Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My shade of feminism

In 2012 I was asked to contribute to the brilliant anthology, Fifty Shades of Feminism, which was published by Virago in 2013 and inspired events and other anthologies across the world. The Daily Mail excerpted and edited my piece but I think enough's time's passed for me to reprint it here in full.

Just like Christian Grey, the toxic abuser – sorry, dashing lead – of Fifty Shades of Self-Hate, I have my own secret red room of pain. In the secret room I file every example of womanhating I have experienced or witnessed, large or small: the harassment, the mistreatment, the violation, discrimination, unwanted touching, injustice, belittling, victim-blaming, casual ‘jokes’ which are really insults, marginalisation, objectification, patronage. Everything from the rapes and beatings, the sudden attacks and long hidden abusive relationships, to the work meetings in which I see women being talked over, interrupted, subtly undermined or openly put down. I keep a log of the abusers I know, every one of whom got away with it and has a public reputation as ‘a really nice guy.’ I even trap the silence of those who, when a woman speaks, simply look over her head and ignore it.

In the room I stock everything from the beauty, diet, fashion and surgery adverts encouraging us to make ourselves ever more artificial, self-obsessed and doll-like to the damning statistics showing how few women are represented as powerful and knowledgeable experts in the media, how few are appointed to the best jobs, how few women artists are credited and rewarded for their genius, how few are paid equally or given meaningful opportunities, acknowledged as pioneers and remembered by history. I archive the manifold stereotypes and base insults, the jibes and jokes. I put in those subtle moments when the mere mention of a woman results in a snort, a snigger and a rolling of the eyes.

I never forget those details. I’ve been a feminist all my life because society’s scathing contempt for women, its exploitation of women for underpaid and under-acknowledged menial, caring, sexual and administrative labour, the ubiquitous and endemic violence against women and the leniency towards abusers of women are completely and utterly obvious. What is more painful than anything is some women’s internalisation of this hatred: their harsh and brittle judgement of themselves and each other. In a patriarchy, both sexes are brought up to behave the same: to worship men and deride women.

Many things have changed for women in the last fifty years – but much has remained the same and so much still needs to be done. Desperate times call for feminist measures and we are currently in the middle of great change, challenge and activism. The age of revolution has returned, grassroots feminism has proliferated and there is an inspiring outrage and energy, spurred by issues both old and new. Our concern about relatively recent social, economic and cultural shifts is combined with frustration that longstanding battlegrounds are still live and galled disbelief that we are having to make the same arguments over and over again – like pointing out that a rape survivor is never responsible in any way for a man deciding to rape her.

We are concerned about the pornification of culture, the mainstreaming of the sexploitation industry, the sexualisation of girl children, the sharp increase in cosmetic surgery including labioplasty, the commonness of abusive relationships among the young and the normalisation (among both sexes) of the abuse, coercion, violation and control of young women by their boyfriends. We are concerned that in the fight over abortion rights the fundamental understanding that a woman has the right and the intelligence to decide what happens with her own body will be lost. We are concerned about trafficking – which involves kidnapping, deception, violent physical and mental brutalisation, traumatisation and constant rape – and about the wider assumption that it is okay for a man to pay a human woman for sex as though he’s ordering a drive through meal or renting a DVD. Women are not objects to be bought, sold, used and abused by men.

We are concerned about female genital mutilation, ‘honour’ killing, forced marriages including child marriage, rape as a weapon of war and a perk of peace and the infinite rape myths, victim-blaming and perpetrator excusal which have resulted in 90% of rapes going unreported and only 6% of the remaining 10% resulting in a rape conviction in the UK, which is not a warzone and has a legal framework for prosecuting rape yet still cannot bring itself to punish rapists.

We are concerned about the media vilification and sabotage of those few women in power, the reality and resilience of the glass ceiling and women’s many unpaid, expected and unacknowledged labours away from the office. Women in families take care of children and elders because the men in families do not.

Thanks wholly to feminism we now have a language, a vision, an understanding and an analysis to apply to our pain. What we need now is for the perpetrators to stop. The oppressors are not winning by cleverness or sophisticated rhetoric but by sheer force, by the violent leverage of brutal power – and shame on them for that. The question of gender is not very complicated: treat women as you would be treated, because we are people, human beings with minds and names, ideas, talents, real lives. If you would not like to be raped, harassed, ignored, patronised, ignored, treated as stupid, judged by your age and appearance or used only for the cheap, nasty and repetitive labour you can give, don’t do that to others.

I remind myself during moments of activist fatigue and flagging faith that the women’s movement is the longest and most successful peaceful human rights fight in world history. The resistance we encounter is a sign that we are on the right path and that our words have hit a raw nerve. Those who react with vociferous derision when they are called on their misogyny are enraged because their cover has been blown, their presumption of superiority has been questioned and women have dared to challenge them and answer back.

Those who say that women are their own worst enemies or that feminists are in disagreement about core issues are lying. There are more than fifty shades of feminism, but they’re fifty shades of the same colour: red. Not grey, that in-between yuppie hue of prevarication, indecision and relativism. Feminism is coloured the red of women’s rage, women’s despair, women’s power, women’s brilliance and women’s ability to survive. It is the lifeblood of emancipation, which pulses with neverending faith that freedom and justice are only ever a heartbeat away.