Thursday, 18 October 2012

On courage

So before I go any further, I want to apologise for not being a good enough feminist to have been keeping up with news in the world of Men’s Rights Activists. Whilst searching the internet for new inspiring pictures to put in my desktop background folder, I ended up stumbling onto the publicity leaflets for MRA haven “A Voice for Men”- infamous in the land of feminists for being some of the most awful examples of graphic design ever made (below are probably the two best)!

But very persuasive, as you can see! Anyway, it turns out that when I wrote last week about having “taken the red pill”, I didn’t realise that this had already been co-opted by every single vaguely nerdy person in the last 15 years MRAs to describe their own awakening regarding the feminist conspiracy to draft them into the military and force them to be crappy fathers. I feel like this could be a bonding moment between me and misogynists- like a real life version of that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” song, but about overcoming the zero-sum model of gender relations rather than just continuing to date a clearly unsuitable person.

It also turns out that whilst I was fussing about the State of the Planet Conference, over in the rest of Development-Land they were holding the first annual Day of the Girl Child, celebrating progress in expanding education and choices for girls and pointing out what needs to be done in the future. Somewhat fittingly, this day ended up coinciding with the week in which members of the Taliban in Pakistan decided to end the life of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, whose crime had been to be too “western minded” and to loudly advocate girl’s education in her region of Swat. The day itself focused on ending the problem of child marriage- it is estimated that 25,000 girls aged 11-16 get married every day, an event which almost always signals an end to their education and makes them much more likely to become an adolescent  maternal mortality statistic (maternal mortality is the leading cause of death for 15-19 year old women).

Whilst a lot of the dialogue from this day passed me by, I did get time to read one particular story from UN Women which resonated. It was about Fetura Mohammed, a girl from Ethiopia who decided, upon being informed by her father that he had arranged her marriage at aged 14, to use her knowledge of laws surrounding the issue and the help of local organisations, to go to the local court and fight it. After successfully winning both her legal case and the case for educating her and allowing her to make her own life choices to her father, she now combines continuing to go to school with working with the groups which provided her with awareness of her own rights, and helping to distribute that knowledge to others.

To contrast, when I was 14, I was writing weird derivative fantasy stories in order to attract the boy of my dreams, and worrying about whether or not my year 9 exam results were going to be better than my bestest frenemy. Due to the vagaries of the British schooling system, I made some subject choices which at the time I thought were going to affect the rest of my life (largely due to aforementioned frenemy trying to convince me that I’d never go to a good university without a GCSE in Spanish, to which I say se te escapo la tortuga, 矮个子), but which turned out to have been completely irrelevant to anything ever. The battles I thought I was fighting were 1) imaginary and 2) conducted against a different 14-year-old girl, whose actual level of control over my life chances was completely non-existent. For me, being 14 was just one particular year of being in an education system where everything was set up for me, a British girl living in the UK*, to succeed.
The first time somebody told me that, as a girl, I could not expect to do as well or better than the boys I was being tested against academically, was when I went to a university that has  a“finals gap”, where women consistently underperform compared to men in pretty much all subjects (stereotype threat much?). But it was never accompanied by any sanctions; there was no suggestion that it was therefore pointless to let girls into the university because they wouldn’t match the expectations of the boys**. At no point in my academic career has courage ever been an integral part of my experience or progression as a female. Ambition, perhaps, and a certain amount of bloody-mindedness, but never courage. No male relatives have ever beaten me for doing what I want to do, and no female ones have ever emotionally blackmailed me into “knowing my place”. My parents are as disinterested in my eventual marriage prospects as I am, at least for the foreseeable future. No international organisation has power to stop me from doing what I want to do, no gunman is going to break into my Beijing dormitory and try to end my western-minded life.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that for the vast majority of feminists like me- including, no doubt, myself- that this privilege is what lets us be feminists at all. Faced with constant threats against our lives (either in the literal sense or simply in the sense of being able to belong to our own families and communities in some sense), most of us would not be pontificating over subtexts of male entitlement in bar etiquette or whether the word “slut” should be reclaimed or avoided altogether- we’d spend most of the time trying to protect ourselves in the immediate sense, trying to figure out how to better our situations within the constraints of the situation we’re in. This is true of all of human progress, of course- being at the sharp end of social change always have to be the preserve of the courageous and bright few (and those with access to organisations like ActionAid in Ethiopia, which helped Mohammed understand her legal rights and bring a case against her father to prevent her child marriage), with the rest of us able to push the boundaries further from a position that’s already relatively secure.

