Sinking: when feminism is a dead weight

The last time I blogged here was through tears, after watching the documentary on Banaz Mahmod. It was a short post, punctuated with fury. I’d intended to be back way before now with a more coherent, useful piece on the issue of ‘honour’ abuse. I just needed some time out – to make sense of the anger and to turn it into something useful.

Truth is I’m still lost in that sea of rage. I’ve yet to achieve the perspective or clarity I was hoping for. I think about Banaz and the swathes of other women and men who suffer ‘honour’ abuse and I feel heartbroken. I want to be productive, to make an effort towards change, even in the smallest way. But it feels like an impossible task while I’m so ground down by upset. It’s taken months just to muster the thoughts I needed to write this post.

It feels selfish to acknowledge this, but I’ve reached saturation point. I’m exhausted by the scale and relentless of the suffering and by my own helplessness. Its not ‘just’ the ‘honour’ abuse – although that alone should be too much for any sane human being to comprehend – it’s the avalanche of misogyny that’s suffocating. Over the past few years my eyes have slowly, slowly, been opening to the extent of the hatred, the violence and the injustice suffered by women.

Misogyny in the news

Recently there’s been widespread media coverage of misogynistic crimes. At first I wondered if my increasingly feminist outlook was just making me more aware of the sorts of injustices that have always existed. And perhaps, to a certain extent, that is what’s happening. Misogyny is certainly nothing new. But the gift of social media and its constant and live news feed means we are only hours, minutes, or seconds away from the next breaking story about violence against women.

Only this month the press has reported widely on the increasingly uncertain fate of more than 200 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram – an Islamist militant group that believes Western education is forbidden, on the slaughter of 6 people in Isla Vista, California at the hands of Elliot Rodgers – a 22 year old with violently misogynistic beliefs, on the rise of the so called “manosphere” – “virulently misogynistic” websites, blogs and forums dedicated to savaging feminism and women, on the devastating gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in India whose bodies were left hanging from a tree, on the chilling reaction of Indian government minister Mulayam Singh Yadav to the proposed toughening up of rape laws, on the brutal death of Farzana Parveen who, at 3 months pregnant, was stoned to death by her family for marrying a man who has subsequently admitted to killing his first wife, on the heart wrenching ordeal of Meriam Ibrahim who just last week gave birth to a baby girl while shackled to the floor. Meriam has been sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery and to death for apostasy. She continues to be held in prison with her newborn daughter Maya and 20-month-old son Martin.

These cases have carved out a place in my consciousness. But now that I know about these women – who have names, history’s, aspirations, and the same rights as every other person on this planet, but are treated worse than caged animals – how on earth am I, how on earth are any of us, expected to carry on as normal? How do you live without a crushing sadness once you know a pregnant woman has given birth shackled in a prison for no other reason than she exercised a fundamental human right? How do you not spend your days consumed with rage once you know that rape and sexual assault are tolerated by so many? How do you function normally when it’s abundantly clear that women who reclaim their sexuality are so often seen as intrinsically worthless.

And as if all that isn’t enough, as well as these barbaric acts, there is also a layer of constant, low-level misogyny and sexism that pervades our media and everyday interactions. You get a sense of just how all-encompassing it is when you read the #everydaysexism and #yesallwomen hashtags on Twitter.

With many of the stories of sexism and misogyny I’m reminded of my own experiences. It might seem egocentric of me to refer to my past, but I imagine that is what defines many a feminist – that we empathise and relate by connecting back to either our own suffering or the suffering of people we love. It’s overwhelming to know that so many other victims are invisible; without a voice or a platform. I know first hand about invisible victims of misogyny because I grew up in a community where sexism was the status quo, where western education was viewed with scorn and counteracted with a culture of female subjugation, where female sexuality was perceived as deviant and female bodies were controlled. I grew up believing that it was perfectly acceptable for men to phone my father and ask for my hand in marriage, without my consent, as though I were a piece of meat that could be bargained over. I grew up knowing that because I’m female I would one day have to make a choice between my freedom or my family. All this happened in the UK, not in a third world, rural backwater. And as far as I know, no one else from the community I grew up in has publicly denounced the way we were treated.

