Why Embracing Femininity is Not the Solution to Internalized Misogyny

Recently, a bunch of people on my facebook timeline started sharing a buzzfeed video titled, ‘Daughters Recreate Their Mothers’ Wedding Photos’. Emotional instrumental music in the background, a few shots of daughters talking to their mothers about what it means to be a woman, and a whole lot of glorification of the institution of marriage – the video was not particularly creative in its support of the patriarchy. What irked me the most however, were the reactions of the people sharing the video; reactions like “Aaaargh I’m crying”, lots of teary-faced emojis, tagging one’s mothers, and so on. Add to that the recent conversation around films like Veere Di Wedding, and other portrayals of female friendships like this other buzzfeed video– and it soon started to feel like mainstream media cannot fully wrap its head around the fact that women can have fulfilling relationships with one another outside of the rituals of femininity that they are forced to follow. Even when sprinkled with a few feel-good moments of ‘girl power’ assertion, where one woman asks a man to stop interrupting her friend, eventually, ritualized femininity always rears its ugly head.

Honestly, on some level, I get it. It is exhausting to have to constantly compete with one another for the validation of men, to constantly battle stereotypes about women in order to assert your own personality, and to be part of a culture which ensures that men are everywhere, dominating every space. A lot of young feminists, then, find an easy solution. The only space that men usually have nothing to do with is a space that revolves around femininity – make-up tips websites, blogger events set up by beauty brands, a communal dressing room where a bunch of women are getting ready together before a party, shopping outings, and so on. Taking part in these rituals of femininity then, is framed as some kind of vaguely feminist act that even the politically conscious, ’empowered’ woman is willing to get behind. But not only is it convenient for neo-liberalism that so many “feminist” acts now revolve around the act of ‘choosing’ the right thing to buy and consume, but it is also convenient for the patriarchy, since now ‘girl power’ or ‘women’s solidarity’ comes with no real challenge to sexist norms.

Thus both of these oppressive mechanisms, neoliberalism and patriarchy, with the aid of liberal feminism, work as a well-oiled machine. We begin to see femininity and masculinity as categories that are completely politically neutral, where anyone can choose where to fall based on their personality- never mind that choosing to reject femininity comes with social ramifications. Thus, not only does conforming to femininity become an expression of freedom and choice, it also becomes a revolutionary act of feminism, when we believe, like this popular tumblr post, that femininity is what is degraded in our society.

Imagine two people – a man and a woman working at the exact same position with (suppose) the exact same salary, but with a dress code that requires the woman to wear a dress, make up, and heels. This means that the woman needs at least an hour more than her male colleague just to get ready for work, meaning she has to wake up earlier, and is thus likely to be more tired. As if that isn’t enough, she also has to travel and work in shoes that are likely to cause her constant pain, and has to constantly be restricted in her mobility and comfort as a result. She has a completely separate set of expenses which her male colleague will never have to account for with the same salary. The sheer amount of time, money, and energy that the woman will have to spend on conforming to femininity, means that she will never be equal to a man working the same job. This is not to say that women become less competent, but that norms of femininity force them to work harder, and for lesser returns. Now, if the compulsory dress codes were taken away, and femininity was performed purely by choice, would it take away from all the ways in which it harms women? Surely not.

Thus what we see is not that feminity is just a phenomenon that exists, and that our society happens to hate – but that it is specifically designed to make women inferior to men. It is designed to make us preoccupied with superfluous qualities, lose our mobility, be physically restricted and take up less space, and spend our time and energy on things that are of no real value to our lives. What are the implications of the fact that half of the world is tip-toeing around the rest because it is unacceptable for us to wear shoes that let us walk like them?

However, when we get this the other way round, when we see femininity as a natural expression of our personalities – we see the rejection of it, as the rejection of the women who choose it. We are all familiar with the adolescent girl who says she is ‘is not like other girls’ because she is not interested in makeup or doesn’t like wearing dresses, and this statement has rightly been criticized by people such as Ellie Lee, one of the founders of the ‘I am like other girls’ project. She says,

“The fact is that phrases like this are so normalised in the society that we don’t even realise the damage it’s doing. Think about how much hate for your gender you must have been taught growing up to cast it away like that?”

