Bringing you regular rage against the patriarchy, drenched in sarcasm and capslocks #FEMINISTFRIDAY

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Preach Sister! Religion and Feminism

This was a conversation that was bound to happen, but one regardless of how much I thought about or anticipated, was still unsure of how to have. It started with a simple question from her; “can you be really religious and be a feminist?” The answer was far from simple.

My niece and I both come from Muslim heritage. My parents are a common story of very traditional muslims who came to the UK in search for a better life (and well, because of colonialism). I am first generation here and my niece, second, obviously, and as these generations progress, the belonging to the religion and tradition changes. In my case, it almost skipped a generation…just don’t tell my Mum.

This week, my niece asked me about my thoughts on religion and whether it had an impact on my politics and feminism. It of course has, but to what extent, I’ve never been completely sure. It has been said to me, more times than acceptable; “But you’re a Muslim, how can you be a feminist? That religion oppresses women”. Well, there’s a whole lot wrong with that sentence. Firstly, there is, I believe, a misconception that Islam oppresses women more so than any other religion. It’s just not true, more often than not, it’s only because they’ve recently read a Daily Mail article telling them about the atrocities of wearing a Burka and come to the conclusion that Islam hates women. All religious texts, if read literally, oppress women. They also condone stoning for harvesting the wrong crops next to each other. But rather than explain the danger of taking religious texts literally, let’s take a moment for President Bartlet to explain it.

You enjoyed that didn’t you?

I used to think that feminism and religion are not compatible. I used to, quite frankly, think anyone who believed this was ridiculous. Until I realised exactly how patronising and insulting that view was.  I have had countless conversation with actual religious feminists, (not my kind of ‘religious’) and they’ve said time and time again, how tired they are of people assuming that they either don’t understand religion or feminism if they believe you can be part of both.They are entitled to interpret both their spirituality and feminism as they see fit. Don’t get me wrong though, through these conversations I have understood just how difficult being a religious feminist is (mostly from arguing within their own families) but that doesn’t mean they are ridiculous for trying or that they somehow are being brainwashed by some patriarchical force. These women are strong, trust me, no oppressive force is taking over their minds. But I still struggle with the contradictions between their feminist beliefs and religious actions.

I’m a firm believer that religion is about individual interpretation. My personal interpretation (or the one I am still figuring out…) is that which doesn’t align exactly to my parents – Family dinners are much fun. Sometimes I just randomly throw in a story about the most recent pro-choice rally I’ve been to. Cue awkward silence and dropping of forks. I’m in it for the LOLs.

I’m a modern, western, women in an eastern, traditional, religious family –  I respect their views, uphold as many of them that I feel are representative of my own and go along on my merry (often conflicted) way. But it’s not easy – I’m a walking identity crisis. I grew up in a world that on the surface appeared equal but there were subtle inequalities, masked as religious respect. For instance:

  • When a boy is born into a family, you distribute sweets to your neighbours and friends. Not if you have a girl though, as she is not to be celebrated, she is a burden until she is married. (My niece was appalled by this “So no one gave out sweets when I was born, not even a bag of flipping maltesers?!” I do love her.)
  • It is considered ‘a pity’ or worse ‘a flaw’ if a women only gives birth to girls. Regardless of the actual genetic way in which gender is assigned….(for those of you wondering it’s all on the bloke and the x or y in his swimmers)
  • Boys in my family were allowed to stay out till late, girls were not.
  • Boys educated themselves, for girls this was less important (thankfully, my Dad is more progressive, bless him, I don’t think he was looking for this to be outcome of that education though. Ah well, win some, lose some Dad)
  • Girls are expected to marry quickly and have children…quickly.

But is this religion or culture? I don’t recall being cited chapter and verse to explain these rules. Why in today’s day and age, with progressive and religious thinkers working side by side, does religion still feel like a smokescreen for sexism? I don’t think it is necessarily religion that we should blame, I don’t think anyone should be blamed for having faith. I think it is the fault of those who benefit from creating a religious culture or preaching a specific religious interpretation which oppresses women. Culture is different. Culture doesn’t come with a Bible to tell you how, culture comes from the power to shape people’s’ thinking. And in our world – who has the power? It is religious culture, rather than the religion itself, I have always had a problem with and that my feminism just cannot abide.