Justifying feminism

Despite cases of brutal misogyny being made abundantly clear to anyone with a tv, a newspaper, or the internet, I’m often asked to justify feminism. And increasingly I’m finding it hard to articulate a response, not because I’ve a lack of reasons (obviously) but because of the sheer rage that the question induces. Are people blind to what is happening? How…HOW do they not see? And then there are the men (and very occasionally women) who see it as their role to bring feminists down a peg or two, to belittle the issue through smirks and rolled eyes. They remind me gently: things have changed, that I don’t need to get quite so histrionic about everyday sexism because it isn’t actually hurting me and, hey, those women who suffer the worst abuse aren’t even from the UK, so what’s with all the guilt-mongering? And I want to shout out:

  1. There is NO acceptable sexism – just as there’s no acceptable racism
  2. No one should be expected to shrug off sexism – because once you start devaluing the worth and integrity of half the world’s population, you’re careering down a slippery slope
  3. Calling out sexism isn’t dramatic, it’s just having conviction in the belief that women shouldn’t be treated as commodities, nor as figures of fantasy, mockery, or scorn
  4. Misogyny should never be shrugged off through a perceived cultural relativity, because culture is no excuse for abuse and that absurd belief only devalues women with cultural ‘otherness’
  5. There is no relativity when it comes to freedom

What next?

I’ve been so swamped by anger recently that I had to pull down the shutters. I distanced myself from all the low-level, socially ‘acceptable’ sexism that I would normally challenge. I stopped reading books on cultural misogyny because I found myself a weeping, exhausted mess, unable to stop reliving my own traumas. I’ve been ‘copping out’ (at least that’s what it feels like) by taking refuge in my other ‘mummy’ blog, a place of relative calm and happiness. I’ve had to acknowledge my limitations, because while I want to make a difference and vocalise my rejection of misogyny, I need time for myself and my family, time in which my mind isn’t consumed by injustice. I’m having to compartmentalise my identities so that my anger doesn’t impact on every other part of my life.

I’m trying to understand how other people move forward and beyond just feeling sad and angry, how they apply their rage so that it isn’t immobilising. I’m taking small steps, by writing this blog, by trying to organise a screening of the Honor Diaries in my local area (something that’s proving to be a painfully slow process), by reflecting on the work of activists like Jasvinder Sanghera, and next month I’ll go to BritMums Live, a conference for bloggers which will reflect in part on women’s voices in the media and becoming an advocate for change. Small steps.

The fact is misogyny will continue to wreak havoc on lives and sexism apologists will continue to patronise the efforts of feminists. I can’t let either of these things consume me, nor can I ignore my social responsibility. Somehow I need to find a balance that allows me to make a difference and live a life in which I’m happy and present for my family.


3 thoughts on “Sinking: when feminism is a dead weight

  1. I echo your big question of, “HOW do they not see?” I guess we just keep screaming into the void until something happens. Lovely blog.

  2. A sheer brilliant post, it is utterly infuriating that in 2014 we find ourselves in this situation, it is important to remember many of us are fighting the adversity of everyday sexism and not letting misogyny confine or define us. It makes me sick this isn’t possible for all women who are helpless, without a voice. Thanks for linking up.

  3. I don’t really know what to say, other than sometimes you do need to take that time to step back and protect yourself a little. It doesn’t mean that you no longer care passionately about what is happening, but sometimes you need to take time out to find the energy to come at it all again with the strength to keep fighting.
    I’m with you – I get so angry when people cannot see that the everyday stuff is just as important – because just because it is no a much smaller scale, it doesn’t mean it isn’t still wrong! In my work, I speak to women almost every single day who are suffering from severe pregnancy sickness. Sickness that leaves them feeling like they are dying – I cannot even begin to explain how awful it is to be so debilitated you cannot get out of bed, speak to someone or even be near your husband because movements and smells make you sick. And yet day in and day out I hear the same story I experience myself, of doctors telling women that “sickness is normal in pregnancy” and “there’s nothing they can do”. Heck, I was even told by a female nurse to “shut up and put up” when I was pregnant. This, in itself, is just another form of ignoring the basic human rights of women… WHY should a woman be left to suffer in silence when safe and effective treatments exist? I likened it to being nothing more than a “human incubator” where my feelings didn’t exist for the entirety of my pregnancy. And I cannot wrap my head around the fact that this is happening to women on a daily basis here in the UK. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what women all around the world are facing each and every day… how can that be? How can we be treating women in this way?
    I hope my example above shows yet another aspect to the everyday sexism and how people seem to think it’s “okay” to be like this because it “isn’t a big deal”… it is a big deal to the women suffering. And it should be a big deal to the rest of us too. That being said, I have experienced the burn-out stage of supporting and campaigning for these women full out for months on end… it takes a toll and sometimes you do just have to step away and say “I can’t take this anymore, I need a break!” I know it feels like turning your back on it and that these women cannot take a break so why should you… but sometimes you just have to otherwise you cannot continue to effectively support and campaign for them.
    Sorry for my super long comment… I just wanted to express how important I think this issue is but also how important I think it is that we sometimes take a break xx

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