Should we redefine the terminology “Feminism” to exclude gender equality?
Feminism is a term I feel so very passionate about, especially because of its history and the fact that my favourite persons; Virginia Woolf, the Bronte Sisters, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, amongst others, have popularized it. The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines Feminism as the “belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men; the struggle to achieve this aim.” The Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary and Thesaurus defines it as “the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk defined a Feminist as ‘someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.’ In the Senica Falls Convention 1884, where the Women’s Right Movement was born, Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the opening paragraph of her Declaration of Rights and Sentiments which was fashioned after the United States Declaration of Independence stated these:
“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
…The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let fact be submitted to a candid world.”
I have always believed that Feminism is akin to human rights, fairness and basically equality and I’ve also come to the understanding that many persons see feminism as a form of rebellion by cantankerous females who hate men and want to usurp their positions. These persons confuse Feminism with Misandrism, especially because Misandrists identify with Feminism. I am certain that this confusion influenced Pat Robertson’s infamous quote: ‘The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Radicals and Extremists exist in every philosophy, concept and ideology and the Feminists movement would not be an exception. This, therefore should not in any way sabotage the full meaning of Feminism and what it stands for because the key message of Feminism is gender equality. And like I read somewhere a portion does not equal a whole no matter how loud the portion is.
On one eventful morning, I had a long, enlightening and thought provoking conversation with a Clergyman in my office who deserves more than just a worthy mention. He is a sweet, gentle and admirable man, whose attitude intrigues me. On numerous occasions I have seen him step aside to allow a lady regardless of her age, ascend or descend the narrow stairwells in my office. It is uncommon to see middle aged men act so respectably towards women in manner and approach in this part of the world. His point driven arguments were always constructive with gentle intonations that hardly provoked angry retorts. I never had the pleasure of engaging in a long conversation with him besides pleasantries until that morning. After I had ensconced myself in the office, he walked in beaming adoringly. It seemed as if I had turned suddenly different from the person he always saw. This new and warm reception clearly embarrassed me in a flattering way. In quick time he made the object of his visit known. He had heard there was a “Chimamanda” in the office. That was an agreeable metaphor. I love to be associated with the renowned writer. She can do no wrong in my eye even though my submissions to her workshop have been constantly rejected, year in, year out.
Now the conversation flew here and there about the kind of things I like to write and then back to Chimamanda. Truth is, no one can have a literary conversation with me without knowing I am a Chimamanda Aficionado. So, naturally, her Feminist status came on board. Prior to this conversation I was unaware of the Clergyman’s distaste for the term ‘Feminism’. I saw clearly, the irritation on his face when he stated how much he disliked the word. I was curious as to why and tried pointing out to the best of my ability that we had the Radicals and Extremists as it is quite normal in every concept or ideology on earth and the fact that the feminism to which I was referring to was synonymous with gender equality. To buttress my point I roughly quoted the definition given by Chimamanda in her famous TED talk. But to my wonder, he shook his head and said there was nothing like gender equality and would rather use the word “uniqueness” instead of gender equality and feminism. He added that the Bible does not support Feminism.
For a moment I was confused. He had a problem with the word and made a valid and obvious point about the two sexes being different with specific unique roles and biological characteristics. It was on this premise that he concluded that there was nothing like gender equality. He, however, added that if Feminism entailed teaching women how to play their roles properly as women in the society then he could embrace that word. I expressed my disapproval of the subservient roles women have been forced to take upon themselves by society and the accepted wisdom that these roles include being ‘beneath’ the men. I shared an account to prop my feminism perspective. On a hot afternoon as I walked out of a DSTV office, I was stopped by the call of a self-confident young man, who by the looks of it was a young adult. He was sitting quite comfortably, with legs spread apart on a white, plastic chair in front of a door beside the DSTV office. It was his persistent, raspy “hello” that forced me into turning around to behold him. He looked at me expectantly as I stood observing him. When he continued sitting I became quite puzzled as to his intentions for stopping me because for a moment I thought the reason he called was to woo me. Now I became irritated because he wasn’t doing anything besides wasting my time and changing his facial expressions which I must add reminded me of Blackberry emoticons. I raised my eyebrows and my hands to show that I had run out of patience. He beckoned me with his eyes to approach him. Now, this young man was dressed well enough to be taken for a lucid person. If I didn’t know better I would have thought him to be retarded. I had seen enough to conclude that he was one of the typically misinformed men who approached ladies as if they were property waiting to just receive an acknowledgement of ownership and not one of the numerous insane men that parade the city of Port Harcourt. Now seeing he was well dressed, I was more convinced of his sanity. I must add that all these theatrics took place in less than ten minutes. I squinted disapprovingly showing my utter disgust and saw his ego drop as he dragged himself up muttering these words; “I am a man oh, and it’s a man that would pay your bride price.” The message was apparent enough. He was a man and I did him grave injustice by expecting the smallest courtesy.
Now I told the clergyman this story, trying of course to explain what was wrong and the actions by Feminists to correct this wrong mentality. I asked what he thought of the scenario and the young man. He said that any man who treats a woman in such manner was irresponsible. What I perceived from his response was that the man’s action wasn’t a problem of gender, it was mere irresponsibility and it should not be a basis for agitation by these rebellious feminists who attack men and try to switch roles. I could not help but disagree. The real problem is society’s unwillingness to address the issue of gender inequality; we do not want to talk about gender inequality. We do not want to mention Feminism. We do not mind giving it another name. We could call the problems women encounter for being females another thing and the unfair treatment and attitude of men towards women irresponsible but we should not call it a problem of gender or gender inequality. I was tempted to accept that Feminists were making a fuss out of this whole irresponsibility of ignorant men. Saying they were irresponsible was convenient. But if we just sit back and accept that this attitude is just another offshoot of irresponsibility, then we wouldn’t be true to ourselves; we would be sweeping the dirt under the carpet.
