What Is a Feminist?

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Emma Watson once said, “If you support equal rights for men and women, you are a feminist, sorry to tell you but you’re a feminist”. There are many feminists that would agree and if you asked me this same question one year ago, I would have agreed too.

However, after reading heavily on the subject, developing more social awareness and exploring the realities of the world we live in, I’ve realised that it’s just not this simple.

If you asked a group of people – all from different backgrounds, religions, races, ages, etc – whether or not they support women’s rights, many of them would probably say ‘yes’.

In fact, ask yourself this question. Do you believe in women’s rights? Anyone can say “yes” to this question and (if not the majority) certainly, a lot of people would. But simply saying “I support gender equality” or “I support women’s rights” doesn’t make you a feminist.

One of the most obvious signs of this is to look at the fact that global society is still extremely dangerous and undeniably oppressive for women. In high-income countries a lot of progress has been made for women and the majority of people do claim to support women. However, if the majority genuinely did support women’s rights, society would be a lot more pleasant for the average woman – which it is not.

Feminism is a global ideology with many different versions, interpretations and methodologies. The first issue with Watson’s claim to feminism is the actual wording of the question, more specifically “equal rights for women”.

What Makes a Feminist?

So, what actually makes a feminist? A feminist is someone who carries a combination of experience and ideology.

Feminists don’t just follow intersectional feminism. We are also negatively impacted by misogyny and anti-woman practices. There are many groups that are negatively affected by misogyny, such as ciswomen, transwomen, transmen, transfeminine people, sex workers, etc.

Feminism is a movement for these people. Feminists work towards the liberation of these groups from the structures that oppress them, which isn’t exclusively patriarchy.

Feminism is more than an ideology. It’s a movement and an experience.

Feminism Is Intersectional

Read: What Is Intersectional Feminism?

Mainstream feminism is pioneered and dominated by middle/upper-class white women. This social group’s only adversary is sexism. This allows them to strive for ‘empowerment’ because they’re already coming from a position of privilege. They don’t consider the impact of race, class, disability, sexual orientation, etc on other women.

feminist, women's rights, what is feminism, feminism, feminist ally
Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

By promoting ‘empowerment’, these women align themselves with the powerful (wealthy and white) men of the world. As a result, mainstream “feminists” perpetuate white supremacy, capitalism, heterosexism and other social hierarchies (none of which are mutually exclusive).

This form of “feminism” is not genuine feminism for many historical and contextual reasons. One of the main critiques is its lack of consideration for intersectional issues. It’s not feminism unless it includes sex workers, women in poverty, transwomen, queer women, black women, women of colour, Muslim women, women of all other religions, transfeminine people and even babies.

Abuse Towards Young Girls

Many issues that face newborns and females under 6 are grossly overlooked (partly because they aren’t discussed because young girls have no platform to communicate their issues/experiences). It’s the responsibility of the guardian. However, they’ll usually be complicit in whatever form of abuse or mistreatment is taking place.

Also, most young girls have no understanding or way of verbally communicating experiences that caused them pain or trauma. They aren’t taught the proper terminology or any concept of personal safety at this point. We should be teaching young girls to understand boundaries. All children should be able to set their own boundaries and know what to do when someone disrespects them.

Women’s Rights Are a Global Issue

Mainstream feminism doesn’t take into account the extreme issues that women in lower-income countries suffer from (such as femicide, female genital mutilation, trafficking, forced marriage and more). Many of these issues were caused by imperialism and the high-income countries that show the most progress with gender equality. High-income countries are able to compare the widespread extreme mistreatment of women in other regions to scapegoat the mistreatment of women in their own countries. This allows them to exploit all the women of the world.

Some examples of international concerns for women:

  • On March 30, 2021, the French government banned the hijab for Muslim girls under 18. (Read here)
  • Russia has officially banned same-sex marriage and already has strong anti-homosexual anti-LGBTQ policies, which means it is extremely difficult for women in Russia to participate in same-sex relationships. (Read here)
  • Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. (Read here)
  • Research in Cambodia has shown that women with disabilities are more likely to face violence from immediate family members and are more likely to experience controlling behaviour from partners. (Read here)

Women’s Issues Are Systemic

We Don’t Want Equality

Feminism is a global ideology with many different versions, interpretations and methodologies. The first issue with Watson’s claim to feminism is the actual wording of the question, more specifically “equal rights for women”.

Mainstream feminism (famously bolstered by icons such as Watson and Taylor Swift) focuses far too idealistically on ‘equality’. What does that mean? Well, in their words it means women can do everything men can do. Women can have everything men can have. Women can be everything men can be.

feminist, women's rights, what is feminism, feminism, feminist ally
Photo by Raphael Lovaski on Unsplash

But can we? Is that what we want? We shouldn’t want to align ourselves with our oppressors. We shouldn’t want to be what our oppressors are. They are oppressors. If ‘equality’ doesn’t mean aligning men with women in a state of oppression, it means aligning women with men in a state of power. The power to oppress, to abuse, to exploit, to murder and to rape, to steal and to take what was never offered.

That shouldn’t be the goal.

In fact, this form of feminism relies on the concept of individual ‘empowerment’. Each woman has a responsibility to go out into the world and do something – to take power. Women are being told that power is the goal, the aim and the pinnacle of equality. But where there is empowerment there must be disempowerment. For any group to be socially superior, another group must be socially inferior. Mainstream feminism ties equality to supremacy (mainly political and economic) which only strengthens other oppressive structures.

We Want Liberation

We don’t recognise the fact that the issues women face are all structural. They are entirely systemic. These structures form the scaffolding of all of global and local society’s institutions. There can be no such thing as equality if we are living with any of these same systems.

