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Not just a label

  • Published at 06:21 pm March 7th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:57 pm March 8th, 2017
Not just a label

“Feminism” is one of the most hotly contested ideas of the modern age, and the debates around said word become even more intense in the run-up to International Women’s Day.

As is the case with such things, the loudest and most privileged voices filter through the ruckus. Can a feminist like Emma Watson do a topless photo shoot? Can you be a feminist in a sexist industry like Bollywood? Should feminists wear makeup? Do feminists believe in marriage? Why can’t you just be a humanist?

As a Bangladeshi feminist, writer, and relisher of politically charged arguments, there are two aspects of such debates that I find wildly frustrating -- the fact that so much of our discussions on feminism still fixates on the female body, and so often when we talk of feminism, it seems to be on-the-surface discussions of feminism as a label.

I’m not here to tell you these arguments are inconsequential. Far from it -- the way women’s bodies are viewed in public places, and the constant infringement on their personal space, bordering on abuse, is a very real problem.

The fact that women always have to think twice about what they are wearing before leaving the house is a problem.

But by fixating only on these problems, we trap ourselves into the same patriarchal process of thought that dictates that the female body is somehow more real and worldly, more carnal, and more open to be used as symbols of modesty or impure lust.

What’s worse, so many feminists walk into this trap, using other women’s bodies as a battleground for their fight for equality.

This brings me to my next point -- who really are the “feminists?” These days it seems to be about everybody, from Justin Trudeau to Malala Yousafzai, but what do we actually want?

We spend so much time explaining that feminists are not man-haters but people who are fighting structural inequalities, and that feminism is as much about men as it is about women because of the traditional gendered roles it fights, that we completely miss out on telling people that we aren’t all made of the same mould.

For any real progress to be made towards equality, we need to engage with the political, legal, and social issues that create these barriers, and focus on feminism which also engages with ethnicity, social class, and other factors affecting inequality

You can be feminists and differ vastly on your ideas of political governance, or you can identify as or more strongly with people from your racial or cultural group.

There is no global sisterhood of women who all agree on everything, and none of us can bear the burden of representing all womanhood.

Your position of privilege, not only in terms of sex but race, nationality, and social class, all play a huge role in the level of prejudice that is aimed at you during your lifetime, and shape the battles you fight.


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After living in a country where marital rape is still legal, where if you’re not Muslim, your marriage and divorce do not actually come under the purview of the law, where character evidence is still used in rape trials and the latest laws allow child marriage under special circumstances -- if your main concern is whether models should be selling their bodies in the modern age, and your main source of pride is the achievements of an elite, Western woman like Hillary Clinton, then maybe it’s time you check to what extent your ideas are being filtered through to you through the lenses of Western media.

These are only a few of the very real gendered prejudices that are not only ingrained into our societies, but that make our justice system structurally unjust.

Only last week, sex workers were not allowed to congregate and demand their rights in Shahbagh.

The violence against women from minority groups is a daily reality in Bangladesh.

But so often when there is a debate about feminism, it is the same old tired argument about women, their clothes, and their bodies.

More people are angry about Trump’s abuses against women than the abuse that occurs next door.

Again, this is not an attempt to belittle certain feminist issues in favour of others.

One of the reasons feminism can be so tricky is because it lifts the veil between the public and private -- traditional gender roles affect people throughout their lives, whether you’re the little boy being told to “man up” or the working mother struggling with the additional unpaid care work that is thrust upon her.

But for any real progress to be made towards equality, we need to engage with the political, legal, and social issues which create these barriers, and focus on feminism that also engages with ethnicity, social class, and other factors affecting inequality.

We can’t simply stick on the label of “feminist” and protest from our positions of privilege the oppressions that affect us personally -- we need feminism to be much more inclusive if it is to truly reach the people who need it the most.

Shuprova Tasneem is Deputy Magazine Editor, Dhaka Tribune.