However, what that statement also arises from is a very real discomfort with being thrust into one’s gender roles – a discomfort that is soon swallowed when femininity emerges as the only way to form bonds of solidarity with other women. Mainstream feminism, instead of helping young women fight against that, glorifies and promotes the reclamation of femininity. When an instagram art project aiming to reject internalised misogyny makes a post saying ‘I love makeup and I am like other girls’, what it is essentially telling us is that being a woman inherently has something to do with femininity. That is, perhaps, one of the most misogynist notions feminism has ever embraced.

So no, the peak of my relationship with my mother is not going to be the moment when I wear the same dress that caused her a lifetime of giving up her autonomy. The peak of my relationship with my female friend is not going to be the moment when I help her hide her bra strap so that she can avoid lecherous looks on the street. I might still compliment my female friends on their makeup after they’ve spent hours getting ready but my relationship with them will not rely on me taking part in that ritual with them, because I won’t. My solidarity with women will always be about learning together, growing together, and healing together – not about doing our eyeliner together. And frankly, the notion that this belief, that we are more than femininity allows us to be, is internalized misogyny; and that helping each other conform to standards of femininity is ‘looking out for each other’ – it is a notion that is not just problematic, but profoundly insulting to feminism. Perhaps as women looking for an escape from male-dominated spaces, we should stop looking for the easy cop-out of ‘feminine’ spaces and start creating female-dominated spaces instead. Women’s spaces are hard to create, and have the potential of being one of the biggest threats to those in power. If multi-billion dollar beauty companies are creating the only ones we know of, then perhaps our feminism is not so threatening to them after all, or perhaps those spaces have nothing to do with feminism in the first place. Women getting together and realizing that ALL of us hate plucking hair out of our bodies, getting blisters on our feet, feeling cold in our clothes, and colouring our faces, and encouraging each other to stop doing all of it altogether – now that, is scary. That is feminist solidarity.

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Men Don’t Need to Be Included In Feminism

Feminism, has been a vehement topic for many today. It has become hard to define feminism because everyone has a separate interpretation of this critical word and people continue to define it as per their convenience. As a matter of cultural discourse, many complicated arguments have arisen according to one’s personal choice of vocabulary of feminism. Out of the many disagreements, one very crucial issue remains if men should me included in feminism. We assert that they shouldn’t. Feminism speaks about one group being affected and the other being the one who is the cause of the effect. The Feminist movement, initiated by women attempts to abolish patriarchy and free them from the misery of male dominance. So, how can the group who has been oppressing women also help in liberating them?

In the corrosive society that we live in, a space for women to voice their demands barely exists. Women studies was a discipline that was designed by feminists during the Women Liberation Movement in the 1960’s. This movement made them realise that there are no systems which directly address the question of women oppression and male domination. However, even this study is now referred to as ‘Gender Studies’ because gender seems to be a safer and more convenient word.  However, feminism is about women and in order to keep it that way, we must restrict it to a space for only women. A woman only feminist movement reduces the chance of their voice to sink. It provides women with a stage to voice their opinions. It simultaneously reduces the constant male gaze that women are pressured to live under. Men who are trying to be allies must do so by letting women have this space. Women, being the oppressed group here must have the choice to demand that men, the oppressors must be excluded from this movement. However, many women and men fail to understand this.

Since time immemorial, there have been numerous protests for various social, political or economical causes. Each movement was initiated by one class to fight against the injustice caused to them by the other, more privileged class. One of the offshoot of these movements was to create a safe space for the oppressed class where they do not need to be apologetic in any manner and where they felt liberated from the more powerful opposition.  For instance, the civil rights movement was a struggle started by the African Americans who experienced racism under white supremacy. It was a movement initiated to abolish the social inequality that people of colour went through. Similarly, the Trade union movement of 1935 was initiated by labourers in order to improve their working conditions. Now, as observed in history, neither did the blacks include the whites in their movement, nor did the employees include the employers in theirs. This was because they were well aware of who held power in that situation. Then why does this desperation to be included in the feminist movement exist amongst men?

If we understand how hegemony works, we realise that men feel threatened when they are excluded. The dominating class will do anything in its power to be included in every conversation. It requires every dialogue to revolve around them. The oppressors will not remain on top if their power is taken away. Recently, the chatter of “we must include more men in feminism” has been growing. If certain women refuse to give in to this preference, they are
termed as “man-hating”. It is classic of men to want to make feminism about them and their issues. But the whole point of the women’s movement is to challenge this male authority and to take away the privilege that they earned as a birthright. Men want to be at the centre for the sake of self-pride, which is fuelled by privilege and power. However, women should see this threat
as an asset. If the oppressing class is not made to feel vulnerable under their existing authority, then the chosen definition of feminism is incorrect. Feminism is effective if it continues to create such threats that pierce the patriarchy. If feminism is a threat to men, so be it.

The #Metoo movement emerged in response to the sexual oppression of women by men. This movement was initiated by women, to empower women. It was meant to be a female centred movement where women were given the chance to express the harsh living realities that they experience on a daily basis under male superiority. They shared disturbing instances of sexual abuse that they faced as women. However, many men seemed to feel excluded and tried to turn this movement into a male centred one. Now we do not deny that men do not experience sexual violence, but this violence is also imposed by other men. According to a recent nationally
representative survey on sexual violence, it was found that 81% women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment as opposed to 43% of men (GfK, 2018). The truth has always been that the social system has always leaned towards men’s advantage. Patriarchy has led to men policing over other men too, but that is not the responsibility of women and this is not what feminism should be made about. What makes #Metoo different is that it portrays the sexual harassment that women have faced due to a structural hierarchy. Women clearly face inordinate amounts of sexual abuse as compared to men. This movement was meant to display the magnitude of male power in a social setting. These disputes about extending this movement to men, prove this point.

As a woman, I personally know at least 10 other women who have been assaulted by men in the past month. However, if I would be asked to name a few male friends who have experienced a similar kind of abuse, I will barely be able to name any. And this most definitely isn’t out of sheer coincidence. Sexual harassment is taken more seriously, but women still experience it in larger rates than men. If one compares the rate of work a woman does at home, it still is always more than a man does. It is evident that men as a class advantage from oppressing women. But men still use the power and dominance attached to their identity to prove their worth and
if they are denied this right then they get aggressive or offended. Saying #NotAllMen does not change the fact that male supremacy exists and constantly ruins
a woman’s life.

In the misogynistic society that we survive in, both women and men know that men oppress women in countless ways. This includes traditionalist men as well as progressive men. However, often both these men will disagree to this claim made by other women. This is usually done to either gain control of the woman’s life by inflicting even more restrictions or to have more access to the woman’s body than they earlier did. In both cases, the purpose remains as restoration of power. This is one of the reasons why men can not be included in feminism. It has mainly to do with the shared experience of oppressing women. Men inherently have the privilege to be ignorant of what a woman experiences on a daily basis, even if the man puts in his sympathising intention. It is perilous to allow men to be advocates for women’s experiences.

Exclusion is seen as a horrible word today. Cis-men hold the right to 99% of the world’s public spaces, yet excluding men from feminism is seen as bigotry. Men fighting against being excluded in the women’s movement is just a display of their male power. When men label other women as “sexist” for excluding them, it just piles up to the existing sexism that their class has originated. Women being derided for their movement unless men are included in it portrays the hostility that patriarchy creates. People often forget that the effect of exclusion had begun long ago. Women, by the nature of their oppressed group can not use sexism against men. Calling a woman sexist automatically diverts the attention from this female centred movement to a man’s feelings and his unattended problems. Men will undermine women for exclusivity by calling them ‘misandrists’, but this is just another tactic to keep women silent. Feminism is the liberation of women, for women and as women from the existing male class and exclusion is just a demand that must be granted.

There is something fundamentally wrong with men trying to define feminism. The proof of his male entitlement can be examined when men try to shame women for fighting a movement for women. Men should attempt to understand their privilege before they try to understand how women are oppressed every day. Women are now exhausted of men who demand to be included in the feminist movement and who shame other women who do not adhere to this demand. If men want to show their support to this movement, they must do so by being observers, listeners and learners. They must observe the violence that exists against women, they must listen to women when they speak about their oppression and they must learn to be decent human beings. There is a difference between a feminist and a male ally. A male ally can critically examine his male privilege, where as a feminist has no choice but to be oppressed by the same patriarchy. Allies must support women and acknowledge their privilege but should never attempt to take over this movement for their own benefit. As feminist Andrea Dworkin said, “Men who want to support women in our struggle for freedom and justice should understand that it is not terrifically important to us that they learn to cry; it is important to us that they stop the crimes of violence against us.” What feminists really needs is respect, not preemption.

Why “Sex Work” Is Not Work

This article is a response to a series of articles published by Feminism in India, titled “Why is Sex Work Not Seen As Work? – Part 1” and “Why is Sex Work Not Work? Lessons Learnt From Sex Workers’ Rights Movement – Part 2”

Earlier this year, a panel of survivors of prostitution spoke at the launch of Julie Bindel’s book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. One of them was Sabrina Valisce, from New Zealand, a woman who had exited the sex-trade. Rahila Gupta, covering the event for the Feminist Current, wrote,

“During the panel, Valisce explained that she rejects the term, “sex worker,” because it glosses over the “sucking and fucking” she had to do. She described her daily routine of standing around for 12-17 hour shifts, wearing only lingerie and six-inch heels, waiting to be chosen by men who would come in bellowing, “Which one of you cunts wants to suck my dick?” This was in New Zealand, where prostitution has been decriminalized since 2003, and is held up as a model of good practice by the pro-prostitution lobby, even though women continue to be killed by johns and pimps.”

FII defines sex work as adult consensual provision of sexual services for money. Consent, understood as passive permission, is in itself a concept which plays into unequal gender relations. Feminists have instead proposed the idea of ‘enthusiastic consent’. The monetary exchange required in prostitution makes the sexual activity inherently coercive and creates a power dynamic which makes ‘consent’ meaningless. What happens in prostitution is that a buyer (statistically almost always a man) pays a person (statistically likely to be a woman) to gain unrestricted access to her body. He is not paying for a service, but rather, renting her body. Although some women in certain sections of the industry may be able to decline to take part in certain acts, most women in the industry are not able to do so. Further, the man is also paying for the woman to pretend to enjoy the act, which if she is not convincing about, can lead to him becoming extremely violent. Attitudes of buyers demonstrate that prostitution is not an equal exchange by any means. The men do not care if the exchange is consensual, they do not care about the woman’s boundaries, and they do not care that the woman is doing it for the money. In fact, prostitution involves the man’s right to treat the woman as he pleases, say what he pleases, be in control as he pleases, and to have her give him the reaction he wants the entire time. The consequences of this are that women face immense psychological trauma and are forced to dissociate themselves from their experiences of disgust and pain- leading to PTSD and forcing them to turn to drug abuse or alcoholism.

The need to recognise sex work as work, claims FII, comes from the fact that the stigma attached to prostitution is the root cause of all violence against them and is also the reason for prostituted women not having access to their rights. In doing so, FII deliberately conflates moral arguments with radical (which they use interchangeably with conservative) feminist perspectives- a conflation that has been used to disregard feminists from time immemorial. The reason radical feminists have rejected the term ‘sex work’ is not to take away from the dignity of prostituted women but to refuse the normalisation of prostitution as an employment option. The logical conclusion of that normalisation in terms of policy would be, not decriminalisation, but rather, legalisation. That legalisation does not remove stigma is clear from accounts of prostituted women in countries which have adopted that policy. The stigma inherent in prostitution is not because of the public/private divide or the binary of good and bad woman, as FII claims. Rather, the sex industry very much depends on that binary. The existence of a ‘bad’ or a ‘public’ woman is what justifies the unrestricted access to her body in return for money or the entitlement to her body as a product. Prostitution relies on the existence of a class of women to bear the brunt of male entitlement to women’s bodies. Further, the stigma in prostitution often arises from the secrecy that is essential for a business that routinely abuses women. Jaquelline Gwynne who worked as a receptionist in a high end brothel in Victoria, Australia, writes,

“The women are still ostracised and marginalised, and most of them live a double life where they keep their life within the sex trade secret – to the extent that many cut themselves off from family and friends outside of the industry. Some don’t tell their partners and pretend they are working as a night cleaner or packing shelves, or they invent an elaborate identity as an entrepreneur, complete with fake business cards and a website. The stigma exists because prostitution is degrading and no regulation can change that.”

Further, we contest the claim that the removal of stigma or the acceptance of prostitution as a ‘normal job’ is in any way good for women. What this does is effectively erase the right of women to not choose prostitution. For instance, in Germany, where prostitution has been legalised, women run the risk of having their employment benefits cut if they choose to be unemployed rather than start working as a prostitute. Sara Torosdagi, a woman from Germany, recently wrote in a facebook post,

“The problem with Germany’s policy on prostitution is not just the fact that it has increased trafficking and criminal gang involvement, and STDs in the general population, nor that it has made the sale of sex so competitive that many women only get a few euros per fuck. The biggest problem is that it harms the status of all women. Johns are emboldened to ask a woman offering childcare if she’ll suck their dick because hey it’s just a job and money is money, right?

All women suffer in a culture that treats us as things, objects, marketable commodities. And women will never be equal as long as we pretend that prostitution is work rather than exploitation.”

What is essentially being justified when ‘sex work’ is normalised as ‘work’ is the availability of a women as things that can be bought or sold. In the same way that the existence of slavery meant that there could be no equal relations between a white person and a black person, as long as a class of women exists to account for male entitlement to female bodies, women as a class cannot be part of equal sexual relations with men.

The sex work lobby would perhaps claim that the analogy between prostitution and slavery is faulty. They claim that women may choose to be in the sex industry and this framework effectively takes away their right to do so. Radical feminist ideology does not deny that there may be a small but vocal minority of women which, in fact, does choose to be a part of the sex industry. However, choices are never isolated from the larger context they are made in. Not only are countless women forced to ‘choose’ to be in prostitution because of economic and social vulnerabilities, but many privileged women may also choose to be a part of the sex industry, under a context of unequal gender relations. Even when the women are economically empowered to call the shots in their profession, it cannot be denied that they are part of a larger industry where it is impossible for all women to claim that kind of ‘empowerment’ and which inherently supports a system of oppression.

FII claims that the violence against prostituted women is ignored because prostitution is conflated with trafficking which is seen as inherently violent, again deliberately conflating feminist perspectives with conservative ones. The disregard for violence against women comes from a perspective which seeks to criminalise prostituted women for taking part in what it deems to be an immoral activity. The conflation of prostitution with trafficking comes from a radical feminist perspective which acknowledges that the boundaries between the safe, sanitised, sex industry that many claim will exist after decriminalisation/legalisation and the unsafe, coercive trafficking industry are murky to say the least. As many radical feminists have pointed out, trafficking as an industry is driven by the demand created by the prostitution industry. The demand for prostituted women is such that there are never enough women who opt for it by choice, and as a result, women and children have to be trafficked from across the world to create a supply. It is almost impossible to seperate the two, and as Meghan Murphy writes, “Prostituted children become adults, trafficked women work in “legal” massage parlours and in the windows of the red light district of cities like Amsterdam, and illegal prostitution is rife in places that have legalized or fully decriminalized the industry.”

The approach taken by FII is that of harm-reduction, of accepting prostitution as an inevitability, as what it calls “a way of life”. It prioritizes the right of certain women to be in the industry, or to not be rehabilitated, over the right of thousands of women to not be coerced into selling their bodies. In doing so it frames radical feminist perspectives as restrictive and moralist. It stresses multiple times on the fact that these have been derived from a sex worker’s rights movement, and tries to say that the sex work lobby is the only one which listens to prostituted women. This blatantly disregards the fact that abolitionists have been working with victims of prostitution to help them access their rights not from a perspective that merely makes their work less dangerous but which helps them increase their choices and exit the sex industry. Various accounts from prostituted women and girls such as in magazines like The Red Light Dispatch are testimony to the violence inherent in the industry. The fact that ‘sex workers’ by definition include pimps and brothel owners has raised questions about the legitimacy of this kind of discourse in the West.

In India, TARSHI, the organisation which first published this series, says on its website, “We work on sexual and reproductive health and rights, without restricting it to a disease-prevention, violence against women or sexual minorities framework, but rather approaching issues of sexuality from a broader and an affirmative, rights-based perspective.” The notion that a ‘violence against women’ perspective is restrictive to sexuality perhaps suggests that there is something violent against women in that sexuality. That a feminist media house would endorse such a perspective is extremely disappointing and as Dorchen Leidholdt wrote in When Women Defend Pornography about this “restrictive framework” that we call feminism,

“If you understand that sex is socially constructed— which we do— and if you see that male supremacy does the constructing— which we see— and if the sex in question is the sex men use to establish their dominance over women, then yes, we’re against it.”

Response to Buzzfeed’s “Sexist Things Men Are Tired of Hearing”

Today we are laughing at this absolutely pathetic, idiotic, video by buzzfeed that we came across. Here’s a handy guide to refer to, while you watch the video.

1 to 4: Here these brilliant people reach the absolute limits of their imagination trying to rephrase “men don’t cry” in as many ways and in as many languages as possible.
5 to 8: Women are getting killed. Meanwhile, men are just SO TIRED of being deprived of their right to listen to selena gomez, dance, and ride scooters without it hurting their masculinity 
9 to 13: Men just can’t spend time on pointless grooming rituals without being compared to women! Of course this has got everything to do with oppressing men and nothing to do with how only women are expected to put their appearance before everything in order to be taken seriously! Must be so horrible to be allowed to look like yourself.
14 to 15: Men are not allowed to be scared or watch chick flicks. Duh, oppression, of course.
16: Women not wanting to hang out with men is oppressive. Because of course, getting access to women’s time is a man’s right!
17 to 19: Various misogynistic comments that are SO clearly an expression of woman-hatred that it’s funny they should be seen as sexist against men.
20: “Man up!”. Should have put this with 1 to 4?
21 to 27: Just various sports that men are expected to play. Just the name of the sport changing. They must have been really struggling with finding more things to say.
28 and 29: Jokes about man-boobs.
30 to 32: Again, just the emotions thing. Would’ve been really helpful to club together all the hundred ways of rephrasing this.
33 to 35: Women refusing to date men is oppressive. Make no mistake, this is rape culture.
36 to 37: “You’re so hairy” and “You’re not drinking?”… Are you fucking kidding us? Are men forced to regularly go through painful methods hair removal? What connection does men being expected to drink have on any systematic forms of oppression? Do your wages get cut when you don’t drink? Do you get killed when you don’t drink? Come on, dude.
39 to 40: Again, being called a ‘pussy’ is fucking misogynist. This is not about you.
40 to 42: Various expectations about drinks and smoking. Obviously oppressive.
43 to 47: Yeah, men are not expected to do ‘feminine’ jobs. Whose oppression do you think that is about?
48: Homophobia, not sexism.
49 to 59: Yes, men are expected to work, because women ARE FORCED NOT TO.
60 to 82: Spirals into a mixture of more “men aren’t allowed to be sensitive”, various purely misogynist comments, various comments about men not being masculine enough, etc etc.

Here’s the thing.

Gender roles are in every part of everyone’s lives but it is important to remember that gender is a hierarchical structure designed to keep men in power and women at the bottom. Whatever we associate with men becomes masculinity, and whatever we associate with women becomes femininity. Because we hate women, we end up hating everything that we force women to do, therefore ending up hating femininity as well. When men don’t conform to masculinity, they face prejudice, sure, but women, regardless of whether or not they act feminine, face the threat of physical violence and are systematically stopped from reaching positions of power. THAT is sexism, not this. Ultimately, men WILL benefit from their gender roles under the patriarchy. Besides, we are tired of hearing about men not being able to express their emotions. Have you any idea how much violence is caused everyday because of men expressing their emotions?