Interestingly, feminism was never of intellectual importance or interest to me until a few years ago, as those around me stopped perceiving me as a child, but saw me as a young woman. Emma Watson’s powerfully honest discourse and #freethenipple are empowering, but only really to those who already support those ideals.
Imagine my despair upon hearing one of my more intellectual, intelligent friends inform a group discussion on feminism and LGBTQ rights, that the battle was won in the Western world. He then added that Western women should stop moaning and instead stand up for their less geographically privileged sisters. Incidentally, it was the first time any male classmates attended the feminist society’s discussions. Too timid to walk in alone, they arrived in a caricature-like group, sniggering and looking to each other for reassurance. The truth is that they were terrified, the word feminism had them feeling defensive and argumentative.
Despite the fact that our topic was LGBTQ rights, the topic of transgender women incarcerated in male prisons was met by the same friend of mine asking why feminists should decide this, as opposed to prison wardens, government and parole officers. It seems not to occur to him that these professionals could be feminist. Feminism and responsible power were mutually exclusive in his mind. Although the debate was not on feminism, the male participants were unable to forget the subject. They were too scared of the concept to let it out of their sight for a second.
The most frustrating moment, for me, was at the end of the discussion. Having belittled and guffawed their way through the evening, the last question was put to the group: do LGBTQ people suffer in our community? Again, my friend smiled patronisingly and claimed this was definitely not the case, and that, like feminism, we should concentrate on the developing world now. Statistically, one in ten people do not identify as “straight”, yet there was not a single person who had declared this in our thousand-man-strong school community. Nobody felt comfortable announcing that part of themselves, since even rumours about sexuality could be socially devastating. A powerful opportunity for discussion and reflection in the comfort of the hypothetical was unceremoniously shoved aside.
Sadly, many hold this view that women “no longer have anything to complain about”. My friends (both male and female), and even my own father, to some extent hold this view, despite my attempts to explain otherwise. Coming from a relatively privileged and, in some aspects, sheltered and intellectual upbringing, I hadn’t experienced the disadvantages of being female until I became a teenager. Girls and boys were held to very different social and sexual standards, and I found myself with the vast majority of girls naturally moving as far as possible from the maths and sciences at school. Although this was occurring around me, I failed to really notice it until my final year, as girls’ sports teams were less funded than those of the boys, and girls received more scrutiny from staff towards their outfits.
Still, I failed to truly comprehend the magnitude of the problem. When I moved to Copenhagen, a far more egalitarian place, I felt sure that I would experience these everyday indicators far less. I was very mistaken. Working in department stores and as a waitress, I found myself mixing with people who often had not attended higher education and for many many years had only interacted with people in their profession. Whilst many were liberal and had egalitarian viewpoints, a few of my colleagues and customers certainly did not. Frequent jokes about girls doing the washing up and how pretty we looked in the shop stopped being amusing once it dawned on me that jokes are funny because a small part of them is true. These men were hiding their sexism and often perversion behind supposed humour.
The problem is that these jokes turn into insulting slurs and sexual harassment. At first, I worried I was being oversensitive, until I spoke to others who assured me that my discomfort was justified. I have since come to the conclusion that if an incident makes you deeply uncomfortable and sometimes dislike your workplace, it can be categorised as sexual harassment. The first time it happened to me, I was so shocked and upset that I cried on the way home from work. I stood at the exit of a department store at closing time, holding the door open and bidding customers goodbye. people often wanted to chat and ask about my job as a hostess. Two young men in their twenties started to ask me about my role, presenting themselves and asking my name, no big deal there. Three minutes into the conversation, one of them grinned at his friend and I, before turning to me, using my name, and propositioning me in an extremely vulgar manner, before sauntering away from me. I was unable to complete my shift, I had to leave early, too embarrassed and shocked to report the incident to my employer, unable to ever repeat those disgusting words made more personal by the use of my name. The saddest fact is that I felt humiliated, despite his jovial tone I felt like it was my fault and I felt threatened. Luckily I got a new job soon after.
Arriving at my new job, I was occasionally confronted by customers telling me that I ought to get good in the kitchen to please a future husband, or being told how I was the prettiest part of the display. Worse were the light-hearted subtle advances and hints made by one of my older colleagues. I felt especially weird since I’d only been a legal adult for less than a year. My discomfort continued until he left that workplace. These things all accumulate to make me conclude that Emma Watson and Kendall Jenner aren’t getting through to the people who need to learn. People think the European/Western world is ahead, but I’m not so sure. Spending three months in Zanzibar, I wore my hair covered on and off, totally by choice, and in no way did I feel repressed. It became part of my outfit choices and was greatly appreciated by my colleagues, host family and our farmers. Gradually I began to notice trends, cultural, social, religious, and fashionable. Which type of material you use, how you drape it, how you accessorise, it becomes a fashion statement. In media around me, Islam is demonised as repressive and drak. yet walking around Zanzibar, one does not experience the heavy weight of black hijabs and anonymity. In reality, you experience the exuberant colours and patterns of khangas and kitenges, and smoulder at the sweetness of schoolchildren in purple headscarves and boys in purple trousers balancing beautiful hats on their heads. Speaking to a neighbour, he suggested that Christianity and Islam were not so different, he pointed out that perhaps the Quran is just the last book in the series and that really Christians are nearly there. He described to me how beautiful the women look, and that far from anonymising them, this dress code gives them the chance to be defined by their facial expressions and individual taste.
Perhaps gender equality is not about appearances, be they clothing choices or speeches made to a sympathetic audience at the UN (although I love you Emma). Perhaps it’s actually about what lies beneath, what comes out in casual unguarded conversation.