I don’t mean to suggest that the big problems faced by North Americans and Western European women are at all trivial (indeed, in a few cases, they look pretty similar to those faced in Taliban-influenced areas of Pakistan or Ethiopia, and we’d do well not to forget that). Sexual assault and domestic violence aren’t trivial. The wage gap is not trivial, particularly given how many families and children are supported by women alone***, and particularly given how it becomes exacerbated when race is taken into consideration. The assumption that women should raise children without society considering it a significant, valued labour undertaking (because raising children is something women can do naturally!) is not trivial. The way in which women are encourage to perceive our own bodies and the time and money we’re expected to spend “fixing” them is not trivial. The thousands of remarks catalogued on “Everyday Sexism” might seem trivial when taken individually, but what they add up to certainly is not. The weird guy who leered at me and called me “honey” when he was trying to get past me at the bar on Tuesday night was trivial, but he exists on a sliding scale of male entitlement which gets non-trivial pretty quickly. Arguing that men are discriminated against because they could be drafted to fight (even though they haven’t been in the US since the 1970s and even longer in the UK) is a bit trivial, sorry MRAs.

What these things are not, with the big exception of sexual violence, is individually threatening.**** Wage gaps, childcare expectations, conversations with weird men that we’re socialised to be too polite to escape from, enforced beauty regimes, institutionalised gender equality in exams: all of these are issues which grind us down rather than terrifying us into submission. And then we are shown that we live in a world where 14-year-old girls are shot for going to secondary school, or trapped into marriages with much older men, and the fact that we don’t have that particular problem seems to make frustration with our own gendered lives a bit ungrateful. This idea particularly tends to pervade conversations I have about gender equality in China- now that women can get educated and find good jobs and aren’t physically crippled as girls and then shipped off to live under a mother-in-law at age 11, surely it’s time to stop worrying? It’s enough to have to worry about finding a decent husband (before age 27, remember!) and getting promoted beyond a certain point, and having fair enough skin and beautiful hair, and of course overcoming the various moments of stupidity that are just so female- we can’t even seem to cross the road without getting run over and let’s not even try doing economic calculations- without having to also worry about feminism. Plus, feminism scares men away. There's only so much any person can do.

So how the hell do we contextualise all of this- our lives, our gendered problems, our non-gendered problems, other women’s problems, the world’s problems- without going completely insane? Especially since we’re living in the first era (imperialism definitely does not count) where globalisation seems to demand that we do so. The privileged educated white feminist response- even when faced with diverse voices within their own countries, let alone having to contend with those from outside- is too often to either retreat into privileged educated white female problems (like the “right” to not sit at home being looked after by wealthy men, which has never been a representative lifestyle for most of the world’s women!) or, less often, to get very worried about issues like child marriage or female genital mutilation or the position of women in Islam which we don’t actually have any insight into whatsoever, and to impose our rather irrelevant thoughts onto those debates. I'm not going to be an apologist for cultural relativism or anything like that, because I've only ever seen that used to deny women personhood based on an accident of geography, and I frankly think it’s an insult to suggest that there is such a thing as a culture which cannot secure universal human rights. But what those big, scary debates need- and have- is the courageous voices of girls and women who actually contend with these issues to advocate and to be heard.

We privileged few have two safer but far more difficult tasks. One, to keep listening to what is going on all over the world- listening, not speaking, and certainly not talking over! And two, to keep moving forward ourselves on issues which demand the patience of us all rather than the courage of a few. It might just be the fact that I’ve started paying more attention since I began this blog, but I feel like the dialogue about feminism and gender issues in the UK and the US is becoming more mainstream once again. That’s great, but it’s also reaching an audience of both men and women who have been privileged throughout their lives, who can see what is going on elsewhere, and who conclude that the situation we face now is trivial and natural. Most young girls in the UK grow up like me, completely unaware and indifferent to gender issues until pretty late in their childhoods. It’s speculated- by Gloria Steinem, for example- that maybe there is a different “radicalisation” lifecycle for women, that we begin conservative and only start to understand what has been taken from us later on in our lives, that the counterpart to an “angry young man” is actually an “angry old woman” and we shouldn’t worry too much about how non-radical our youth are. Perhaps that’s true, but if so it means women won’t fight for change until it’s too late for them as individuals. Better, perhaps, to start now, with what we know- because for now at least, there’s always a next step.

*And for a while before that, Australia, but the same point holds.

** Although I’ve no doubt that there is plenty of institutionalised sexism in an admissions procedure that overwhelmingly still depends on whether one or two old white men warm to you in twenty minutes

***This is feminism’s fault for being so damn discriminatory against rights for fathers, of course! Misandry <3

**** For some women that’s probably an eyebrow-raisingly big exception to make, sorry about that. Living in China, where I can go home alone at any time of the night without any fear whatsoever (and before then in Oxford which was pretty much the same deal) means I’m absurdly privileged in this respect.