Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Feminism in 2014: More than Beyoncé and Malala

This year saw the advent of a new kind of feminism on a truly global scale. Strong women were no longer afraid and weaker women were empowered. It was the year of sexual consent accountability, where enthusiastic consent was prioritized over force or disregard. It was the year where men were held accountable for the soft war zones that cities have become for women: where street harassment was called-out, and 'man-spreading' became illegal. Where women from around the world rose up for the education of young girls, led by a powerful young Pakistani girl who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts. Universities across the US and Canada were forced to acknowledge the rampant sexual violence prevailing on their campuses, and their befuddled and paltry handling of such a widespread crisis was exposed. It was the year where India faced its own sexual violence and sexism, and was held accountable. From marriage equality to both loving and questioning Sheryl Sandberg, prominent celebrities taken to court over sexual abuse allegations, photo hacking 'sex scandals' relabelled as the sexual abuse they are, the feminist movie Frozen breaking records at the box office, #YesAllWomen in response to the very real threat of every day violence against women, Lupito Nyong'o and Viola Davis brilliantly shaming white journalism, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking to feminism as only she can - without a doubt, women's voices, through trial and struggle, were being heard, and their participation was more than a check-marked box; women found a seat at the table.

But that seat is tenuous, at best, and the risk comes not from the seemingly obvious, but rather, from within. 2014 was also the year when feminism saw gaping racial wounds re-opened, as social media divided feminists along historically privileged and racialized lines.  In a sad state of affairs, a flurry of female pop stars cried out that they weren't feminists at all, with a somewhat lacklustre opposition pointing to the inherent hypocrisy in those words. The integration of men into women's rights was globally celebrated - with the predictably unimaginative backlash that followed.

Despite how archaic these battles are (popular feminism has a long history of catering to white middle and upper class women, has consistently been undermined by the very women it seeks to empower and is tiredly stereotyped for promoting misandry), they remain real and deserve some measure of examination.

Race and class are playing a far greater role in today's social economics than ever before. Inequality is now an evidence, where stagnant incomes and the growing cost of living has erased the US's middle class and given rise to a startling income gap in Canada, with The International Monetary Fund declaring income inequality to be highly correlated with poor economic growth. That capitalism has hit a wall on which only the smallest percentage of the world's population have been able to climb is no longer a secret, but one that has spawned rioting throughout the globe, movements that governments could not ignore. The current protests in the US are no different: from race to immigration to raising the minimum wage, people are tired of being left out, tired of being unemployed or underemployed and disappointed that the headlining recovery has not worked for them.

Within these groups, the experiences of poverty and race is defiantly gendered. That women of lower socio-economic class and from racialized backgrounds contend with higher rates of discrimination and disenfranchisement in all areas (health insurance, school punishments, job prospects, career advancement, networking, food security - to name but a few) and lower prospects for a liveable income, safety within the household, access to resources for themselves and their children and equality in the burden of care and household tasks, should no longer come as a surprise. That their voices and experiences remain largely unheard within mainstream media only exacerbates their invisibility and continues to undermine solutions. Social media, in which feminism in 2014 garnered a huge platform, must be proactive in bringing forth these experiences, not as 'other' to the 'norm', but as part of a mainstream dialogue. Listening, highlighting and empowering voices is the first step in understanding different realities, and inevitably leads to a more diverse consortium of issues and ideas.

Female fans of pop stars both cringed and celebrated this year. While Beyoncé stood proudly in front of a giant glowing Feminist backdrop at an awards show (To address dismissals of co-opting, she penned "Gender Equality is a Myth!" as part of the Shriver Report), a slew of generally ignorant pop stars declared that feminism wasn't for them, prompting a general outpour of young women taking to Twitter, insisting "they liked men, so they weren't feminists." Everyone else sighed. That youth is wasted on the young is a widely understood snippet, except by the young. And so, to list the sacrifices, leaps and strides that women "before your time did in order for you to even be able to make that claim," to me, seem a waste of time. Instead, I understand that soon, these young women will come to see the hypocrisy through experience. What we do need is to instruct our children as early as possible in gender equality: from being good role models as parents to ensuring the toys and books that children use don't reinforce traditional and harmful gender roles. We must hold our media responsible for the sexualization of young girls and the depicted machoism of young boys, turning instead to the understanding that bodies and minds do not mature at the same time, and that gender is fluid; not fixed boxes. Little boys and girls that live in households and grow in societies that promote gender equality and the empowerment of both men and women is a better band-aid for risible statements than elaborate eye-rolling.

Women-friendly and women-only spaces are necessary. While I would like to believe that we could live in a society where the norm would not skew to the powerful and thus, mostly, male, I hesitate to say this will occur soon. Given this reality, among others, there exists situations that remain gendered, violent and traumatic. Therefore, women-friendly and women-only spaces matter and are necessary. However. If feminism seeks to (rightly) expand women's rights, the inclusion of men is intrinsic to its success. Gender equality and the promotion of women's rights and issues is undoable without men, both as everyday promoters and supporters and at the helm alongside their female partners. Women's issues are men's issue too, and it would be ignorant and disastrous of us not to work together. HeForShe is only one example of a global project to include men in the fight against gender inequality, and its a good one. White Ribbon is another.

For all of this, there is a bitter solution. Gender analysis is a process that seeks to question the 'why' of realities, uncovering their root causes. I'd suggest that it is time to do the same with our newest wave of feminism. Although asking why may rub people the wrong way, as only very rarely do we want to examine the reasons behind our actions, the roots of our feelings - we must, if we'd like a sustainable solution. If we are to mend the cracks so vehemently on display in this past year of feminism, we must ask why they are there.

Why do black women feel unheard in mainstream feminism media? Why do young women feel feminism isn't for them? Why is there a backlash against men in feminism? Why do white women feel uncomfortable with the voices of racialized women? Why do pop stars feel pressured to distance themselves from the word feminism? Why is there such mistrust between the sexes?

'Why' is such a powerful tool, but it is based on a principle of restorative justice: if we can work backwards from our ideal solution, we open ourselves to possibilities of a way forward we may never have imagined.

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