On more than one occasion during my conversations with young, smart men, I have caught them casually saying ‘a man should be able to ‘control’ his woman.’ I have registered my dislike for this statement. I have a problem with the word “control” because if I were to turn around that statement to say, “a woman should be able to control her man’, my mother would be accused of not training me well. Is the word ‘control’ conscripted for the exclusive use of men? If those guys had rather said, “a man should be able to wield a reasonable amount of influence on his woman or a man should be able to make his woman listen to him”, that would have been appropriate for me. Sometime ago, a female colleague slapped a male colleague who, according to her, insulted her father during an altercation. I strongly objected to her chosen method of defending her father’s honour on the grounds of office and professional ethics. There were so many diverse reactions by concerned citizens, many of whom shared my opinion but the opinion of a select few amused me. For them it wasn’t so much that she slapped a colleague but rather that she raised her hand to hit a “man”. That was what the commotion was about really.
Women have been looked down upon for centuries. Even more so, that the education of the female child is undervalued in some part of society. Women are also often regarded as incomplete without a man. This sort of reasoning is unfortunately common even among the females especially the married ones. A highly esteemed man whose invaluable lessons have been a lifeguard said these words to me in the middle of a marriage counsel: ‘A man is your covering’. And a very considerate 20 year old man, advised me in these words, after letting me know that all my childhood friends were married: ‘Just pray about marriage oh, If you reach 30years, no man would want to marry you again oh’. I was filled with indignation and my impulsive response was “did I tell you I am looking for a man to marry me?” What informed his social orientation? He apologized, saying he heard the advice from a Pulpit. My anger really wasn’t channeled at him. It was at the society. We are social beings and we internalize what we see and hear. I am not even up to 30 years and I hear people asking when I am going to settle down as if it’s a mandatory institution that I must pass through in life to be validated as a literate person like our educational system. It seems that the order of life for a woman especially if she is fortunate to be well educated is to start a family. It therefore becomes alarming to see unmarried, educated women working and living independently. For concerned citizens, there must be something wrong. Has it not occurred to society that perhaps these young women aspire to build their career like most men their age and settle down later if they feel like it? Fortunately and contrary to the belief of religious fanatics, women were not created for men. Feminists amongst other things fight to change this misconceived orientation.
“I declare to you that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself and there I take my stand.” Susan B. Anthony
“Woman’s degradation is in man’s idea of his sexual rights. Our religion, laws, customs, are all founded on the belief that woman was made for man.” Elizabeth Stanton.
Another section of the society believes that Feminists do not have real problems. They believe Feminists do not want the submissive role given to them by the Creator. In the religious circles we all know about the famous speech made by Paul and hence individuals feel that God did not create women to play leadership roles in the church. But a closer look into the Bible would reveal that God has used women powerfully in ministry. Take a look at Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Ruth, Mary mother of Jesus, and Priscillia. Joyce Meyer puts this succinctly in her book, The Confident Woman, when she said,
“When He (God) needed someone to save the Jews from the destruction that wicked Haman had planned for them, He called upon Esther(Est 4; 14). If God is against using women, why didn’t He call a man for this job? Deborah was a Prophetess and a Judge. As a Judge she made decisions on God’s behalf (Judge 4; 5)”
It is generally accepted that the two genders are different in their biological characteristics. The men are physically stronger than women and as a result I wouldn’t expect the women to take on jobs that are physically challenging. Surprisingly, in some states in this country I have seen women do jobs that are physically challenging, actually, jobs that require bodies with the physical characteristics of men. By that I mean women on construction sites; carrying blocks and cements on their heads. Even though we accept that men are physically stronger, I have often wondered why a woman who does the same office job as her husband is expected to be strong enough after they have both come back from the office in the evening, to routinely bathe the kids, do house chores, prepare meals, tuck the kids in bed, prepare them for school the next day while the husband takes a long nap because he is too tired. I guess I’ll have to wonder for eternity because I never get any answer besides “A woman makes the home. She is the mother of the house.” And this I find unsatisfactory.
Up until the 20th century there was a medical condition called ‘female hysteria’, some of the symptoms include loss of appetite, outbursts of negativity, excessive sexual desire and ‘a tendency to cause trouble’. So imagine a Female who isn’t eating, gets depressed, craves for sex (which is so normal and acceptable for men by the way) and clamours for a social change; would she be seen as having a tendency to cause trouble? Well, I guess the 21st century Feminist, according to Freud’s psychoanalysis, is mentally ill.
The problem of gender is real and I am simply asking society to not overlook and dismiss it as the irascible ranting of women who hate men but to acknowledge that there is a problem and endeavour to fix it by changing the existing prejudices and orientation. A good place to start is our educational system; the school and the home. Gender inequality is a product of wrong and misconceived orientation and not just the irresponsibility of random, ignorant men.
Finally, a word to those who by their character and works have been shown to support or bring awareness to the Feminism movement but for some reason have refused to claim or be identified with it: there really is no justification for being evasive or ‘sitting on the fence’ regarding this ‘sensitive subject’, because you are either a Feminist or a Sexist.
Image: Edson Chilundo via Flickr