Recently I had an online conversation with a friend of mine, which shocked me, challenged me, and forced me to rethink my stance on feminism. In recent years, the term ‘feminism’ has come to be culturally associated with angry bra-burning man-hating women who refuse to shave, and insist on ‘free-bleeding’. The term ‘feminazi’ has become disturbingly popular, as has the inclination of people to degrade feminists and perceive them as troublemaking outsiders.
As a firm believer in equal rights for all, I am, of course, sympathetic to the particular struggles of women, especially in third world and theocratic countries, where women’s lives are seen as easily disposable, where women are oppressed in the name of ‘protection’, and where fewer resources are invested in their health and education, leading to fewer economic opportunities, less political involvement, and fewer freedoms.
When I was twelve, I called myself a feminist for the first time. Once, at school, we were asked to stand up and introduce ourselves to some visitors by stating our name and something interesting about us. “I’m Sadia,” I said. “And I am a feminist”. When I was thirteen, I arranged for a feminist group to hold a workshop at our school. I also wrote a poem for a national competition about the plights of different women across the world. I argued vehemently with people who possessed remotely sexist views. But little did I know that these actions would have such unfortunate repercussions. I overheard boys talking about me with a tone of disgust. “She’s a feminist?” My family members would make jokes about it (and still do). The other day, my cousin laughed about how I probably won’t ever get married, and even if I did, I’d “wear a suit” to my own wedding and “make a speech about how everything in the world is sexist”. Comments like this are usually in jest, I know. But why is it so outrageous – so offensive and undesirable – for a woman to state that she is a feminist?
For this very reason, to avoid being subjected to the same preconceptions and biases, I started to explain to people that I am not a feminist. I no longer wanted to be known as the overbearing, unpleasant, petulant misandrist who actively seeks faults in every cultural practice. But then I read Mona Eltahawy’s book Headscarves and Hymens, and had this fateful conversation with he-who-shall-not-be-named. I realised that sexism is not some erstwhile phenomenon for which the modern world provides an infertile ground. Although sexism is mainly only explicitly practiced (and, one might argue, even celebrated) in developing and theocratic nations, the view that women are ‘naturally’ inferior is still held by many in the west, and rather proudly, too. This rampant type of dog-whistle misogyny encourages the idea that women should not be hated, but that we should accept the ‘fact’ that women exist to serve men, and that in return, men can give us protection.
My anonymous friend started the conversation by proclaiming that “the problem with you women is that you are naturally inferior”. At first, I assumed this was just part of an early April Fool’s prank. But then he went on to explain (dare I say mansplain) his views, about how men are physically, intellectually and in terms of intrinsic existential worth, superior to women, and how our current educational systems are ineffective because they reject nature’s status quo.
It is easy to see that most men are physically bigger than most women. It is also tough to dispute that, on average, men are faster and ‘stronger’ than women. But size does not naturally equate to superiority, nor does the ability to punch someone and bruise them. In my opinion, true strength lies in the ability to squeeze a fairly large living being out of your body. In addition to this, a recent academic study has shown that under extreme conditions such as famines, epidemics and enslavement, women are able to survive for longer than men, and, of course, in all modern human populations, women outlive men, too.
So what about the ultimate decisive factor: intelligence? Are the cognitive capacities of men naturally better than those of women? Much research has been conducted into uncovering the answer to this question, once and for all. During the early twentieth century, the scientific consensus shifted to the view that gender plays no role in intelligence. In his 1916 study of children’s IQs, psychologist Lewis Terman concluded that “the intelligence of girls, at least up to 14 years, does not differ materially from that of boys”. He did, however, find “rather marked” differences on a minority of tests. For example, he found boys were “decidedly better” in arithmetical reasoning, while girls were “superior” at answering comprehension questions. He also proposed that discrimination, lack of opportunity, women’s responsibilities in motherhood, or emotional factors may have accounted for the fact that few women had careers in intellectual fields.
So, the problem, dear anonymous friend, is not that women are “naturally inferior” to men, but that for centuries we have been socially conditioned to view the notion of ‘superiority’ through an inherently masculine template. This is why we expect powerful women to dress in a more ‘masculine’ manner and to undergo speech therapy to deepen their voices. This template is perpetuated even through the language we use: the word ‘woman’ is a visual extension of the word ‘man’, and ditto ‘female’ and ‘male’. In fact, the word ‘woman’ comes from the Old English phrase ‘wyf man’, or ‘wife of man’. For too long, human cultures have fortified the social positions of men as ‘subjects’ – independent, ‘superior’ beings – and women as ‘others’, as the wife of man, as walking wombs. This modus operandi might take centuries to undo, but in the meantime, we have feminism to act as a catalyst.
