Bellevue High School, Washington State—2014
It was my first time, and things started off all right. As expected, they bathed us in statistics. Did you know that somewhere in America a woman is raped every two minutes? Or that women earn about 70 per cent of what men make in Washington State?
I was pretty bored at this point because, frankly, none of the issues posed seemed relevant to me. I was a kid; I didn’t need to worry about unequal pay. I wasn’t yet aware that there were certain “expectations” placed on me, simply because I was born female. Then the word “feminism” crept into the discussion. I remember how warily our teacher uttered the word, almost as though she was a cop questioning a culprit.
At this point in my life, I didn’t identify as a feminist. Neither did my peers. Within the walls of that classroom, we discussed how gender equality was important, how men and women should receive equal pay, how gendered stereotypes should be put to rest. Yet the thing that was said the most was “But I’m not going to be like those feminists who…” or “Yeah, but I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist.”
And I remember wondering what was so scandalous about the term. What did these “feminists” do to make themselves so hated? Why was everyone collectively against them?
Looking back now, I note that most of those who spoke up were male. (And white. I wasn’t well versed in white privilege at the time either, but it’s amazing the things you can’t unsee once you learn about them.) So it didn’t surprise me when they questioned the lack of discussion surrounding men’s rights, though I did wonder why they seemed unable to explicitly state exactly what rights of theirs had suddenly gone missing.
So much of what happened in that class didn’t seem significant at the time. But what did stand out was the harsh classification of “feminism” as this bad word. My curiosity was sparked, so I started to read up on the subject. Little did I know, this was necessary in preparing myself for the second time I did a unit on feminism, this time in Cairo.
The American International School in Cairo—2016
By now I was recognising a pattern. Presentations on the weakened status of women’s rights. More facts. Did you know that 99 per cent of Egyptian women have been harassed at some point in their lives? Or that women make up just 23 per cent of the labour force?
Mostly, my peers responded with shock, and it excited me that they were becoming more aware of such issues. Some remained silent, and some criticised the fact that we focused only on the injustices meted out to women and not to men. One of my male peers actually said, “What about men, though? Why is feminism so focused on women alone if we want gender equality?”
Sure, I thought. Even if we’re doing a unit on women’s rights, we mustn’t exclude men. So, yeah, let’s discard the feminine root altogether in favour of the more inclusive “gender equality”. Great idea. Hell, let’s just take a trip down to Orwell’s Airstrip One and use the word “ungood” for “bad”. Because masked misogyny is clearly the key to equality, right, ladies and gentlemen? (Just so the gents don’t feel too left out.) Notice the irony? My newfound rage swelled as it met a developing awareness within me.
And so I asked then, as I ask now: why flee the feminine root? Why are we so willing to alter the term “feminism” but not the term “misogyny”? Are we that ashamed of the female sex that we more readily accept the hatred of it over its rise to equality? Why on earth is “feminism” such a dirty word? I couldn’t answer those questions, but the fact I even had to ask them proves the need for feminism.
You might think the concept of feminism exists only in Western countries. Many people I’ve spoken to in both Egypt and the United States thought so. Sadly, it goes even deeper than that, with academic writing on feminism often documenting the movement as though it were strictly American. I was in a tute the other day—here at the University of Melbourne—where the reading seemed to describe feminism as something created and exercised solely in the States.
And that is part of the problem: this concept of exclusively Western feminism is detrimental to the feminist movement as a whole. In Egypt, women currently hold 15 per cent of seats in Parliament, while in the United States—arguably seen as the most “progressive” country in the world—women hold 19 per cent. That’s not much of a difference, is it?
In fact, Egypt has an extensive feminist history, even if it isn’t explicitly labelled as such. Sameera Moussa, born in 1917, was regarded as the mother of atomic energy. Nawal al Saadawi, the godmother of Egyptian feminism, was a renowned rights activist, psychiatrist, physician and author. Lotfia el Nadi was among the first female pilots globally.
Despite the West’s perceptions of predominantly Islamic countries as anti-feminist, I’d argue that Egypt has as much claim—indeed, has laid as much claim—to feminism as any other nation. To say that feminism is incompatible with our culture or religion is nonsensical.
Sometimes the world seems painfully unaware of the fact that we are what determines a culture, not our setting nor the inanimate objects that surround us. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “Culture does not make people. People make culture.” We add value to the cultures we create, and the death of equality comes from the desperate excuses we make to preserve this flawed sense of what culture is. We must return to the roots and realise that the purpose of culture is to unite us all as people.
Feminism does not and can not belong to one nation in particular. Westerners should not think of it as exclusively theirs, while we as Arabs should actively claim back access to this pivotal movement in our advancement as human beings. The inequality of denying feminism to certain cultures or parts of the world is just as damaging as the inequality between the sexes itself. It doesn’t make sense to pile one inequality on top of another.
Just as we create culture, we create inequality, and thus we have the power to achieve equality. Obviously, this is harder than it sounds. Often equality seems impossible because we have seen nothing but inequality in our lifetimes, and we naturally reciprocate what we see in what we do. Look at it in the context of your tutes. If you take politics classes, notice how many male students tend to dominate the conversation. In your lectures, how many of the theorists studied are actually women? The majority of perspectives you learn are dominated by the male psyche. The fact that that’s “just the syllabus” and that’s “the way it’s always been” isn’t an excuse to keep the snowball rolling.
If we could refrain from the belief that feminism is something innately exclusive, perhaps we would breed inclusivity. Then, perhaps, feminism would not be seen as exclusive to a certain place and a certain gender. And maybe the term “feminism” would be more a simple word and less a cause for resentment and division.
The takeaway? We must negate thoughts of feminism as a club with exclusive membership. Gendered stereotypes are detrimental to men as well as women, and in turn, to us all. Feminism is just as much a necessity to people around the world as to those in Western countries. The movement is a means to equality, which means it’s pivotal for us to stand united, regardless of nation and gender. Just because it’s called feminism doesn’t mean it is exclusive to females. And just because academics write that it was established by Westerners and remains a Western concept certainly does not make it so.
I am a human being; therefore, I am a feminist.
Art by Amani Nasarudin