Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Great Right Wing Attack on Feminism

Right wing sites and their followers on social media love bashing feminism. The usual tactic is to highlight some extreme action or statement as if it is all feminism is about. Sometimes this is made up or something more reasonable is taken out of context – but any movement has adherents who take things to an extreme. If you take those extreme events – whether imaginary, exaggerated or real – as representing an entire movement then it says more about you than it says about feminism.

What has feminism achieved? Here’s a short list of what it was like to live in a pre-feminist world:
  • women could not vote
  • women were paid a significantly lower wage for the same work and often did not have the same benefits (such as employer-sponsored retirement fund)
  • women could lose their job just for getting married
  • control over reproduction was considered wrong; a woman was supposed to make babies whether she wanted to or not
  • victims of rape were considered at least partly responsible
  • if women could get maternity leave at all, there was no matching paternity leave, meaning that they took the sole career cost of having a family
  • women were not considered suited to management jobs
  • women could not aspire to any professions out of the limited pool of teaching and nursing
  • women were not expected to take credit for scientific discovery even if they played a pivotal role (Marie Curie shattered that barrier by winning two Nobels in different sciences)
You could argue that some of this could have been achieved without feminism. But if you look for the opposite kind of society that has not only failed to develop feminism but retains a dogmatic pre-modern patriarchal outlook, very few of the above have occurred.

Try Saudi Arabia, for example, where women are not allowed to drive and are not even allowed out of the house if they may encounter unknown adult males without a male relative chaperone (a mahram:a young child will do). In practice, this is not strictly enforced in situations like shopping but a Saudi woman may not be examined by a male doctor, for example, with a mahram companion. I asked a Muslim work colleague about this and he explained that the Quran requires that a women have male company in a situation of danger – as a practical guideline because men are on average stronger – and the ludicrous implication of the Saudi law is that their society is unsafe in ordinary day-to-day situations.

Afghanistan, despite the overthrow of the Taliban, remains a deeply misogynistic society, as do the tribal regions of Pakistan, with horrendous practices like “honour” murders.

Even more so: regions under control of ISIS.

Generally speaking biggest the enemy of feminism is literalist, patriarchal interpretation of religion.

And that also is found in Western society in the form of movements like the Tea Party (which fortunately is constrained by a robust constitution that they clearly would like to tear up).

So do we still need feminism – aren’t the achievements I listed enough? As long as we still have patriarchal and misogynist attitudes in society we need a movement to counter that. As one example, the mentality that a rape victim “asked for it” or at very least ought to be ashamed still persists. Why, if that is not the case, is a rape victim entitled to anonymity?

If you get drunk and fall asleep without closing your front door and wake up to find your house emptied by thieves, does society expect you to be so ashamed that your identity should be concealed? Even if you did something stupid that left you vulnerable, no one has to take advantage of that. In fact you could argue that a crime taking advantage of vulnerability is worse than taking on someone able to defend themselves.

So: yes, feminism is still relevant and there is still work to be done. And no: I do not support ludicrous interpretations of feminism, even if those interpretations are real and not the product of the fevered imagination of rabid right wingers.

Update: Some right wingers may argue that feminisms past achievements are good but – job done – we can stop the whole movement now. However the right side of politics bitterly opposed all these advances at the time and it is unreasonable to suppose that they would not attempt to backslide if the pressure let up.

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