So, this is something that comes up over and over. I think pretty much all of us have met at least one person who has said something like, “I believe in equality but I am not a feminist”. A lot of feminists tend to balk at this, because frankly, it tends to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism and a belief in hackneyed feminazi stereotypes. It also represents a fear of the ‘F-word’, and the negative labeling that that tends to bring to the fore.
Having said that, I have a bit of a confession to make. The confession is that despite my strong views on gender equality and patriarchy, I’ve become increasingly wary of using the feminist tag in public forums myself. This is certainly not because I’m afraid that people will label me for that; it’s not that. This change has happened largely because of my recent interaction with a bunch of people who subscribe to a growing point of view within the feminist movement: the idea that men cannot and should not call themselves feminists. As far as I know, there are two main arguments generally put forward in support of this:
- A man cannot possibly relate to a woman’s perspective on the patriarchal system, because he has simply not experienced the same kind of discrimination that a woman has. You cannot be a feminist until and unless you suffer to the same degree under that system. Therefore, men cannot be feminists in the true sense.
- Feminism is a movement by women and for women. Men have much greater access to various spaces in the public view; the feminist space is something that should be woman-only
I don’t agree with the first stance, and I sympathize with the second only on an emotional, not logical level. BUT, I do get it. Feminism is one movement that women should have control over. If a woman comes along and tells me that she’s not comfortable with me calling myself a feminist, that’s fine by me. I don’t insist on the label.
To be honest, I don’t give a rat’s fart about what other MEN (i.e, non feminist men) think about this aspect of my value system. What I definitely do care about is being labeled as a self-serving White Knight by people whose issues I actually SYMPATHIZE with, for reasons that are frankly very selfish. I don’t support feminism purely out of altruistic interests; patriarchy hurts me personally, and I have a vested interest in seeing it die. It’s that simple.
And in the face of that, a degree of marginalization from a movement that I relate very strongly to is, well, not very pleasant.
I mean, don’t get me wrong here. I’m definitely not expecting any medals for holding the views I do. BUT, I’m also not expecting brickbats from the people whose ideology I share. I understand that women have it bad, and I understand that I’m treading on sensitive ground here, but the fact remains that is that it does feel unfair to be mistrusted to that extent purely for being male.
Therefore, as a defense mechanism, I’ve started to shy away from calling myself a feminist, and have begun stating my views a bit more elaborately. Usually something like, “I generally believe in social egalitarianism, but have a heightened interest in gender equality”. This approach has several advantages over calling myself a feminist. For one, it conveys my sociopolitical viewpoint much more unambiguously. More importantly, it is a ‘safe’ statement, in the sense that it tends to offend far fewer women who identify as feminists. However, I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that it’s not the same thing. Why? Well largely because they really AREN’T the same thing.
Egalitarianism is a worldview. Feminism can be described as a worldview, but it is also much more than that. It is a movement. It is a whole school of thought focused exclusively on women’s rights and the damage caused by patriarchal systems. An egalitarian says, “I believe everyone should have equal opportunities and rights in life”. A feminist says, “I believe in equality of the sexes and I’ll be damned before I stop fighting for that”.
The overwhelming majority of feminists I know are unflinchingly egalitarian, and care a great deal about all sorts of things apart from women’s rights. So why even bother to call yourself a feminist? Well, because no one can focus on everything at the same time! I care about disabled people, I care about genocides in Africa, I care about illegal wars, I care about political repression, I care about LGBT rights, I care about censorship… but I can’t talk about all of them at the same time. There’s a lot wrong with the world today, but when I say I’m a feminist or profeminist or whatever, I’m choosing to focus my energies on that one aspect of the world that I find the most wrong, the one that I also feel I have the greatest understanding of and the greatest power of change.
And that’s why, no matter what I label myself in public, when it comes to my internal thought process, I most definitely consider myself a feminist – not just an egalitarian with an interest in gender equality.
There is a difference there, and that difference is important. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?