I’m not a woman. I’m also not a female. And…I’m not a feminist. Damn me if you must, but first hear me out. It’s not that I’m against feminism. I’m just not sure what it is. In my experience, there seems to be a disconnect between the definition and perception—between the meaning and what people mean.
It wasn’t until very recently that I learned feminism could mean equality. In the past, and especially on my university campus, my interactions with self-labeled feminists taught me that in order to be one, you needed to be angry at men, suspicious of men’s motives and desire a world where men felt the weight and pain of their sins. It also didn’t hurt your feminist cause to grow out your armpit hair and skip showers on a regular basis. Here was my first look at the disconnect; my perceptions of what people meant were overriding the true meaning of feminism.
It could be there were only a few overly vocal outliers to blame for my perceptions. For sure I too am at fault for not seeking the answers to my questions about feminism and instead allowing my stereotypes to lead my thoughts and conclusions.
It could also be the word “feminist” itself. Words matter. And labels matter. Their connotations often preclude the hearer from ever reaching their true definitions. An example of this is the Greek word adelphoi used many times in the Bible. Its direct translation into English is “brothers” but to a reader of Greek at the time, it would have meant “men and women who are believers.” Yet, because words hold so much power, translating the word simply as “brothers” can make modern women readers feel left out or relegated. I think the same thing is happening with the term feminist. I know it means “someone who’s for women being equal with men” and this definition is great, but it gives the sense that this is a women only kind of thing and skips over the fact that equality can only be understood when there are other things to be equal with. Why can’t we use a different word like “equalist” or something meaning “a person who’s for people being equal to each other?”
I first heard this kind of definition during a long discussion with a few British friends while traveling in Turkey last month. During our talk I learned that these women too were feminists and yet they didn’t hate men. They even held regular meetings to discuss feminism and reassured me feminists were truly for equality and not some kind of reversal of oppression.
He progressively asked for only one kiss
I got the chance for another revealing conversation a week later. It spontaneously erupted over a toilet seat. I’m not even making this up. It was another battle in the classic, endless war of the sexes: up, or down? We were at a little gathering of volunteers in one room of our hotel where we were all staying for a training. I came out of the bathroom and my female friend said, “You put the toilet seat down, right?” Suddenly I needed to know something. “Are you a feminist?” I asked. She said yes and I continued, “Ok, then if you desire equality, tell me—how many times have you lifted up the toilet seat after using the bathroom?” The rest of the exchange is a bit hazy partially due to the numerous interjections from surrounding volunteers, the beverages in each of our hands and let’s be honest, the way I asked the question in order to get a bit of a rise out of people. But the result of the conversation was clear—one after another, for the remainder of the evening and continuing into the next day—my female volunteer friends approached me to say that they too were feminists. Why? It was because I had said I’d never met a feminist who was truly interested in equality instead of some kind of female chauvinism.
The results surprised me. It was nice to hear women who were my friends and whom I respected and who were doing great things in Kyrgyzstan say they were feminists.
Yet there are other ways in which I really don’t get it. Again, not because I’ve thought about it and decided feminists are wrong—I don’t understand the movement because I’ve never had to. I’ve never worried about being passed over for promotion for being pregnant and soon to be taking maternity leave. I’ve never worried about keeping a hand on my drink at all times. I’ve never worried about catcalls, being the subject of a vulgar joke or creepy handsy hugs at the office. I’ve never been called bitchy for being assertive or bossy for expecting more out of others or had my concerns brushed off as PMS. “Yes, but you have a mother and sister and friends who are women,” people say. And I get that and I see it, but it doesn’t sink in the same way it does for them. I can see the disparities. But at the end of the day I don’t have to live with them. I’m a man hanging out in a man’s world.
English lesson flashcards kids understand: “Housewife”
Ironically, it may have been stepping out of the US and into places even more male dominated that’s making me aware of just how unequal men and women are. Like hearing and seeing just what it means for female volunteers who are joked around with daily about being bride kidnapped. Or how the frequency of catcalls skyrockets in a crowd if I’m a few feet behind my female friends versus walking along side them. Or listening to my landlord complain about how, when he helps his wife with the household chores, he gets shamed by his male friends because they think he can’t control his wife and subject her to the majority of the work. Or the number of women I’ve met who are angry in marriages because they had no say in whom they married, where they live or what they’re required to do for a job. I’ve seen so little of this before in my life and reality is just now becoming real. I am so incredibly lucky to have been spared of many of these things; yet the negative effect is I’ve grown complacent and inactive. Is feminism a kind of situation where, if you’re not actively for equal rights for women, you’re against them?
I should be more proactive, but I’m honestly not sure how to start. A contributing factor is never being quite sure where females stand on the spectrum of reactions to my words or behaviors. As an illustration, I always find myself at a loss when it comes to the potential object to be carried for a woman. I’m afraid of erring on both sides of the spectrum. Is she the independent kind who will bite my head off for offering to help because she’s perfectly capable on her own, thanks for nothing chauvinistic pig or if I don’t offer will she be harboring thoughts of what a lazy jerk—won’t even lift a finger to help a lady…? I feel stuck and squeezed between both sides, for not anticipating the perfect level of sensitivity to the apparently volatile subject of objects and their capacity for being lifted.
And then there’s always the “you’ll never get it because you don’t have a vagina” argument which I admitted before is fair. My opinion is almost never asked when it comes to issues of feminism or equality and I don’t really feel invited to the conversations. Of all the feminist discussion groups that meet on college campuses, basements and cafes across the globe, how many of them include a good mix of men and women? Judging by my own anecdotal evidence they’re mostly women and that’s probably greatly due to the fact men don’t want to attend, but the question remains, how well are these groups doing at inviting and including all kinds of people in these discussions?
I wish these discussion groups weren’t necessary. I wish we could all just start living and not have to talk about all this stuff. But I guess that’s kind of like the president saying he doesn’t like war and so he dissolves the military. There are always going to be belligerent people who will attack with or without logic and reason. Like peace, equality must be defended and requires careful construction of support among the greater public through education, public service campaigns, positive and imitable examples in media and strong moral teaching within families.
And then I think, do we even want to place equality as our highest goal? Is that the correct appeal? Could we reach a place of equality by striving after “service-ism” instead, promoting and engaging people in a kind of love that seeks others’ good above one’s own, whether man or woman, male or female? Maybe equality isn’t going far enough and after we reach it we’ll find ourselves disoriented and dissatisfied, always trying to balance the scale. Turning our relationships into measurements of debt against each other is a terrible way to live. The best human relationships have always been based on working selflessly in love for a common, higher good. If this goal can be reached we become equal through our mutual efforts to serve.
And Kyrgyz men can serve women
I’m not a feminist. Not yet anyway. I’m so new to this whole concept and discussion on feminism and equality that I don’t have strong conclusions to draw at this time, only a lot of questions to ask. Are we using the right words? Could we do better at inviting more people into the conversation? Are there more people hanging out on middle ground than I’m giving credit to? How should discussions on feminism be guided and directed today? Am I way off base in my ramblings or musings above? What are your thoughts?