My (Feminist) Do's and Dont's (by Radha Karnad, Kenya)

My husband is not a feminist.
It is a strange thing for me, because much of the way he operates entirely aligns with my definition of feminism, but he absolutely refuses to take on the mantle of a feminist. And, of course, it is not just him – men and women who I trust, respect and love find the term extremely offensive, confining, and threatening.
OF COURSE I think men and women are equal, but there is no way I am a feminist – a  male colleague of mine said over a lunch discussion on Barack Obama’s Glamour Magazine piece “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” last week. I scribbled it down before weighing into the  – rather heated – discussion (unlike my friend and  co-blogger Billene, I am almost always extremely vocal), that conversation triggering my ideas for this piece.

My co-authors and I set ourselves the challenge of writing a set of posts on what feminism means for each us. We each have our version of feminism, our own individual life experiences that have shaped our sex-politic, very different paths to how we reached our affiliation with the word ‘feminist’. We don’t have a single narrative, but I think we do have a fairly united point of view and definition.
When we initially decided to do take on this joint theme, I was a little worried. Feminism, to me, means equality of the sexes. Men and women alike, judged on the basis of their abilities rather than the socially-ascribed behaviours and emotions linked inexplicably to their genitalia.  I thought to myself, this blog will only be two sentences long.

I suppose I was born a feminist, or bred to be one from birth. I grew up in an extremely liberal household, surrounded by men and women who espoused feminism and equality between the sexes. My brother and I had the same rules, and were expected to follow them equally. Unlike my colleagues, I have been very fortunate rarely to face overt sexism and have never felt personally or professionally marginalized on the basis of my sex. However, I increasingly see  the mountain of a challenge we face – of overt sexism, and of the hidden, thoughtless, embedded sexism that is equally harmful and may be equally difficult to penetrate.
My lunchtime debate ended when my colleague asked “Fine, so what is it you expect of me? I mean, what don’t you want me to do?”, at which point we were interrupted. I have thought long and hard about his question, and decided to make this blog my response.
Please DON’T use the word “man” as a way to talk about all  of humankind, language is a powerful tool and often reinforces existing paradigms – at the first seminar of a leadership fellowship I participate in, some of our fellows were surprised that I raised this as an issue, it had never occurred to them that it mattered that much, and they certainly had not meant it in a way to paint humankind with a male-dominated brush. But it does.
Don’t expect me to laugh when you tell me the story of how, on realizing your flight was being captained by a woman, you suggested to the passenger next to you that you should get off and take the next flight, or asked your friend later whether he thought they would still call it a cockpit (both jokes, of course).
Don’t judge my son for wanting to wear nail polish, or dress up as Elsa from Frozen – sexism works against our boys too (and Elsa’s outfit is awesome). Don’t think I will be flattered when you tell me I drive well – “for a lady driver”. Don’t train  your  kid to say that Maria Sharapova is hot to make your friends laugh (true story), we learn ways of thinking and talking about men and women differently from early on (don’t believe me? Check out the pervasive sexism in the coverage of the 2016 Olympics – with male most frequently described with words such as strongest and fastest, and female athletes defined by their age and marital status).

Don’t ask  me to accept that, of our approximately 24,000 genes, the 78 genes that make up the Y chromosome make enough of a difference for anyone  to define how I should behave, talk, dress, or live my life.  Don’t believe  a status quo that marginalizes 50% of the human population is an acceptable reality.
Please DO feel free to judge me, like me, or dislike me on the basis of my abilities, opinions, choices and actions.  Do expect me to acknowledge that we are different – undoubtedly we are, but I do not believe that I am more similar to all three and a half billion women on the planet than to any man. Do be thoughtful about the language you use, the jokes you crack, the stories you tell your children and nieces and nephews – not all heroines need to be saved, and not all knights need to do the saving. Do accept  that the exception proves the rule – women now successfully operate in many traditionally male-dominated fields, so to say women can’t is entirely illogical. Do consider what sexism and equality mean to you, and be brave, try out the title Feminist, it doesn’t have to be a tainted word (to quote another Glamour article, “As long as there’s systematic discrimination based on gender, we need feminism“).
And do let your children experiment and explore – dressing up as a tiger is fun one day, dressing up as Elsa is fun the next. Allow them to put themselves in the shoes of other people, learn to empathize, and recognize the strength and beauty and ability in one another. Hopefully the future generations will embrace the word feminist more willingly than many of us have done.
I certainly expect my sons to.

  1. Dear Sister, thanks for the story. I have also faced the same dilema. This time it is a woman who said ” I really get upset when opportunities are denied to one by a virtue of their gender, I hate stereotypes … I hate living in a box” she declared. And then she put a disclaimer, I don’t count myself a feminist, in fact I don’t quite understand what feminism is really about. Read more from my blog:

  2. Loyce, thank you so much for your response. It is sad, and incredibly frustrating, to see these patterns and conversations repeated again and again across different cultures and countries. Looking forward to checking out your blog.

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