them by our patriarchal societies. I am sick of witnessing and taking part in discussions about feminism, I am sick of hearing people (mostly men, I have to admit) say that they are not feminists because feminism is radicalism. Get your facts straight. So much in this world would work a whole lot better if people only took the time to get informed… To actually learn something.
I am sick of having to walk down the street and hearing dirty comments (yes, we’ve come to the point where the State had to create a new law that criminalizes these comments!). I am sick of seeing men masturbating in front of young women on the street and not being chased down and thrown to jail like the real perverts that they are. I am sick of hearing people (men and women) tell jokes that are demeaning to women, when that kind of behaviour not only denigrates and demeans women, but it also denigrates and demeans men. That’s right. We’ve come to another crucial point here, haven’t we? Because feminism is not only a fight for women’s rights; it is also a fight for men’s rights. It is not just women female liberation – it is also about male liberation. And dignification. But some men don’t like to hear this a lot, do they? They don’t like to be told (or to think) that it is okay for them to be sensitive, that it is okay for them to be emotional and vulnerable. Why? Because we live in a society that pressures men into being strong, virile, masculine. Here we have it again: power. In this case, the power of words.
Society makes people believe that there is a certain set of features that defines masculinity, virility, manliness. And that is physical and emotional “strength”. Strength is viewed as the opposite to sensitivity and sentimentality, as if being emotional and vulnerable will “make you less of a man” or “make you weak”. That’s one of the reasons why women are perceived as “the weak sex”. Because women cry, but men mustn’t. Well, feminism fights this preconceived idea of what women should be like. By freeing women from the limits imposed on them by what society views as the “acceptable norm”, feminism also breaks the same limits that are imposed on men. By telling women that being sensitive, that being emotional is not a weakness, but actually a natural feature, even a true sign of strength, feminism is logically also telling men that it is okay for them to have feelings and to express them as much as women supposedly can / do. And society doesn’t like it when certain people and certain movements try to destroy its stereotypes. Why? Because building and maintaining stereotypes makes it a lot easier for people to think that life is all black and white, that it’s all rainbows and flowers, that there are no moral and ethical challenges out there for us to face. But there are.
Feminism does not only carry the chance to free women. It also carries the chance to free men. However, it is very hard to change people’s mindsets when they are fueled by centuries of tradition and conservative ideologies. That’s why so many men believe that, if they were to identify themselves as feminists, they would be admitting to be “weak”, “gay” or anything that they don’t want to be linked to. So here is one of the biggest challenges feminism brings with it: to make sensitivity acceptable. To make emotions count. But that’s exactly what makes us sentient beings, is it not? The ability to feel. The fact that we are sensitive, emotional beings. So it is okay to admit it. It is okay to show it. Because it’s in our nature, it’s the right way to be. If we didn’t have any emotions, then we wouldn’t be affected by any notion of right and wrong, we wouldn’t be touched by anything that is wrong in this world, we wouldn’t feel the need to fight injustice or cruelty.
Emotion is what makes us capable of changing this World and turning it into a better place. Equality also does that. And that is the ultimate goal of feminism: to achieve equality. Therefore, in the end, feminism (feminism as the actual movement, as the true meaning of the concept, as the real women’s rights movement – not in any of its radical or misinterpreted shapes) is all about that: turning the World into a better place. That’s why it only makes sense for us to unite. That’s why it only makes sense that this should be a battle fought by both men and women. Because the fruits of the seeds we can plant now will be reaped by everyone, men and women alike.
One day I was in a Political Sciences class and my teacher asked how many of us viewed themselves as feminists. A girl standing by my side and I raised our hands. Nobody else did. I felt truly sorry for my classmates. I thought: “they must either be ignorants or cowards. Maybe they’re not even bad people. They are probably not. But they are making a big mistake”. Feminism is not just about some of us. It is about all of us. If I am a feminist? Of course. Because, if I wasn’t, then I wouldn’t be in favour of the equality of rights for both genders. Because, if I wasn’t, then I wouldn’t truly be in favour of a better World… would I?