My anonymous friend would probably argue that the historical degradation of women was inevitable, given our physical feebleness and our natural ecological roles as mere accessories to men. Why else are the majorities of our societies patriarchal? Surely we are naturally predisposed to arrange ourselves in this hierarchical manner, with the ‘alpha male’ on top? One might point to examples from nature to support this notion: the nature of polygamous, powerful ‘alpha male’ lions, wolves, bears and other carnivorous animals indicates that men are meant to be the most powerful members of our societies. But what about matriarchal species like bonobos, elephants, and killer whales? The existence of such species suggests that Mother Nature is not a misogynist. She is driven by the whimsy of natural selection, and if men were indeed superior to women, females, and thus all life as we know it, would have been doomed to extinction eons ago. The most fundamental natural truth is that species are intra-dependent. Women do not exist to serve men, and in the struggle to ensure our continuation as a species, cooperation is, and has always been, more important than competition.
In addition to this, the hierarchical structures that modern cultures assume are actually relatively artificial. The emergence of human patriarchy did not occur at the same time as the emergence of humankind itself, but rather during the time of the Agricultural Revolution, when we transitioned from being hunter-gatherer societies to principally agricultural ones. Some might argue that this change was unavoidable, due to the biological make-up of men. Theorists have put forth three main ideas to support this claim, none of which carry very much weight. The first idea is that, simply because men have more ‘muscle power’, they were able to force women into submission. But as aforementioned, women are more resistant to life-threatening circumstances, and there are also many women who are muscularly ‘stronger’ than many men. Furthermore, as Yuval Harari asserts, this theory does not explain why, throughout history, women have been excluded from jobs that require very little physical effort or ‘masculine’ aggression, such as priesthood or even trade, given our allegedly ‘natural’ roles as gatherers in pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies. Below I have included an extract from Harari’s book Sapiens:
If social power were divided in direct relation to physical strength or stamina, women should have got far more of it.
Even more importantly, there simply is no direct relation between physical strength and social power among humans. People in their sixties usually exercise power over people in their twenties, even though twentysomethings are much stronger than their elders. The typical plantation owner in Alabama in the mid-nineteenth century could have been wrestled to the ground in seconds by any of the slaves cultivating his cotton fields. Boxing matches were not used to select Egyptian pharaohs or Catholic popes. In forager societies, political dominance generally resides with the person possessing the best social skills rather than the most developed musculature. In organised crime, the big boss is not necessarily the strongest man. He is often an older man who very rarely uses his own fists; he gets younger and fitter men to do the dirty jobs for him. A guy who thinks that the way to take over the syndicate is to beat up the don is unlikely to live long enough to learn from his mistake. Even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.
In fact, human history shows that there is often an inverse relation between physical prowess and social power. In most societies, it’s the lower classes who do the manual labour. This may reflect Homo sapiens position in the food chain. If all that counted were raw physical abilities, Sapiens would have found themselves on a middle rung of the ladder. But their mental and social skills placed them at the top. It is therefore only natural that the chain of power within the species will also be determined by mental and social abilities more than by brute force. It is therefore hard to believe that the most influential and most stable social hierarchy in history is founded on men’s ability physically to coerce women.
This unfortunate (and, thus far, incomprehensible) shift in human societal structures is what led to the ceaseless subjugation of the female kind – the Second Sex, as Simone De Beauvoir put it. And yes, a lot of women have it a lot worse than we here in the west do: some women are shot in the head for wanting an education; others have their bodies forcefully mutilated in order to “curb their desires”. Child marriage, and consequently child rape, are still popular practices. The list goes on. I do have my own personal experiences of sexism, as do most other women across the world, but my feminism is not exclusively focused on my own troubles. This is where the beauty of intersectional feminism comes in: understanding that women experience oppression in different ways, and accepting that every woman’s struggle is valid and deserving of support. I understand that it is sometimes difficult for people (men, in this case) to sympathise unreservedly with movements with objectives that promise few changes to their own lives. It is also easy for men to accuse women of being ‘whingey’ and problematic when all we are doing is trying to raise awareness of the injustices that we are facing, and have been facing for so long.
That being said, I do not completely agree with certain views held by some fellow feminists. I do not like how dismissive some are of the choices of housewives and the existence of the dual burden, and how some people still perceive the traditionally masculine as the ideal. I consider it hypocritical that they praise little girls who want to play sport and play with Lego sets, while, in the same breath, criticising girls who also want to wear pink and play with cooking sets. I think that both masculinity and femininity are beautiful, and that a balance is necessary: hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity are both as unpleasant and damaging as each other. My views might differ from some of my fellow feminists, but, like all other political movements, feminists do not adhere to a homogenous ideology.
The majority of us do not hate men; most of us just hate toxic masculinity and the resultant infantilisation, brutalisation and systematic belittlement of women, and if you think that these demands are comparable to misandry, then you are part of the problem. Simply put, I am a feminist because the popular practice of labelling men as superior (which has led to the extant subjugation of women) is a social construct, as is the masculine template through which we collectively came to reach this decision. Physiologically speaking, cisgender males and females are different, but in terms of value, we should be seen as equal. And if supporting this idea – if pressing for the human rights of my sisters across the globe to be recognised – makes people label me an “obnoxious, whiny feminist”, then so be it. An obnoxious, whiny feminist I will be.
Sadia Ahmed, 2018