I’m going to stick my neck out there (note: I say this with experience in Islamic States, but I would be interested to hear of other opinions), religion is used wrongly by men to give themselves power and platform. If you look at religious states and the adoption of Sharia law – it favours men, on every front. Not surprising given all Islamic religious positions are occupied by men. But to create and convict under Sharia Law, you have to interpret the Quran, if it is only men making this interpretation, of course it will favour them and disadvantage women. It’s not difficult to see – in a case of rape, a women can only be believed if the rapists confesses or there are four MALE witnesses. I’ve yet to find the sentence in the Quran that says ‘four male witnesses’. Or how about the laws that state that domestic violence is acceptable if a wife is ‘disobedient’…I’ll leave the interpretation of ‘disobedient’ to the all male jury or the male judge shall I? It goes on; genital mutilation, women’s education, abortion….by no means am I a religious scholar, but oppression and brutality towards women is not why any religion was created.

It is these brutalities and cultural inequalities that make it very difficult to be a feminist and have faith, and why it is perhaps unsurprising, that many people find religious feminism an oxymoron or, at the least, a feminist perspective that lacks credibility. But if feminism is about choice, why are we restricting it for those who don’t have faith? That’s not fair and it’s not what a movement about equality should be doing. A women can take a feminist interpretation of religion and fight for that religion and society to become equal – I happen to think she should be applauded for it, because, just maybe, she’s fighting a powerful and all too popular patriarchy, which most of us dismiss rather than try to change. But let’s be honest, religion isn’t going anywhere and is always going to be a hugely influential part of society. So why not have a few more religious feminists and start changing the influence religion has?

The two belief systems can be compatible but, I worry at times, that the terms ‘religious’ and ‘feminist’ are just for namesake. I would love to see more ‘religious feminists’ challenge their own religion and its culture, and push for them to have position and power within their religion to start redressing this cultural patriarchy, which, as far as I see it, doesn’t need to be the assumed structure of religion in a modern, equal society.


All aboard! Even the men

I love a good flowchart, they are my second favourite after writing lists. I especially like the one’s you get on medical websites: ‘Do you have a fever?’ if ‘Yes’ follow this arrow, if ‘NO’ go to question 117. All of which always end in a scarier place than you ever wanted, when actually all you have is the cold. I mention this not because I have no social filter and a tendency to come out with whatever is in my head…no, no. My niece is currently studying and she mentioned this as a technique while we were writing. I really wanted to just draw a flowchart for this blogpost but it really didn’t make a lot of sense. On the right is the most reasonable I could come up with and actually, kind of sums it all up well.


But in between her study breaks she mentioned something much more interesting and much more relevant to why you have decided to read this. She talked about men being feminists. This has always been a hot topic in feminist circles – an argument that comes down to ownership of the movement. But the conversation always assumes that a man wanting to engage in the movement, needs to have or is even looking for any ownership. In my opinion, they should be able to engage, be educated about issues and fight them alongside women. What they shouldn’t have is decision making power. They shouldn’t be leading the debate or defining it on behalf of women. It seems pretty simple in my head, but somehow for others it is not and becomes a bit of a stumbling block. Men need to be involved, like it or not, they are relevant to the movement – because they, unfortunately, hold the keys to many of the gates we want to get through. Getting them to understand why their privielege is wrong and engaging them in the fight will mean we get a set of keys too, and faster. Surely the point is to live in an equal society – that only happens when attitudes are changed – that means mens’ too.

My niece told me of a guy friend of hers who was reading this blog, he posted it on facebook, because he, I presume, believed in what he was reading, or at the very least, found it interesting. Within 5 minutes of posting, he received offensive comments telling him to ‘grow a pair’ or telling him that he was ‘so gay…’. This annoyed him and so as to not jeopardise his social networking reputation, he quickly deleted the post and joined in the harmony of the lad culture choir. (You can read about the Lad culture in a previous post). My niece found this difficult. She mentioned that he is a really loud and confident guy, and wondered how he could let one little thing like this get him and let it change his opinion. She was quite angry with him. In all honesty, I was strangely sympathetic (I’m not known for my empathy). It takes courage to question the norm or go against the grain, especially if those you are going against are your friends. This guy in particular didn’t have that courage.

