At the Edge

Commentary on the Big Issues

Understanding Feminism

I’m a feminist. And I’m tired of people coming up with criticisms of feminism that don’t even rise to the level of idiocy. To be sure, there are legitimate criticisms of the modern movement. That doesn’t change the reality: sexism exists today, and needs to be fought. Feminism is the movement that challenges that sexism.

I’m a feminist because, throughout the world, individuals face the denial of social, political, and economic opportunities just as a result of their gender. I’m a feminist because I want to resist this system of oppression which defines the lives of multiple individuals: the lives of soldiers who are denied the ability to serve because they are trans men or trans women, the lives of same-sex couples merely seeking the right to marry and live their lives together, the lives of adolescents being abused in cruel “gay conversion” camps, the lives of men who defy gender roles imposed on them, the lives of women who are denied the right to equal pay and to employment, and who are shunned as “impure” during their menstrual cycles, the lives of nonbinary folks who’re simply trying to resist social impositions that confine them to certain standards they don’t want to meet.

Mary Frith scandalized British society by wearing “male” clothes and behaving in a way that society perceived to be masculine. Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

In this post, I’m going to help readers understand feminism, and give you my views on it (i.e. why am I a feminist?). I’m also going to redefine patriarchy. 

Defining ‘Feminism’

The definition of feminism I’m going to use is an ideology which resists discrimination or the violation of individual rights based on gender, and the movement that advances the ideology through actionable social and political change.

To understand that definition, we first need to understand what “gender” means. It’s difficult to come up with a definition because different people mean different things when they say “gender.” However, gender does not mean having XX or XY chromosomes. There’s a distinction between biological sex and gender that we should not blur. Gender is understood as being a social construct corresponding to biological sex. Specifically, gender is the expectations of a community placed on individuals belonging to a certain biological sex. It restricts the freedom of individuals of certain biological sexes and places expectations on them.

Gender is often framed as a binary. In the gender binary, there are two ideal groups of characteristics, the masculine and the feminine, which are expectations placed on members of the two biological sexes. Intersex individuals are excluded. All individuals who defy the group of expectations placed on them are excluded and shunned. This means folks who ascribe to the opposite role to the one placed on them, and those who don’t ascribe to either of the two overly restrictive roles.

Why did these roles arise? Insignificant neurological features that cause behavioral differences in infants, e.g. in the preference of toys, which dissipate later on. These have primarily been observed in chimpanzees. These neurological differences correlate with the biological sex of individuals. While they’re too mild to have a real impact, when families notice behavioral differences in infants and observe that these correlate with sex, they ascribe gender roles to their children. Since then, cultures have emerged ascribing various gender roles, in most cases in the form of a binary.

In general, feminism argues that gender roles are harmful, and disproportionately affect women and nonbinary individuals.

The Case for Feminism

The system of gender roles that is followed in much of the world today is a patriarchal system. This isn’t the traditional definition of patriarchy (i.e. a “world of male domination”). It’s more nuanced than that. Patriarchy is a specific kind of gender role in which people who belong to the “male” gender are expected to be the breadwinners of stable families, and are given a notion of “masculinity” to fulfill wherein they should be dominant/aggressive emotionally, professionally, and sexually (in the latter case, feminists often call it “toxic masculinity,” an expectation of sexual dominance which has probably led to the majority of rapists being men). Similarly, people who belong to the “female” gender are forced into being homemakers, and are expected to be passive and demure emotionally and professionally, and they lack any sexual freedom given to them.

The notion that patriarchy — as defined above — doesn’t exist in most of the world today is indefensible. Because patriarchy exists, and is the predominant system of gender. It’s why “homosexuality” is seen as weak. It’s also why women are often not allowed to be in the military or to pursue free professional lives. Feminism suggests that patriarchy is disproportionately harmful to women. There are multiple examples to prove this. I’m going to use the examples of female genital mutilation, sexual assault, and workplace discrimination.

Female Genital Mutilation. In efforts to constrain the sexual freedom of women, families practice female genital mutilation, the ritual removal of parts of the external female genitalia, a dangerous and often painful process. In a study of merely 30 key countries, UNICEF found that thirty million women and girls had undergone such processes. Harms include chronic pain, fatal bleeding, and the development of cysts.

Sexual Assault. I’m going to mainly talk about rape, i.e. sexual penetration without a person’s consent. With the sole possible exception of the United States [see note], rape is disproportionately suffered by women. This is because of a culture of sexual dominance, in which masculinity often requires male sexual domination, whereas women are expected to be “passive” and docile. Note: In the U.S., when considering in-prison rape, men are raped more often, but the rapists are still males over 90% of the time. This is also an unclear statistic because, in many cases, people?—?both males and females?—?don’t report rapes.

Workplace Discrimination. I’ll talk about this more in later posts, but, in short, women are often not paid equally compared to men, they’re not hired due to fears of pregnancy, they’re denied paid parental leave, and they face sexual harassment in the workplace disproportionately, especially in workplaces with insufficient sexual harassment policies.

Regardless, patriarchy is harmful to the freedom of men, women, and nonbinary folks. In fact, all forms of gender roles are harmful. If a biological male wants to pursue activities that are typically considered “feminine” in nature, they’re rejected and shunned, unless they undergo sex-reassignment surgery and change their gender identity (and then, they’re shunned as trans women). Similarly, when a biological female wants to pursue “masculine” activities, they’re excluded unless they change their gender identity, after which they’re discriminated against because they’re trans men. People who don’t fit into this rigid binary are discriminated against and rejected. Patriarchy exists everyday: standards of beauty and appearance (e.g. “clothes for men” and “clothes for women”), casual sexism (e.g. so-called “chivalry”), and so on. And the more dangerous forms are equally pervasive. Patriarchy is when men are scared to report their rape by women because they’ll be rejected; it’s when equal marriage isn’t granted; it’s when women face massive harms in terms of denying economic opportunities, social equality, or sexual liberation. Feminism is simply the quest to fight this patriarchy. That’s a good quest, without question, and one we should all support.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, society ascribes to — and accepts — a patriarchal system. A system which normalizes the sexual and professional repression of women, glorifies the ostracism of nonbinary individuals, and the emotional repression of men [though the latter are probably better off than the former two]. A system which rejects the LGBT community and parades the pervasive discrimination inherent within society.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. At any level plausible for us, it is our obligation to resist the structural injustice experienced by individuals—many of them our friends, family, and acquaintances—and to fight the patriarchal system, a system which infringes on equal protection and on freedom. The institution of gender, as a whole, is one built upon subjugation and oppression. It is exclusionary, both to those who conform to the binary, and to outliers. And the goal of feminism is equality and justice, so we all must fight the patriarchy.

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2 Comments

  1. Connor Gillies

    Pretty interesting writing style. I appreciate your views, and insights on feminism, and the fact that you are willing to critique some of the behaviors of modern feminism while also owning being a feminist yourself. You also acknowledge the problem with patriarchal societies being prominent elsewhere (IE India, and international military discrimination) which is a great direction for feminist movements. I am similar to you, I would like to think I am a feminist though accepting the title is a struggle based on the perceptions of feminism created by third wave of Feminism in America.

  2. Shruti

    Very well written and comprehensive passage. Really thought provoking and makes you take a step back and offers you s different perspective. Not strongly worded but conveys the necessary message perfectly.
    I’m blown away. This is some real high quality writing.

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