For this reason, accurate and effective activism for women focuses on liberation, rather than equality. Liberation involves freeing women from the systems that oppress us and working to build new structures that provide access, opportunities and security for women.

Perhaps after this has been done, we can discuss equality. However, there is still a significant issue with the concept of ‘equality’. True equality would involve subjecting men to the mistreatment (to put it mildly) that women have faced. Simultaneously, we’d need to provide women with the social, economic and political power that men have enjoyed. True equality would require an entire role-reversal so that we could each have the experiences of the other. This would involve putting men through what women have been through for centuries and allowing women to take the role of the oppressor.

Additionally, there would still need to be classism, racism, transphobia, homophobia and more that all contribute to the anti-femininity, anti-woman sentiment in society. This is what oppresses women and this is what would have to oppress men. The conditions for men would need to be as close as possible to what women have endured. Millions of women would still suffer.

Obviously, this isn’t the goal and it’s not even remotely possible. The goal is to liberate women from the tyranny of the many social structures that oppress us. 

After society has been restructured, some form of equality can prevail. All sexes and genders can have equal access and equal opportunities. Of course, this will never erase the thousands of years of trauma that women have endured. However, with reparations, affirmative action and proper education on past events and women’s history, an equal society can thrive.

We don’t want to be equal with our oppressors. We don’t want a “solution” that doesn’t consider ALL oppressive structures. We want liberation… for all women.

Can Men Be Feminists?

Men Can Be Allies

If you had asked me one year ago “Can men be feminists?”, I definitely would have said yes. However, it’s clear that men and women aren’t the same. We don’t have the same experience and we don’t have the same perspective. While men can very easily educate themselves, attend protests and demonstrations, and support the women’s movement across the world, they aren’t oppressed. They’re not faced with the constant structural anti-woman discrimination that we face.

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Photo by Raquel García on Unsplash

The support of men in the women’s movement is noticeably important but feminism involves experience and some extent of trauma. All women are born into trauma. We’re taught that, from birth, we can be sexually harassed or face domestic abuse or told to smile more or told what to wear, where to go and who to be with.

Yes – these issues can affect men too. It’s well-known by now that the root cause of men’s issues is patriarchy, which is why it’s important for men to be involved with activism that intends to destroy this structure. However, men don’t have the experience, trauma or perspective that women do. Women are forced to live their day-to-day lives performing for the male gaze; supporting the egos of the men in their lives; not leaving the house after dark; being told that the things we enjoy are childish, immature and “too girly”. Because “too girly” is an insult… to girls.

Although, I wouldn’t necessarily be offended or antagonised if a man referred to himself as a feminist. I’d actually be quite pleased if he means that he’s genuinely engaging himself in the in-depth activism for the liberation of women. However, misogyny runs deep in all men because everyone is socialised to support patriarchal values and androcentrism.

Men can be allies. In the Boston Review, Micky Mcelya describes an ‘ally’ as someone who “does not suffer the same oppressions, but who supports your struggle for rights and freedom”. So, an ally is someone who acknowledges systemic oppression (including their role as an individual in society) but actually lacks action.

“An ally is someone who does not suffer the same oppressions, but who supports your struggle for rights and freedom”.

Micki Mcelya

Part of a man’s allyship must involve ridding himself of misogyny and sexist values. This is extremely difficult given the severity and repeated exposure to other misogynistic men. The majority of social interactions are often interlaced with sexism – not to mention the cultural influences and media that appeal to men and misogyny.

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Nonetheless, with sufficient education and exposure to more diverse and open environments, a man will learn how to effectively support women’s rights. It’s known that men listen to men far more than they listen to women, which means that men can communicate women’s concerns to other men. This can encourage them to open their minds and focus their attention on helping solve these issues. A lot of men seem to think that because they’re men, they don’t have a say but men are in a position of privilege. This can significantly raise awareness, spread information and make a change.

Feminism is more than an ideology. It’s a movement and an experience.

The Oppressors Will Not Liberate the Oppressed

However, I don’t think that feminism should keep advertising to men. I constantly see posts and articles about “what feminism does for men” and “why the patriarchy hurts men too”. Yes, it does hurt men but if they always need something in return, do they really support the liberation of women? Or are they just superficial and will only pay attention if it does something for them?

Cisgender men designed the systems that negatively effect women. They create the spaces that make women feel unsafe. To let the oppressor into these spaces, will not liberate women.

Why We Should Gatekeep the Movement

Letting the oppressor into the space of the oppressed will only make things worse.

Only those that are negatively affected by misogyny can be feminists. The simple fact is: feminism was not intended for men. It benefits them but it’s not something that we should be forcing men to support.

It is vital for women to be united under a movement for women’s liberation. This is massively prevented by many women’s lack of consideration or understanding of intersectionality. Many refuse to advocate for certain groups of women, especially women of colour, queer women, transwomen and disabled women. Mainstream feminism lacks respect for all types of women. The majority of women are ignored. It’s important that feminism provide a “sisterhood” for women to be united within.

feminist, women's rights, what is feminism, feminism, feminist ally
Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

This provides a platform – a community – for all women (backgrounds, locations, classes, religions, sexual orientations, etc) to feel supported and respected within. Women – all women – need to be able to communicate their issues and raise awareness for the different perspectives that have been brought together under oppression. Women should be able to come together.

Liberal (mainstream) feminism has stopped that from happening by arrogantly ignoring the intersectional and extreme issues of many communities of women. All women should feel united, protected and secure under a movement for women’s liberation.

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