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My Complicated Relationship With Feminism

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Writing about feminism on the Internet is essentially walking into the proverbial lion’s den. I am finally ready to write about it, and am consequently also prepared for the shots that may be fired. For a long time, I stayed away from writing about feminism for the same reason I don’t write about quantum physics – I didn’t feel qualified to do so. Feminism is a topic that a lot of people like to oversimplify, and in my opinion, generalize to its detriment. Like most theories and perspectives that affect large groups of people in a society, it is far more complicated than a few sentences of regurgitated sentiments.

There is a notion that if one merely believes that “women and men are equal,” one can be categorized as a feminist. And perhaps at the base level, this is true. But you don’t need a sociologist or political theorist or epistemologist to know that “equality” is an abstract and complex concept itself. Furthermore, if we were to parallel feminism to something like Christianity for example, certainly one can conclude that all Christians believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. But it would be inaccurate to claim that there are not essential differences between a Catholic and a Baptist and a Seven Day Adventist. In the same way, I believe that characterizing one’s own position on feminism is necessary.

Currently, I would say I have a complicated relationship with feminism. I like to believe that people are equal. Period. But this does not prevent me from believing that both the social construction and the biological differences of gender render different people as different. And I don’t always believe it is a bad thing. Arguing within heteronormative contexts, I don’t believe that it is bad to have men and women have different expectations of each other. I argue that as long as there is a plurality of choice between these expectations, and the individual is not oppressed – though difference can and in the past has translated to inequality – it doesn’t necessarily have to be so in each instance.

I do believe that there is still great inequality in the treatment of men and women across the world. And I think particularly, advocating for women to receive better education and employment opportunities is a laudable aspect of feminism that I fully support. But as to the attitude and practice of feminism in many ways, I cannot overlook that it favors certain groups of women over others. One of the major problems I have always had with feminism is that on its agenda are mostly the constructions of White, Western, middle-class women – which are the privileged of “the oppressed.”

As an African, while there are many part of African traditions that need to be reflected on and indeed changed, it has always been patronizing to endure Western feminists make uneducated judgments about the place of women in African culture. Many African cultures, for example, are actually quite known for being matriarchal and have been so for centuries. Many African women unlike many middle and upper-class Western women have almost always worked, and have always been expected to work in traditional African culture.

African women have also been oppressed like many women from different cultures. But I have always had a lack of respect for Western feminism’s hegemony on feminism. The perspective that Western women’s history is the universal history of all women is condescending and inaccurate. And the present reality of women’s experiences across cultures cannot be condensed to the sole experience of one group of women. If it does, it begins to very much resemble the patriarchy that it is fighting.

Another source of frustration with today’s feminism which perhaps began with the second-wave feminists, is that there appears to be limited constructions of what constitutes a feminist. Given certain socio-political values one may have, it may render one “un-feminist.” Being pro-life, or “conservative” or even religious, have caused many – male and female – as being seen as inherently against the feminist movement. (Of course, if you know feminist history at all in the United States at least, many of the founders were exactly these things.) And my problem is that especially women who fall in these categories feel alienated by a cause that claims to represent them. And oftentimes they are told that they are participating in inequality when to the thinking person, it would seem that they may just be individuals with agency and a set of principles that they choose to believe in. Principles that are not intrinsically against the equality of women despite the popular language used to describe them.

I don’t know if I would really like to call myself a feminist. It just seems so inaccurate in many ways as a representation of my cultural and personal principles in the present public culture. The word too has its own baggage as it has metamorphosed over time. Perhaps if it becomes common practice to attach denominations to feminism, as we sometimes do with religion, the abstraction of the word can be made clearer. If you ask me if I believe in equality of all people, I say “yes” without hesitation despite the abstraction of the concept of equality. Yet if you ask me if I’m a feminist, I prepare myself to explain my complicated relationship with it. I am still deciding. And as a woman and as a person, it is my right to do so. TC mark

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