An artist must, after all, speak of his own experience.”
Li Tianbing, Chinese painter
‘Twas nearly a month ago when it happened. I was waiting at our gathering spot at the mall after we’d watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens and mulling over the film’s convoluted plot (which today I can’t recall) when I witnessed a practice that is common to Arabs in the Gulf Region: two men leaned forward until their noses joined, then swung their head from side to side in the traditional greeting between members of the male sex. They were one meter away from me. The act was repeated again between friends A and C (the first was between A and B who was with C) before the men held each other’s hands in an exuberance telling of the warm friendship that existed between them.
Witnessing the nose kiss so up close and personal had me wondering at the vagaries of a society with strict codes for dress and conduct for both men and women. I’ve seen the hubby warmly embraced by a kandura-wearing friend whom he had not seen in a year. So. Men are able to freely express their friendship without arousing suspicions that they are gay. But women? Well, I’ve seen many, many women flaunt their figures underneath the abaya, their shopping bags breezily dangling from their arms as they cheerfully chatter away. I’ve also seen women publicly dance with other women because there were no men present to be their partners. But never have I seen women greet each other the way men embrace each other in public.
If men can engage in PDA’s of the intimate sort in the public sphere, what about the women? That got me thinking. And wondering. Then thinking again. About the engineer who was called home by her father so she would not be corrupted by the West. About how social change is inevitable in a country used to satellite television. About the thirty-something woman I met who spends her days watching television. About how Emirati women are fortunate to have a government that cares, truly cares, about them (local women are encouraged to get a university degree and are offered technical/financial help if they want to set up a business). About how the road to lasting social change is paved with potholes and craters literally and figuratively. Lastly, about my journey to and from feminism.
I first became enamored with the feminist movement’s ideals after reading Collette Dowling’s The Cinderella Complex at the age of thirteen. That it happened just when Cyndi Lauper was singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in a society where female university graduates were being encouraged via tax incentives to procreate with fellow graduates may have been a contributing factor. That I was a rebellious daughter may have been another contributing factor. I don’t know. All I can now say is …
I’ve done it. I’ve attended university classes where I was one of three girls in a class of 33 without wearing a bra. I’ve worn clothes that would not be considered revealing today but which, given the time and place, caused my classmates to joke “Athena, your dressmaker must have been short of fabric once again!” I’ve smoked but quit just to get my best friend off my back. It was easier to quit than tolerate her constant nagging that it was bad for my health. You might even say that the course I managed to finish at university – electrical engineering – arose from a desire not to constrain myself to a female profession.
Eventually, I realized that these were shallow displays, the external trappings of a feminism not deep enough to flout society’s norms. (Why must feminists break through boundaries and flout cultural conventions to be lauded for their achievements?)
Becoming a Christian a year before graduating from university was responsible for the latter, of course. Who knows what I might have done had I not found Christ? Years and years later, reading the Bible enabled me to view the secular writings in magazines from the perspective of one who had found freedom in Christ. That only Christ’s truth – not the church, not religion – liberates was truly liberating in a way that is hard to explain.
I also realized that men have used religion (or lack of it as in the case with China) to perpetuate gender inequality in all forms throughout history long before Jimmy Carter famously declared his withdrawal from the Southern Baptist Convention (notice he did not say he abandoned his faith). As an aside, did you know that women in East Germany had a better life under the old Communist regime?
My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants.” Lana del Rey
And so here I am: a housewife with plenty of fat and white hair to spare who’s now able to proudly proclaim “Hey, I’ve been a feminist all this time!” without shame. Except, except …. I’m not. Not really. Because I think. You see, real feminists just do. They don’t sit around, intellectualizing the debate over bridging the gap in the salaries of men and women. They don’t give speeches lamenting their lower pay or bragging that they’re successful because they did not get pregnant/got an abortion. They’re not the women who carefully plot a course to upset the male status quo. Because. Real feminists can’t afford to think. At least those who do not live in the developed Western world can’t. So. They simply act. Just to survive.
I learned feminism disproportionately from black women.
