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An F for feminism?



My mum likes to tell people a story, which goes like this: A boy and his father are in a car crash. The father dies but the boy is rushed to hospital and goes into surgery. The surgeon looks down and cries, ‘My son!’ After my mum finishes the story, her audience, of whatever sex, race or age, is always confused. Of course, the surgeon is the boy’s mother. But when I tell the same story to my peers and change the characters in the story to a boy and his mother, they always understand at once that the surgeon is the father.

This story shows that all of us are capable of sexism, whether or not on purpose. My question – An F for Feminism? – asks how far we have really come in the last 100 years with women’s equality. Does Feminism around the world deserve an A for Advanced, or an F for Fail?

In her 2014 United Nations speech, actress Emma Watson said, ‘I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men but, sadly, there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to see these rights. No country in the world can yet say it has achieved true gender equality.’ And she is right. Even though countries like England are more economically developed and lead the way in women’s rights, we do indeed have a long way to go. For example, in my English class at school we have spoken a lot about Feminism but whilst I, naively, had assumed everybody of my generation was a feminist, about twenty percent of the boys in my class maintain that women do not deserve equal rights.

This could, of course, just be typical fifteen-year-olds seeking attention but it did make me wonder how many people in our society are genuinely feminists, or are remotely aware of the facts about females in the modern world. For example, the sexist boys in my class suggested women are not capable of leading a country, when there are currently twenty-two female presidents or prime ministers in power around the world, not least of whom, Angela Merkle, has been Chancellor of Germany for ten years.

I first came across my ideological heroine, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, when she wrote an article for Vogue, and Beyoncé quoted her in a song entitled ‘Flawless’. Adichie is a shining example of what a modern feminist should be – not an angry woman who hates all men (my chief reason for despising the chick flick 10 Things I Hate About You) but a person who believes in equal rights for women. I admire her for being recognised by Vogue as a woman who creatively does not conform. She makes her own clothes and is a successful novelist, but she does not feel she has to make a choice between being a feminist and being feminine.

I worry that, if I have a daughter, one day she will be confined by gender stereotypes and will not feel able to explore career paths like Engineering or Banking. A female friend of mine wants to do Engineering at university but her mother’s friends have told her it would not be ‘appropriate’ and she will feel ‘excluded’ by her peers because they will all be male. So, despite me telling her to go for it, she has lost confidence in herself as a potential engineer. And it is truly heart-breaking to listen in person to someone experiencing sexism, even if her pessimistic advisors are only trying to help.

In her famous TED talk about the position of girls in the 21st Century, Adichie said,

‘We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We tell girls they can have ambition but not too much. They should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise they threaten men. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage.’

And too often these days I hear there are no women at the top of any profession, and see that paradoxically top chefs are men when cooking is supposed to be woman’s work. Globally we are still teaching girls they should not dream big and, once they have children, they will not have time for a career. Every year, 15 million girls are married when they are still children, and are thereby deprived of an education or any career opportunities just because they do not have a penis. They are forced into arranged marriages and are unable to do anything with their lives because they are beneath their husbands. In fact, as we all know, women are capable of getting to the top of any profession if given a chance.

When I was eleven my dad took my sister and me to a film called ‘Wadjda’ that portrays a girl who lives in Saudi Arabia and dreams of owning a bicycle so she can race her friend, who is a boy. But she is unable to buy a bicycle because a girl on a bicycle is frowned upon in her culture. Half way through the film, her father marries a second woman. I still remember my shock when I realised that in some cultures men can have more than one wife. I knew about Jacob’s twelve wives and twelve sons from the Bible, but I was somehow conditioned to believe that a man and woman fall in love and get married and procreate, and that the father goes out to work and the woman brings up the children. This was how my family turned out, and all the families I had read about in books. I never had exposure to more than one wife and, at the other end of the spectrum, I knew nothing about stay-at-home dads either. The only time such a rare creature is accepted, even today, is when he is half of a gay couple with a baby, because a stay-at-home heterosexual dad is still seen as weak and subservient to his wife. Even if the woman has the better job and financially it is a wise move for the household if she works, society still tends to disapprove. In my typical middle-class village in Kent, the stereotype went so far that we went to ‘mother and toddler group’ when I was little, never a ‘parent and toddler group’ – and that was during this century. Because women had the vote in my country and my dad treated my mum as equal, for a long time I thought I would never experience sexism. My generation is better than past generations, of course, but it does not matter if you live in Saudi Arabia or America: all women still have to deal with sexism.

Perhaps if you had asked me two years ago I would have said Feminism deserves an A, but now I have a different view. In my experience not as many people believe in women’s rights as we might think. Even 100 years after Emmeline Pankhurst toured the States to muster support for the war effort and to encourage American suffragettes, achieving real gender equality is still going to be a slow process. So I would give feminism an F because not as many people as one would hope are calling themselves feminists and standing up for women, no matter who or where they are. We’ll know that we have succeeded, of course, only once Feminism as a concept is out of date and we talk about downtrodden women in the same breath as slaves. So, let’s raise a glass to 2216.

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