There needs to be a place for men to have these discussions and I would prefer for them to have them with us, women, so they get it right. I read an article a while back about men as feminists and instead of arguing whether or not this is a good way forward for feminism, the article spend paragraphs focusing on semantics. Whether they are entitled to use the term “feminist” or should we come up with something new. I understand why, but surely this isn’t the priority? Surely we should be encouraging the word to be used, rather than finding synonyms? BUT we do need to make sure it is used in the right way.

Now this is important, because I have encountered many times where men use the word ‘feminist’ to describe themselves inaccurately. They use it simply because they know it’s the right thing to say; followed by something along the lines of ‘Of course I understand women’s rights, some of my best friends are women.’ Bravo. These men are better known as ‘Fauxminists’ now, I would explain this in detail, but here is a brilliant article which does so in a much more articulate and witty way. Read it.

These men are a problem, because they think they get it, but they don’t, which means when you try and correct it – they don’t listen. A friend of mine has a younger brother, he’s 22 and when he heard me talking about this he said:

“I believe in feminism, I mean all those girls that put on so much make up to try and make themselves look good and wear tight clothes should know they don’t have to do that, it doesn’t even look good. Natural beauty is much better looking to guys” Why thank you kind Sir, now that you have told me that I need not wear this make up and that my natural beauty pleases you, you have released me from the shackles of oppression.

WHAT?! How is this your understanding of feminism?! You have taken a generational struggle for political, social and cultural equality and whittled it down to how we look – reinstating everything that we need to fight and then had the audacity to label that feminism. Walk away. Quickly. Far too many men (young men…God I’m old) have jumped on what is quickly becoming a bandwagon, rather than the third/fourth wave of feminism we are all hoping for. I’ve heard it more often than my fragile ears can handle. Comments like:

“I know how to treat a woman with respect, because I’m a feminist too, I buy my girlfriend flowers and I always pay for dinner” or how about “I’m a feminist, I let my wife have a job and work, like I do”. ‘LET HER’?…wow. No, feminist is not what you are, but you could be, if you actually learnt about the term you are using.

I have, however, had the privilege to work with and be friends with actual male feminists. One’s who understand what it is actually about, one’s who understand that it is not aesthetic – it is about deeply entrenched inequality in our society which, as times goes on, is going more unnoticed and unchallenged.

I was on a panel for International women’s day last month and was asked and interestingly worded question “Can a collective of men ever fight for women’s rights or are they just another collective of patriarchy?” It all comes down to intention. If a collective of men wants to support women to create an equal society, where women are given the platform that they deserve and should already have been given, than it is of course helpful and works towards eradicating that patriarchy. However, the minute this collective stops supporting and attempts to lead, the cause is lost. It’s a fine line, but not one that we should avoid walking.

Every woman wants to be a Cosmo girl

My wonderful niece sent me something in the post this week. It was a copy of Cosmopolitan Magazine. At first, there was this brief moment where I stared blankly into the abyss and thought that the past few weeks of feminist conversation had only happened in my head. Then I saw a post it note “Turn to page 77. Cosmo are doing a feminist campaign

It's pink. Obviously

Cue huge sigh of relief and unwrapping of the chocolates she also sent (she knows her aunt well). So yes, Cosmo have indeed launched a campaign “Do you use the F word?” Now, technically, this is not a campaign, this is a very worthy educational activity. Trust me, there is a difference that more people need to recognise between education and campaigning (I’m sure I will go into detail another time) – but as you read on, you realise that despite the improper use of the word ‘campaign’ to describe the article, there is actually a political campaign that Cosmo seems to be engaging in…I know, maybe I should have got you to sit down before I let you read this.

Cosmo has started a campaign called the ‘Wage War” and are calling on readers to sign a petition to Westminster stating:

“We, the undersigned, call on the government to make equal-pay auditing compulsory from 2013 for all companies who employ 250 people or more. This information (the average wage of women employees and how this compares to men) should be made public, for example on companies’ websites. We believe that without this commitment from the government, the pay gap will be allowed to widen at a time when women across the UK are already finding it harder than ever to make ends meet.” Hmm..not bad. In fact, there are a few MPs who have signed up to it and there seemed to be some Twitter #tag action on the go from them too!

So well done Cosmo! But, the thing is, you, like all women’s magazines, let yourself down. Everything before and after p77 confirms this. I’m not a fan of these magazines, there has to be a substantial, mind numbing, transport – related delay for me to purchase one (well, unless it comes with a free mascara or lipgloss, then it’s just good economic sense). You see they are seeped in hypocrisy and contradiction, I’m taking more than even a religious text.

Let’s just take Cosmo because it is in front of me (but replace it with Heat, Glamour or Star and the story is much the same). The cover is a sultry picture of Holly Willoughby ‘as you’ve never seen her before’ Well, admittedly, I haven’t ever seen here in tight black leather and a sexy pout…At this point I had to check I hadn’t accidentally been sent the cover of a lads mag. Oh wait, it’s because Cosmo assumes women want to look like this. Brilliant. Now, let’s skip through a few pages and give you a run down of what you’ll find:

  • Endless make up and fashion tips/ advertisements for the consumer in you
  • An article asking men to rate the style of female celebrities – because that’s why you get dressed in the mornings ladies, for the men in your life to be attracted to you. Note while I write this I’m in joggers and a jumper with some of the chocolate stuck to it that my niece sent. (Yeah, you know you want this.) Kevin, 26, says “I’m quite critical of a girl’s fashion sense…I like it when they make the effort” Well Kevin, as long as you are satisfied.
  • A Q and A, enquiring whether you can be a feminist and get a vajazzle. (I secretly love this article, for so many reasons!)
  • The ‘Sexpert’ answers emails from men and tells us women, how we can solve his sex woes. GIVE ME STRENGTH.
  • The next 3 pages are just filled with (almost) naked men…I’m not even sure why. Well, I guess if they objectify us, us objectifying them cancels it out, right?
  • And then the almost regular feature…weight loss tips. Excellent.

Now, from reading this, you would presume I leave the house with a giant two fingers to capitalist consumerism, bare faced and wearing my hemp skirt and sloganed ‘anti patriarchy’ t-shirt. You would be wrong. I, like millions of other women, enjoy looking good. My red lipstick and matching red velvet stilettos are like my children. But, I do it for me (here, is where I stop typing and consider if actually I have been trained to say that by a male owned consumerist system) but on the whole, I think, I do it for me. There is nothing wrong with looking good, there is nothing wrong with your choice in clothing, there is nothing wrong with wanting to lose a bit of weight. BUT it is the intention and mindset behind why you are doing it that matters. What Cosmo and many women’s magazines get wrong is that they pitch it to you in a way that make you believe that your appearance is the single, most important thing in the world, far more superior to your intellect or skills and that you should prioritise it, because everyone else expects you to – especially your boyfriend/partner/potential heterosexual lover. This is just unhelpful in the fight for equality. It reinstate everything that is keeping us from being around that boardroom table or all that is allowing us to be treated as objects.

Woven between these self-esteem destroying articles are actually pockets of good intention and decent discussion – credit where it is due, Cosmo is actually better than most others. Much like the campaign they’ve launched, there is talk about finding a good career, even the relationship advice is, almost, empowering – but Cosmo, you do yourself no favours by having it hidden behind layers of unintentional misogyny.

But back to the article my niece actually wanted me to read. Cosmo you’re trying to do something good. I am a complete believe in making feminism more mainstream, so, here are few words of advice to help you along your way:

Dear Cosmo Editor (whom I believe is a woman),

I applaud you on your “F-word” and “Wage War” campaign. I, as a proud feminist, want to see equality in all quarters of society, by focusing on the gender pay gap, you have highlighted one of the most important struggles in the women’s movement’s fight.

You have, however, put into question the credibility of your campaign by ignoring the other fights for equality; the fight to end objectification and the fight for self esteem. All of these fights lead us to equality. By simultaneously fighting the Wage War/reclaiming feminism and then telling women how to dress ‘sexy’ or end their mens’ sexual worries you are cancelling out the good work you are trying to do. You see, we women, do not have equality because we have, for generations, been seen as objects or a ‘weaker’ substitute for human. This fight to end the gender pay gap cannot actually be separated from the fight to end objectification – they two do not exist in isolation. As such, don’t you think that you, as a popular women’s magazine, have a social responsibility to take the fight for feminism as a whole? wouldn’t we be closer to women’s liberation if the literature aimed at women didn’t objectify us too (or worse, convince us we want to be objectified) and make us worry about losing weight for our summer bikinis?

You have the means and the platform to do a lot of good – please take it. This is a step in the right direction.

Just something to think about in time for next month’s edition.

Lots of love


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