At the core of it, most unsaid societal rules that govern women’s looks, behaviour and interpersonal relationships are built to maintain a status quo. Every act of rebelling against these standards, however small, is a one-way ticket to being labeled with the ‘F-word.’ Feminists are painted as everything a woman is not supposed to be: loud, angry, anti-feminine, and anti-men. While the definition of what it means to be a feminist is ever-changing, women are still fighting for space in a patriarchal society. We spoke to four women to learn more about the misconceptions they had internalized about feminism and how they went about unlearning it.
“You are continually told that feminine things — clothes, dolls, cooking — are trivial or silly so it’s much easier to pat yourself on the back for being interested in serious, masculine things,” remarked 27-year-old Katie Stone, an academic based in the U.K. In a male-dominated society, women hold second standing which means exhibiting traditionally feminine characteristics is passed off as being vapid or ditzy.
“I was slut-shamed for being ‘girly’ when I didn’t even know the meaning of the word, and almost every girl hated me,” Srishti Kumar told Re:Set. The student from India said that her interest in things like makeup and dresses led to her being looked down upon by her peers. The exclusion left her with self-esteem and confidence issues. Right from their formative years, women are exposed to a “not like other girls” trope, which is used in the media to imply that a girl is superior to others because she does something unexpected of a woman, like eating a whole burger or being good at sports. The widespread use of the trope indicates how often women are pit against each other for male attention.
For some of these women, one of the most crucial parts of their feminist journey has been unlearning that there is only one way to be a woman. “Many people are very concerned with policing the boundaries of womanhood, in making sure that the only people who count as ‘real’ women are those whose bodies look a certain way,” remarked Stone.
“In my journey of feminism, reading books by Bell Hooks, Angela Davis and other African and African American feminists was important.”
Grace Sowande, a mental health professional based in the U.K., recalled that as she has been told by male friends not to become a ‘radical feminist’ and that she has often felt the pressure to be nicer and not call people out for their wrongdoings. “When you think about feminists especially in the past, they couldn’t be nice [or] friendly, they needed to protest to get what they demanded,” added the 28-year-old. Sowande pointed out the misconception that feminism is devoid of femininity and alludes to her username “Feminine Feminist,” saying that she has unlearned that myth and chooses to enjoy traditionally feminine pursuits.
Another misconception is that those who subscribe to feminism want a matriarchal system, when in reality, it simply demands equality for all, including men. Christine Njoki Mbugua, 46, a high school English teacher from Kenya, told Re:Set she teaches young boys that feminism also tries to normalize men being the primary caregivers for children and their choice to stay home. “I tell them…it is OK to go into pursuits that are traditionally feminine,” she added. Mbugua believes that the most difficult thing she had to learn to accept was realizing not all women want to fight for equal opportunity.
“I was taught that women were supposed to tolerate more and I want them to break away from [this harmful cycle]” commented Kumar, reflecting on her journey of unlearning. For women of colour like Sowande, letting go of mainstream white feminism helped her better understand the layers of challenges she faces as a black woman. “In my journey of feminism, reading books by Bell Hooks, Angela Davis and other African and African American feminists was important,” Sowande said. Similarly, in Stone’s perspective, feminism has always been about learning from other women, “Reading feminist science fiction by Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ has since taught me to question the world as it is presented to us.”
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