As many of us know, International Women’s Day was celebrated last Tuesday. At UTM, part of the celebrations involved a weeklong awareness campaign by the Because I am a Girl club, which included information booths and even a pink lemonade stand.
Reading about it reminded me of a discussion in a South Asian history class last year about gender and philanthropic organizations seemingly dedicated to women’s rights.
As part of the discussion, the prof pulled up the Because I am a Girl webpage as an example of how even organizations that purport to help a specific group can at times perpetuate the same oppressive ideas that they’re trying to combat.
Taking a quick glance at the Because I am a Girl website, under “What we need to stop saying to girls” are phrases that either imply the inferiority of women or stereotype them. And yet, one of the group’s fundraising options is to host your own pink lemonade stand. The emphasis on the colour pink throughout the site adds to the homogenization of the gender, which is frankly not helpful coming from a group dedicated to the liberation of women.
Which brings me to my own complicated relationship with feminism. Over years of listening to debates about what does and does not qualify as feminism, I’ve found that in many cases, what one person considers to be feminist can be the same thing that another person considers to be anti-feminist.
One such example that’s very close to me personally is the debate over the hijab and niqab and what they symbolize in a feminist landscape. The debate can be summarized succinctly in a 2011 cartoon by Malcolm Evans. The cartoon depicts two women walking past each other on the sidewalk. One woman is dressed in a bikini and sunglasses and the other is covered from head to toe in a burqa and a face veil. The woman in the bikini stares at the woman in the burqa and thinks to herself, “Everything covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated culture!” For her part, the woman in the burqa looks back at the woman in the bikini and thinks, “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated culture!”
Suffice it to say, what a person considers to be feminist or not has a lot to do with an individual’s worldview. A lot of us will agree in theory with many of the ideals that are touted as feminist: equal rights, equal pay, etc. Yet in practice, a specific action can be interpreted in totally opposite ways depending on a person’s background, as the cartoon makes clear.
The problem that I continue to have with the way “feminism” as a term is used, however, is that, even in academic contexts, there are attempts made to homogenize the movement and definitively label this or that action as “feminist” or “patriarchal”. Oversimplifications such as these don’t do justice to the complex nature of feminism or to the complex struggles that women face. Individual women may have very different reasons for doing what they do, and in some cases they may be driven by a conscious feminist mindset while in others, they may not. Individuals are far too complicated to define by a single umbrella term.
Yes, International Women’s Day is a good initiative for spreading awareness of the continued struggle that women face. But perhaps the message that’s lost in the pink lemonade is that while feminism itself is a simple label, the meanings underlying it are anything but.
Also see this letter in reply.