Monday, 11 April 2011

What Feminism Means To Me and Why the French Veil Ban is Wrong

A political post? Didn't I say at some point I'd avoid these? Yes I probably did, but it's my blog so I can do what I want. So there. Feel free to skip if it's not your thing but I promise you it will not be as angry as you think. Well, not very angry anyway.

I felt compelled to make some sort of statement about feminism for a few reasons; 1. I am a feminist (as I define it, more on that later) 2. I am tired of having to explain what kind of feminist I am on blogs/news/forums for and against or that are even ambivalent about so called feminism. And thirdly, the ban on face veils was enacted today in France, a travesty that feminists everywhere should be up in arms about, and yet the reaction online, that I've seen, has been muted. So I thought now would be a good time to talk about what I think feminism is and isn't, what it means to me, how it's affected my reading and writing and why I can't believe we're still in a time when a supposedly free and equal society are not only tolerating but supporting women being prejudiced against.

What is feminism to me? Just this: that men, women and everyone in between should have equal opportunities and that none should be prejudiced against, or privileged over the other, because of their gender. The end. Simple, right, and not too controversial?

In my experience a lot of feminists and anti-feminists out there see things differently. That feminism is the ongoing (never ending apparently) struggle against patriarchy and that men are holding women back from achieving their full potential. That if you are a feminist it means you hate men and want women to run the show. That there is still so much to be done here in the West to achieve "true" equality for women. That feminism is to blame for all the problems in Western society. I say this is all, pretty much, bollocks. There are still inequalities in western societies, along gender, racial and even class lines, and these should be fought against whenever they raise their ugly head. But we should all fight against it, not just feminism, IMO.

We in the West are massively privileged and are by and large equal (yes, yes, I know it's not perfect, but in the big picture we are better off than, say, Saudi women when it comes to equality). And when you consider the disgraceful and horrifying situations in other parts of the world it becomes even clearer that, while there may be details to work out, the overall progress has been remarkable. It often feels to me that so-called feminists are using feminism as a way to argue over the slightest things and that they generally take it all far too seriously. Look to other countries to see how bad things really are for women (and men) elsewhere and it starts to make our complaints about women being objectified in the media seem very petty in comparison. Case and point, the circumcision of young girls, and the practise of breast ironing. I get frustrated about women and men being objectified in advertising, for example, but it's good to keep a bit of perspective about it all. While we should all stand against rudeness and sexism, there are bigger battles to be fought in the world.

One big battle I think feminism should be arguing against is the veil ban in France, that went live today and has already resulted in women being "detained" for not complying and protesting. The reason I am against it is nothing to do with religious or even human rights per se. Instead I object to it because it is women being told what they may or may not wear by government. Surely this was one of the most basic things that initial feminism was against and fought to remove, so that women would be free to dress as they wish, regardless of whether others approve or not? They've tried to cover it up in the guise of security but I think we can all see through that. I mean, I object to women flashing their bits at me with skirts that are so short their arse hangs out the back. But would I ever want it banned by law? Hell no - if a woman freely chooses to go out like that, regardless of whether I understand or agree with it, she should be permitted to do that. My feelings about the veil are very similar. I don't understand why women choose to wear it but I support their right to dress as they wish. And then there's the frankly ridiculous discussion about choice and the veil; plenty of Muslim women (arguably the vast majority) freely choose to wear the veil. They are not forced, and to suggest they've been brain washed or controlled into doing it is at best misguided, and at worst insulting. They know their own minds, let's not presume to know them better than they do. Our choices are almost always influenced by the culture we're in - that doesn't mean it's not a free choice. (As an aside I came across this, a very apt and tongue in cheek commentary on the ban on "veils". I'm with the beekeepers.)

So why does this all annoy me so much? Because feminism has had a hugely positive effect on me and my life and it saddens me to see the state that contemporary feminism is in. It genuinely upsets me that "feminism" has become a dirty word. I was brought up to know that if I wanted something I had to work for it, and to not be put off because I was a girl and to not expect any favours because I was a girl either (don't even get me started on positive discrimination). My toys were a mixture of "boys" and "girls" toys, entirely based on whatever I was into at the time. From My Little Pony, to Meccano, from Lego to Barbie, my toys had no real pattern to them. I loved video games and still do. I love violent action films and also like cheesy romantic comedies. And feminism as it was done in my family home (thank you mother) had a lot to do with this acceptance of apparent contradictions. It also affected my taste in books and to this day one of my favourite authors is Sheri Tepper, because of her intricate story telling and how she worked feminism into her stories. Whether you agree with her point of view or not (I don't always) I admire the fact she works the issue into stories, and in doing so showed me that a story doesn't just have to be a story. It can have a point to it, or even better just ask a few questions about the world we live in and then leave you to think about it. This is what I hope to do with my stories, so that something will stay with the reader afterwards. Turns out it's really difficult (who knew!) but I still think it's worth the effort.