To me, right now, the true feminists are not the women who are accustomed to privilege and want to have more. The face of a feminist is that of the child bride who refuses the marriage arranged between her and a man three times her age. She is the Indian widow who defies society’s expectation that she die with her husband by choosing to exist, struggling to maintain dignity while living a beggar’s life. She is the Chinese mother who, after giving birth to a girl, hides her and gives her up for adoption to give her child a better life. She is the rape victim who has boldly shown her face to the world. She is the student who bravely utters words that she knows could get her a bullet in her body. She may be the lawyer who gives up a lucrative job to join an NGO and defend girls in court. She could be the mother figure in a village livelihood project. Heck, she may even be the whore in a brothel struggling to maintain some semblance of self-respect while looking for a way to get out of her pimp’s protection.
In all cases, they are either trying to or have bucked cultural conventions and hierarchical patterns set down by external authorities. Their life shows no signs of the external trappings of feminism that is associated with the movement in the West. Perhaps I think like this because I come from the Far East, no? I don’t know. Anyway ….
In the 1990s, Dustin Hoffman starred in Accidental Hero with Geena Davis and Andy Garcia. It’s a nondescript gem of a movie. Still, it stayed with me through the years for questioning American culture’s fixation with heroes and the general definition of a hero. Perhaps we should do the same when it comes to feminists? I’m not saying that those who vigorously campaigned for equal pay, workplace childcare, access to contraceptives, and other issues did not advance the movement. They did. But. There’s a Me-ness to their activism that is lacking in the examples I mentioned above.
Today, I am largely disillusioned at the Western framework for female liberation or what exactly constitutes a feminist. I look at Gloria Steinem and Camille Paglia and their ilk and wonder whether the achievements for which they are lauded actually did us any good in the long run. Don’t get me wrong. I deeply admire Steinem for walking her talk. But sometimes I do wonder if the women’s movement would have progressed without their activism and rhetoric, pushed along by the waves of fresh female graduates and women seeking employment after a divorce. Or if, in seeking parity with men, women traded something better for something that is simply good. Because. The reality is we can’t have it all. (I could expand what I mean by this statement but this post is already very long) If we could, then why do women today face so many problems that our parents and grandparents never had?
In the end, what ultimately nailed the coffin on my regard for the feminist movement was Mallory Millett’s Marxist Feminism’s Ruined Lives: The Horror I Witnessed Inside the Women’s “Liberation” Movement. Millett is the sister of Kate Millett, a feminist icon. In it, she reveals the man-hating family-destroying agenda of the feminist movement. Reading it brought up many questions …
Why must women act like sluts to gain freedom from men? Where is the self-respect in that? Can’t one have a liberal mind without flouting societal norms? Another thing. Men do not work their butts to trade places with us. Have you heard of a guy expressing a wish to get pregnant and give birth?
We were uniquely made to carry a life and childbirth. Why then, do we aspire to jobs traditionally held by men? (Again, I’m not saying it’s wrong – just that if you’re not called and uniquely suited for it, it’s a travesty to do so just to advance a movement). Why do we reject the physical limitations placed on our bodies? Menstruation is a pain, yes, but there’s no point in wishing that men experience it. They can’t and that should be the end of it.
So what, exactly, does a feminist mean to me right now? It’s hard to explain. The feminist movement has embraced all sorts of causes (gay rights, racial equality) that the average person would have a hard time grasping its tail, especially since identifying with it is now so fraught with emotion. Celebrities declaring that they’re not feminists have not helped the cause, either.
So. Let me revise my opinion once again. The real feminists, the way I see it, are not necessarily those who proclaim their feminism in their writings or actions. They are the women who, in forging an identity true to their nature, have paved the way to something better for the rest of womankind. They may not be wildly successful in their fields. But. In extending the boundaries for what women are capable of – and I’m not talking about the glass ceiling only here – they have made the world a better place for their daughters and daughters-in-law. This definition is not limited to powerful women like Hilary Clinton whose ability to concurrently inspire disgust and admiration leaves me in awe. It embraces females of all color and creed and may even include – gasp! – your mother.
In the end, the true feminist may be the mother who educates her sons and daughters about the value of human life, showing that gender equality, when marked by a recognition and celebration of the distinct differences between male and female, is biblically compatible. Because. Come to think of it, if all men grew up thinking that women deserve equal pay as men … if all boys became men believing that women’s differences do not make them inferior but in fact superior to men, we wouldn’t be waging a war in the workplace and judiciary, would we?
As for me, well, don’t label me a feminist. Or wife. Or mother. Just one word will do: woman. After all, it’s what I was created to be. And. It’s the only word that captures the essence of Me.
A few film suggestions beyond Sufragette:
Not Without My Daughter
I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced