What does International Women’s Day mean beyond "celebrating women’s achievements"? Four feminists from all over the globe weigh in on the most urgent battles feminism has to fight in 2020.
What is empowerment anyway?
By Nesrine Malik
There is a strand of feminism that has become so established it has its own vocabulary. "Empowerment" is its final destination.
Are you a badass? Are you a girl boss? Do you clapback at mansplainers? Do you take pride in your resting bitch face? This glossary of a sort of infantilising language has taken over, reducing women to karate-chopping, bicep-flexing, nail-polishing emojis.
Little of the female experience has escaped the empowerment industry, sometimes with confusing results. Instead of trying to lose weight, we are supposed to take pride in our stretch marks, simultaneously making sure we’re working out to show that This Girl Can.
There comes a point when everything is empowerment, and so nothing is. The aim of this upbeat marketing is to rid feminism of its serious downer vibes and sell mood boosters to women packaged in the language of power.
But we should ask ourselves what makes women "weak" in the first place.
Women are weak because their needs – professional, biological and maternal – are not prioritised. Real empowerment is about attending to those needs and about giving women the tools and rights to be able to be free.
There comes a point when everything is empowerment, and so nothing is
The empowerment craze focuses on the fripperies because it offers easy answers and quick fixes while ignoring the gravely structural. The trend is indivisible from affluence because it’s assumed that the big questions, such as access to contraception, have been settled, and so what we need to focus on now is giving women the confidence and voice to speak up more and be happy in their own skin.
But the big questions have very much not been settled. And even when they have been, they have not been settled for everyone. And so we end up with empowerment with no real power: women who are "girl bosses" but whose real boss – the person who runs their lives, their salaries and promotions – is still a man who makes decisions on their fates along with other men.
Empowerment is ultimately not about image but about cold, hard cash and political willpower that’s put into action. It’s about investing in a giant childcare war chest, so that women can choose to work without paying another woman to babysit. It’s about plugging the gender pay gap so that no woman ever has to tolerate abuse from a male partner she cannot afford to leave. It’s about period poverty and how the availability of basic menstruation products still determines whether a girl can go to school that day. It’s about continuing to highlight every single way a woman is unfree because of her gender, and be safe while doing so.
Empowerment as we have it today is about numbing this pain when it should be about waking it up.
Who cares about equality?
By OluTimehin Adegbeye
My journey to feminism went like this: I wanted autonomy for myself as a young unmarried mother, but my extended family and society perceived that as abnormal and even an affront.
I knew instinctively that as an adult, I should be free to chart the course of my own life and my child’s. I became a feminist because I was outraged by the discovery that there were significant forces that functioned not just to prevent me from doing so but to punish me for trying.
It wasn’t until years later that I realised that to many people – including other feminists – feminism is less about liberation than it is about "equality" with men.
To me, it shows a real lack of imagination that "equality" should be the ultimate goal of the feminist movement. On the one hand, a majority of high-profile feminists today insist that the gender binary is flawed because it imposes specific rules and roles on women, regardless of their capabilities, interests or personalities. On the other hand, these feminists seem preoccupied with designing and promoting strategies to access the rights accorded to men, who are deemed to be on the opposite end of this flawed binary. To them, the rights men have are the rights all human beings should have.
But what rights do men have?
The truly radical potential of feminism is not in the pursuit of equality to a class of people who are encouraged or even expected to embrace anti-social behaviours
Judging by broad social patterns, the archetypal man has the right to wield power even when they haven’t earned it – and to gain more power by embracing aggression. Accounts of interpersonal violence, overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, show that they claim the right to harm others while they themselves suffer harm in stoic silence.
Hegemonic masculinity gives men the right to deprioritise family and care in favour of work and status. And, thanks to the still persistent "boys will be boys" ideology, men are often taught from a young age that they have the right to be unempathetic, self-centred and destructive too.
Who wants to be equal to that?
The truly radical potential of feminism is not in the pursuit of equality to a class of people who are encouraged or even expected to embrace anti-social behaviours.
If feminism is to survive as a political movement, it must abandon the pursuit of mere "gender equality". Instead, it must wholeheartedly grapple with the realities produced by patriarchy and related systems of oppression, such as restrictions of bodily autonomy across genders and sexualities, poverty, all forms of violence, racism, the exploitation of labour, and unsustainable economies.
Equality is the right goal if feminists simply want to reassign who gets to misuse power or exploit people and planet. And achieving that goal is easy enough: just teach people to behave like sociopaths.
If, however, we want all people to be safe, prosperous, and free, then it is time to abandon "gender equality" feminism. That kind of feminism has been useful for illuminating the unjust distribution of power in many societies, but we need more. Feminists must shift our focus from how women can merely accumulate power to how we can transform power for the benefit of all.
Who is feminism fighting for?
By Valentijn De Hingh
If we assume that feminism is fighting for equality for women, perhaps we must agree on what we mean by "woman" first.
