I used to think feminists were annoying. There, I said it. Once upon a time, as a blissful innocent, I thought gender issues were sufficiently managed, on the right track, and generally last-century, and that we were ready to move into a broader -ism. Humanism, for example. Part of this arose from being thoroughly spoiled–I was never told, growing up, that there were professions or activities I couldn’t participate in because I was a girl, and I never felt like I had fewer opportunities than the boys I knew.
Another part was a cultural hangover from second-wave feminism, which seemed to suggest that in order to be equal to men, women had to be like men, something I found inherently contradictory. If women and men were equal, why did a woman have to stop being a woman in order to prove it? It seemed almost like an admission of inferiority.
As a result of all this, I became one of those people who, when listening to a feminist complaint about something relatively first-world (like whether or not a male boss patting a female subordinate on the shoulder constitutes sexual harassment in a corporate environment) would think “Jeez, enough already.” Were we really so helpless that we needed explicit rules for absolutely every interaction between between men and women everywhere at all times? That just seemed so Saudi Arabia.
Needless to say, there was a lot I was missing. (Both about feminism, and about Saudi Arabia.) As I grew older, two things happened: I started paying more attention to what was going on in the world, and I met a lot of different kinds of feminists. In the Middle East, I met feminists who wore headscarves and abayas and hated stiletto heels for the same reason the buzz-cut-sporting older feminists I’d met in the US hated stiletto heels. I met younger third-wave feminists who loved stiletto heels for totally opposite reasons. I realized that feminism is actually a fairly elusive idea, one that often takes women in opposite directions in pursuit of the same goal.
I also began to see, with frightening clarity, the malice. It would be too broad to say that men hate women, men are afraid of women, men desire power over women–though there are certainly men of whom all these things are true, there are many more men of whom none of these things are true. Yet there’s the malice. Creeping and ugly and everywhere, as though it has a life of its own. In the developing world it tends to take a very frank, graphic form: acid attacks, rape as a tool of war, sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, chronic neglect of girls. (The latter three are becoming so prevalent that they have skewed the global gender balance. By a slim margin, despite the natural tendency of women to outlive men, there are now more men in the world than women.)
Yet the malice in the developed world is no less ominous for being rationalized and rich and dressed-up. Though no one would ever think of using the term honor violence (we reserve that descriptor for brown people who live somewhere else, motivated by religious something-or-other or tribal something-or-other), one-third of women murdered every year in the United States are killed by their intimate partners. In 2005 that amounted to 1,181 women, or three women every day. To put that in perspective, the UN estimates there are 5,000 honor killings every year in the entire world. 5,000 in a world of 6 billion versus nearly 1,200 in a single country of 300 million. In other words, a woman in America runs a greater risk of being killed by her husband or boyfriend than a woman in Pakistan. Those are scary numbers.
But it’s the subtle stuff that really gets to me, because it’s the subtle stuff that gets passed off as normalcy. Last year there was a brouhaha in the comics world due to the lack of female writers and artists included in the DC reboot. This became a conversation about the gender-inclusivity of the comics industry as a whole. It rapidly became clear that the guys in charge, many of whom I’ve met and all of whom are very nice, simply had not noticed the imbalance. They looked around the room and never thought it odd that all the people in it were men. They blamed women for failing to submit their work for consideration. Never mind that neither DC nor Marvel has had an open submissions policy for years. (I have written for the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly, the latter of which has some of the most intellectually rigorous standards in the periodical news industry, and I am here to tell you that that was easier than breaking into the comics industry. Easier by far.) It reminded me of nothing so much as certain all-male mosque boards who come up with arcane regulations to exclude women from community life and then blame women for their lack of interest.
Then, at around the same time, the sexual counter-revolution began in grand old halls of American conservatism. A woman who wanted her insurance company to cover birth control was suddenly a slut and a prostitute, whether she was single or married or religious or not. Not only was she a slut and a prostitute, but all three men running for president on the conservative ticket refused to denounce the windbag who called her a slut and a prostitute. (This is the rise of Christianism, by the way. What do you think the rise of Islamism looked like? I watched it happen, so I will tell you. It looked exactly like this.)*
In other words, white or black, eastern or western, Muslim or Christian or Jew or atheist, and yes, conservative or liberal, it all started to look the same: the slow, cheerful, firm, for-your-own-good, pseudo-rational eliding of space for women and rights for women.
It hasn’t affected me personally all that much. I’ve slipped the net. I’ve been lucky enough to work as a woman in the comics industry, write as a woman in a conservative religious community, and I’ve loved both experiences. For a long time my attitude was “if I can do, it, any woman can do it” but the fact of the matter is that’s not true. The world my daughter grows up in will be tougher for girls than the world I grew up in. We are going backwards. And that is what makes me livid.
So I learned to stop worrying and love feminists. Because you know what? Apparently, people need angry women shouting in their ears. Being nice hasn’t worked. Now when I read the feminist blogs dissecting and re-dissecting every little thing that’s wrong with primetime television or advertising or heck, the way groceries are bagged at the supermarket, I will bite my tongue. They are doing a public service. You need people on the periphery to show the middle where it’s headed. You need people to pay attention. And that’s what they’re doing.
*Someday soon I will write a post about why I think the rise of both Islamism and Christianism are probably not the end of the world, for the following reason: when extreme ideologies are forced to justify themselves in the marketplace of ideas, in a democratic setting, they are often compelled to become more moderate and tolerant in order to survive.
Willow is a convert to Islam and her commentary often addresses Islamic and interfaith issues. An avid supporter of new and alternative media, Willow has written for politics and culture blogs from across the political spectrum. This article was originally published on The Blog of G. Willow Wilson.