So this is me - take it or leave it. With understanding, humour and rational discussion I truly believe we don't all have to be so divided. But I don't hold out much hope for the mainstream feminist movement. Hopefully the next incarnation will be better.


  1. I really want to write "go sister" but from this distance not sure you'd see my tongue in my cheek ;-)

    Yes. I couldn't agree with you more. There's lots I could say on the matter, but I'll try to be succinct for once, and just say that so long as 'we' (society?) are still making issues out of these matters, then we're clearly still not "over it". Surely by now it's about time we started judging people on an individual basis, on what they believe, say, do, rather than on what sex/religion/race/hair colour/whatever... they are. We don't *need* to have opinions about classes of people. I don't meet 'women'; or 'Muslims' or 'Italians' or whoever en masse, so I don't need to form a single opinion about that entire subset of humanity. I meet Sarah, or Matthew, or Alexa as single unique individuals, and what they each are, is more important than the collection of attributes they possess that we have chosen to classify them by.

    So let's all just move on.

    We have better things to spend our time on.

  2. Agreed Mike, we are all after all just "folks", trying to get along and live comfortable lives. Anything (anyone) that stands in the way of that is not useful and is likely detrimental, whatever its alleged goal is.

    So I say "Right on Brother!" :)

  3. I'm glad to read this brave post. Most people are afraid to go there. But it seems to me that the Far Right in France have hijacked "feminism" and are using it to oppress, rather than liberate women. Real feminism means we should be able to wear what we damn well please.

    There were times when I was around a bunch of Frenchmen that I wished I had a burka, myself. (It's not just the construction workers who ogle and hoot.) And now that I'm older and fatter, I definitely see the appeal of going around in my own personal pup tent on occasion.

    How is it more feminist for a culture to insist that women starve, carve and lipo-suck themselves, but not let them hide their bodies and faces in public?

  4. Spot on Anne. In Western countries the obsession with physical perfection, particularly for women, has become frankly obscene. I think one of the things that disturbs people so much about the burka or the face veil is that it is the complete antithesis of this "looks culture". Then there is the worrying rise in attacks on Muslims, and the media's obsession with showing the worst sides of that faith, which has played a big part in this law being allowed to go unchallenged.

    The ban on the veil is purely an attack on Muslim women IMO, whatever the French government may say, and I don't see what's so liberating about fining women who wear it and then escorting them to a police station (intimidating much?) and telling them to state if they've been forced to wear it by someone else. As if the ones who have would ever admit it in that situation...

    Women should indeed be allowed to "wear what we damn well please", whether it's barely enough to cover ourselves, or a giant cloth over our heads. It's no-one's business or place to judge.

  5. All in all some points well made.
    ON PRINCIPLE, I am opposed to legislating what if anything may or must be worn
    (here in Vancouver nudity itself isn't illegal
    -nor is the burkah).
    IN PRACTICE, I recognize the value of such a prohibition - at least in the interim.
    WHY? Because immigrant mothers and children are a majority of the disadvantaged I've had the honour of serving several days a week for more than four years. I've watched women first cling to the familiarity of hajib, niqab,and chador; then look curiously,questioningly, then hungrily, at the freedom of choice enjoyed and expressed by most women(even Muslims) the freedom of their own person. I've watched chador give way to niqab thn hajib. I've seen that hajib slide back -eventually worn as a neck scarf. Others dared not for fear of reprisal from spouse or family - even sons.
    (the brave are mostly those abandonned by men).
    As the veil disappears a woman appears, finds friends - sisters really, independence and a panorama of possibilities. The veil is isolation - a necessary armour in homelands where to be seen is to be harassed, groped, raped - even condemned and caned - solitary confinement here and now.
    For most of these women a legal prohibiton is personal freedom

  6. I think this gets to the heart of what makes the French decision so interesting, disturbing and worth watching/debating. I personally don't agree (at all) with facial coverings for women only. If the men wore them too I'd have less of an issue but that isn't how that particular strain of Islam works (or any strain of any religion actually). BUT - I can't bring myself to support legislation that is effectively doing the same thing; telling women how to dress. At the same time I totally see your point, that for some this will be their chance to see that they don't have to cover themselves entirely, and that their face and voice is welcome in our societies.

    I also worry that by a western power banning the veil, it gives it strength in those insular and hate filled ideologies, where the veil is more common. By banning it I can see how that could be used to justify it, i.e. "Look, these westerners with their degenerate ways disagree with it, proving this is the correct way for a good Muslim woman to dress. If you don't then you're with them and against us" etc.

    It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation - I just wish Muslim women could have a say about the decisions governments make on their behalf. We can only hope that in the long term this proves to be a benefit, and not a slippery slope to women yet again being singled out for special legislation.