Can a transgender person be a woman? And if so, will feminists fight for them too?
Whether transgender women should be considered women has fast become one of the most vicious debates raging within feminism today. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (" terfs" ) represent a growing movement that actively seeks to exclude trans women from the "woman" category.
Terfs think trans women are not women, but are instead deluded, predatory men who transition to either live out some "sick" fetish or gain unrestricted access to women-only spaces (bathrooms, changing rooms) so they can peep on, assault, or even rape the women present.
The suggestion that the bodies of trans women carry some inherent threat of sexual violence against women legitimises the terfs’ rampant transphobia as a necessary means of protecting women from harm. It’s a line of reasoning that eerily resembles the continued legitimisation of racism against black men by framing their bodies as inherently threatening to white women. What it fails to recognise, however, is that trans women (especially trans women of colour) are disproportionately at risk of falling victim to sexual abuse themselves.
Despite their nefarious practices, terfs continue to solidify their presence in contemporary feminist debates. In 2018, a small group successfully disrupted the London Pride Parade by lying on the ground, blocking the way of 30,000 Pride participants. And terf pundits such as Posie Parker, Julie Bindel, Meghan Murphy and Germaine Greer are regularly invited to give their opinion in the mainstream media.
Can a transgender person be a woman? And if so, will feminists fight for them too?
Meanwhile, world-renowned author JK Rowling has been liking the tweets of known terfs and speaking out in their defence.
All of this invalidates trans women’s experiences, portrays them as freaks or predators, and can incite violence, harassment and discrimination. It also denies the fact that, apart from transphobia, trans women can experience misogyny too – which they do.
As a trans person myself, I too have experienced mansplaining , sexual aggression and misogynistic remarks from men, experiences which were profoundly different from the transphobic slurs or discriminatory remarks I have dealt with at other times. It is a different thing to have a man in a club grab your ass and hiss what he would like to do to "such a pretty girl" than to have another bloke ask you whether you "have a dick" because he heard a rumour and now has a bet on with his mates. Both have happened to me on the same night.
By advocating for a purely sex-based definition of womanhood, terfs claim to be defending women’s rights. What they forget, however, is that by doing so, they actually undermine feminism because the idea of a "natural distinction" between man and woman is exactly what patriarchy relies on.
Throughout history, male dominance over women has been explained as resulting from these natural differences between the sexes. By presenting "womanhood" as a biologically determined and unchangeable category, terfs paradoxically give greater strength and legitimacy to the system of oppression they are seeking to destroy.
The truth is that all women – trans and non-trans – have something to gain from the abolishment of patriarchy. Even though their bodies and some of their experiences may differ, feminism can be a rallying point for all women, trans or not, to come together and collectively oppose the oppressions they both face.
If equality for women is achieved by excluding and demeaning trans people, then what does that equality really mean?
That, I believe, is one of the most important questions for feminism today.
How do we raise a feminist?
By Irene Caselli
Every person who believes men are superior to women was once a child.
People who see women as possessions passed on from their fathers to their husbands; as child bearers and kitchen cleaners; as worthless on the sports field or in the boardroom; as leaders who must be asked "how do you juggle it all?" or whose sartorial choices matter as much, if not more, than their policy choices. All these people were once children.
Pretty early in life, we all learn to observe the dynamics around us and adjust our behaviour accordingly. So if small children are learning the behaviours that will later be called out as toxic, sexist, or bigoted, how can parents and carers set future generations on a different course?
As a feminist and a mother, I have thought a lot about this question, and I’m often confronted by my internal biases. Would I treat my son differently if I perceived him as a daughter? What behaviours might I see and excuse because "boys will be boys"? Parents create only a tiny part of the environment that affects a child’s life, but early experiences are hugely important in establishing a person’s behaviour.
To the extent that it’s possible to trace an adolescent’s attitudes back to a familial source, a study found that mothers are the primary source of sexist attitudes held by their children. And more than at any other point in their lives, mothers (and fathers) are more likely to fall into gendered roles with the arrival of their firstborns – which even happens in same-sex couples.
Would I treat my son differently if I perceived him as a daughter? What behaviours might I see and excuse because ‘boys will be boys’?
This is an important challenge to feminists and feminism because you unwittingly pass on your views and values to your child. And once children are around, a new parent is tired, and anxious to know how to dismantle systems between nappy changes.
Neuroscience is giving us more information on how crucial the first 1,000 days of life are. If we don’t pay attention, we are missing out on the potential of planting the most long-lasting seeds.
This is a new opportunity for feminism: early childhood can become a new place of action. If we have feminist children who grow into feminist adults, we may have fewer mothers and fathers who fall into gendered roles and perpetuate the status quo.
And just imagine if we get it right: we will raise adults who don’t get boxed into or judge others on an idea of gender, just because they were born of a determinate sex. That’s the foundation of a feminist society.