Let’s try and first answer the question, who is a feminist? There is obviously no easy answer to this one, and I would be foolish to attempt one. It can also not be credibly said that there is any sort of control over who identifies as a feminist, or on what basis they do so. Like every other social, economic and political ideology in history, feminism as an ideology, a belief system or a movement is built around particular core concepts, and views of feminists would generally be traceable back to said core concepts.
What are these core precepts that form the root of being feminist? It starts out with the fundamental, yet unshakeable belief that men and women are equal as human beings. Please do notice what the above did not say feminism was. Feminism’s end goal is to not to preach the belief that men and women are equal, it is not simply an acknowledgment that barring anatomical differences, men and women are the same, and it definitely is not just the idea that women and men are equal before law. It is rooted in this logically obvious fact that men and women are equal as human beings, and consequently, other beliefs and goals follow.
In 2017, the statement that is apt to receive greatest astonishment is the one that has just been stated. You may ask, what is the reason for you to treat such a logical inevitability as a belief? Is it not a fact? Historically, this has not been true. Women were, and are, in several parts of the world, considered as inherently inferior to men. Not different, but lower. The reasons for this deep-rooted belief are many, but for now, I assume that the reader will agree when I say that, in almost all countries, civilizations, countries and religions, as late as the early 1990s, women were not considered equal and were considered as lower, or half forms of human beings. After that brief description of history, I can almost anticipate the rumblings of the anti-feminist brigade, preparatory to yelling that this is ancient past, and why are feminists, particularly those on the internet and capable of engagement on the same platform as men, still adverting to this long-lost bit of history? The reason I do so is because beliefs and convictions, however ancient, have ripple effects. This particular conviction has formed one of the foundational pillars of society for so long, that it’s attributes are part of everyday life even a century into the movement for gender equality. You see, believing that women are inferior did not just stop there, it implies, concomitantly, that women are dumber, less disciplines, less rational, less capable, and not to be trusted with wealth, progress, or decision making, and certainly not with power. Today, in technical terms this may no longer be explicitly and obviously true in many countries. Thus, people may not today openly insist that women are, after all lesser than men, but the echoes of this thinking can reverberate through to this day. This is true not only of men, but of women, particularly of older women as well, who are quite happy to subscribe to beliefs that denigrate women as equal to men.
Now that we’ve gotten over that first hurdle, lets move on to what the root belief implies for the life, opinions and choices for feminists. If they hold this belief to be universally unassailable, the logical expectation is that women should not have a life experience that is in any way inferior to men merely or simply on the ground that they are women. In more relatable terms, the fact that they are women, and the regressive and restrictive attitudes that the world may have towards them as a reaction to that fact, should not detrimentally affect their life experience. The second offshoot of the root belief, is therefore, that if men and women are not to be considered as inherently superior or inferior to each other, then they should be afforded the same opportunities in life, regardless of gender, in a rational, egalitarian society. Here, we run into a problem, one that is not restricted to women, and one that is bound to excite a fair amount of anger and dismissal from those who oppose feminism, and really, any movements towards the betterment of the disadvantaged class. That is, the idea that historically disadvantaged groups, or groups which may unconsciously suffer bias because of who they are, require or are entitled to special measures in order to overcome these biases and disadvantages. Therefore, the movement / concept is not simply about achieving a state of principled equality, but to actively work towards a society / world where one’s life experience, opportunity, and choices as a woman, is not detrimentally affected because of their gender or their sex.
A common rebuttal to this conceptualization of feminism as a concept or a movement is that, as people have different traits, attributes, skills and inclinations, it is impossible and unreasonable to expect that persons of one gender or sex will never have a differential experience on the basis of such attributes and to demand that society be altered in order to ensure the same experience is unreasonable, if not downright fantastic. There is merit in the criticism to the extent that it is certainly extremely difficult to build, or progress towards a world where all human receive the exact same treatment and as a result, have the exact same experience. However, where the conversation loses focus is the fact that feminists do not try and create the perfect, impossible world – they are focused on identifying social norms, attitudes, biases and prejudices that are easily and obviously correctable, and that do have their roots in earlier assumptions about women, whether they are immediately recognized or not. To claim that it is not possible, in 2017, that biases and prejudices do not exist, is false and ambitious. They do. To also assert that these should be left well enough alone, and that they are attributes that are in fact, complimentary in nature, is an opinion and should therefore be challenged. Feminism in contexts where superficial equality appears to have been achieved therefore, is not about equality before the law, but about deconstructing social, political and behavioural barriers as a remnant from a harsher time, that serve to limit women’s experience of life and the world.
The idea of women as sexual objects, for sexual consumption, is still rampant, whether in western developed countries or in southern conservative countries. While boys do also experience sexual exploitation, the numbers of girls being subjected to the same fate are in far greater multiples, and cannot be ignored. Feminism does not claim that in its lack, society justifies this phenomenon. A common refrain to the argument that feminism is vital to protecting women and girls from sexual exploitation is meant by the hotly delivered argument that a human rights framework also adequately addresses this issue. This is, quite simply, not true. Human rights practitioners, advocates and systems attempt to resolve the end result i.e, to punish or mitigate sexual exploitation. But unless one looks at the problem through the lens of a female experience, and of the insights that the feminist lens affords, one will find it difficult to identify the million little things, attitudes, norms and socially validated behaviours that create an environment conducive to sexual exploitation. Will a normal citizen in favour of human rights stand up for an oppose rape and sexual exploitation? Certainly. But can said person understand why, how and in what ways, this scenario even came about? In the experience of feminists, or women’s issues advocates, the experience is no. Those who refuse to, or have little to no knowledge of the perceptions, attitudes and stances towards women are unintentionally blind to the reasons why this environment is created and sustained, and feminism shines a light on this process. But more on this later!