I’m a Feminist, Have No Fear
This week end, the Swiss Union Solidarités held its Spring University, with a programme packed with sessions ranging from the study of the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East to the current situation in Spain, to Liberation Theology mouvements in Latin America.
I of course, being the slight feminism obsessed person that I am, attended the sessions on “What kind of sexual liberation for what kind of emancipation?” and on “Feminism Today”.
Presentations were made by various experts, including Christian Mounir, sexual and reproductive health and rights consultant at the University of Geneva and the French feminist collective les Poupées en Pantalon. Participants coming from all walks of life included older feminist militants who participated in the struggle for women’s rights (and still do by the way) amidst the Mouvement de Libération de la Femme and the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary League, which gave way to in-depth conversations about feminism today. The conversations were around the movement in Europe nowadays but the struggle being universal, most of the issues discussed are relevant to any context.
Sexual revolution was defined as the politicization of the struggle for sexual liberation, meaning the liberation from all the psycho-social elements that lead to the prevention of full enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights by individuals. Those rights can be found outlined in the Beijing Declaration of 1995 and in the IPPF Sexual Rights Declaration.
The Poupées en Pantalon perfectly summarised the current situation that women in Europe are currently facing: after being sent back to their kitchens after having served as a crucial work force during World War Two, women started organising themselves for the fulfilment and application (not to mention obtention) of their rights, with numerous victories such as the right to abortion, the realisation that a woman’s body is nobody’s but her own or the access to contraception. This emancipation has now been integrated and digested by neoliberalism, which is now appropriating the gains of women’s struggle. Indeed, we have now gone from pro-birth policies to women having an obligation to be sexy and sexual. Capitalism, with its ideology of extreme mercantilism, and patriarchy, whose aim is to reassure men in their vexed virility, have now reduced women’s bodies to a merchandise that has to be available and willing at all times. Patriarchal ideas of what a woman’s body should look like are thrown in magazines and on billboards, with women having to embrace this image and to engage in the run to look like this fantasy. Women’s existence and relationship to their body are being forced into an extremely normative framework: a woman has to be sexy (otherwise she’s an introverted prude) but not claim it, she has to love sex (sex in the patriarchal understanding of the concept, for there is little understanding of how a woman’s approach to sex can be different than a man’s) while not appear as straightforward, she has to want to have children and declare it the peak of her life when she does. Lesbianism is not even considered a sexual orientation in itself, with many people still considering that the lesbian woman “is yet to have met the right man”. Such is the impact of heterosexuality as the norm that some of the struggles that are now being led by LGBTI groups (struggle for the right to marry or to adopt, which are by the way completely legitimate, as there are no reasons why they should be discriminated against) are not to change societal structures like Family for example, or to come up with alternatives, but rather, to replicate the model perpetuated by the heterosexual couple.
This conversation made me reflect on Lebanon, where it seems that we have integrated the worst without any of the gains: you’re 3ayshe bil sent el sefer if you just don’t feel like wearing a mini skirt and a cleavage all day every day, or you’re “badly fucked” (literal translation from the French mal baisée) if you feel offended by most of the ad campaigns that plague the country, while women still have virtually no rights. Liberation is considered the “right” to wear what you want and to work (while being harassed at work, while having to look after the house and do all the chores, while being paid significantly less that your male counterparts just because you’re a woman etc etc etc). This is not what can be called liberation and Lebanon has a plethora of laws, policies and mentalities that desperately need to change in order to improve women’s lives.
This is an important point: there can be no real equality if we stay in a neoliberal sectarian paradigm. The whole environment and regime have to change to bring effective positive change and bring about an egalitarian society. Mentalities take a lot of time to change, we might as well start now.
The conversation about feminism today brought about an interesting discussion about the very label of Feminist. Some participants explained that, while they considered themselves engaged in the struggle for gender equality and the empowerment of women, they were not comfortable with calling themselves feminists, such the term has been ridiculed, mocked and undermined by patriarchy in power and within the media. Older feminists gave their own testimony about their relationship with the word, stating that for them it was a pride to be labelled feminists, because the word in itself carried the idea of subversion and of opposition with the power forces in place. To be a feminist is to be a revolutionary, which is still true, especially in South countries where women make it a point to call themselves feminists, sometimes at great risk.
The question of the involvement of men has inevitably been asked. However, there was more or less a consensus on this issue in the form of the shared belief that women do need to get together, exclusively, to discuss the strategies they need to bring their agenda forward. Besides, it is also my personal experience that when you involve men, women, and especially young women, shut down and fold back on themselves, not daring to speak about themselves, let alone discuss issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Many examples can be given of meetings where the 3 men present talk for 90% of the time, while the majority of women remain silent. It is tremendously important for women to have a space where they can question and fight back this socialisation of women being quiet when there are men present, and single gender spaces are one of the right space to do so. Besides, the concept of Gender, very fashionable within donors and UN circles, tends to send resources to the involvement of men and young boys, depriving women and girls from much needed funds and human resources. Men are more than welcome to partner with feminist movement and participate in action, but there should be a conscious policy to leave women at the head of these movements and to preserve single gender meetings.
Finally, it was interesting to talk about Imperialist Feminists with women from the North and about the thesis of Elisabeth Badinter and Marcela Iacub who seem to think that Feminism is the reason behind why women are single (sorry, they actually say “alone” but I can’t bring myself to write such despicable things). Issues that seem to be burning in Europe such as the veil, or feminists who go to Afghanistan to teach women on how to be empowered were strongly rejected by most of the attendants as being imperialism and racism masqueraded as fake feminism (that’s going to an extreme left union gathering for you). Imperialism has to be fought at all levels, even and all the more if it appears among feminist ranks.
To all those who seem to think that Feminism is outdated and that the women have enough benefits and gains, I’ll just ask them to give a look at the situation of employment and unemployement, at your magasines and ads (and the constant need there seem to exist to show naked women to sell yoghurt and cars), at the feminisation of the HIV pandemic, at the feminisation of migration with all the accrued vulnerability that it implies, at the way you were brought up in comparison to your brother/cousin/friend, and on the way you’re bringing your children up.