We all have a story that taught us about the disparity of opportunity between men and women, the brilliance of Caitlin Moran, the joys of rosé straight from the bottle, and the epicness of chips with curry sauce.
This is my story.
I was about 17 and in an A level English class when my teacher went off on a tangent about Greek mythology. I listened to her talk excitedly about a sisterhood, goddesses and powerful women who led men and commanded insane levels of respect, and I was left speechless. But it wasn’t just her stories that rocked my tiny little world, it was that she didn’t finish with a guffaw, or a dismissive statement, she was full of conviction. She taught me one of my favourite lessons to date: that strong women aren’t a joke. It was the most brilliant revelation to me. I felt as though a door had been flung open in a dark, dank room. The light! The air!
I didn’t realise it then but Mrs Gregory’s tales about female strength came at the perfect time. My parents had converted to a strict form of Islam a few years earlier and by this point every aspect of my life was being controlled – where I went, who I was friends with, what I wore. My gender became a deadweight that dictated my every move. All of sudden I was expected to follow a bewildering array of rules thought up by men terrified of their own sexuality and incapable of seeing women as anything other than walking vaginas. My new life was constructed from an epic list of commands that I had no choice over, so I spent a lot of time perfecting my evil grimmace, silently swearing at and wishing testicular calamities on men, and rolling my eyes at the utter stupidity of each new rule. Rules such as:
1. Jeans are evil: Satan lives in your jeans. Both legs. But mostly the booty area.
2. Your hair must be covered: it’s just too bloody sexual. It’s like your booty, except on your head. How the hell do you expect anyone to take you seriously, or respect you, or not, you know, get rapey with you, if you’ve got Satan’s nest all up in their face? COVERITUP.
3. You were born to reproduce: no one cares if you want to explore the world and learn from your mistakes and kiss boys and feel the wind through your hair and the sun on your skin and discover writing and art and human beings who’ve absolutely nothing in common with you. Your ovaries make that little pipedream impossible, sweetcheeks. Also, COVERITUP.
4. God isn’t meant to make sense: yeah, He’s confusing. Yeah, He’s contradictory. Yeah, His book is insanely terrifying. And YEAH it justifies heinous acts. But it’s all contextual. And relative. And you don’t need to ‘get’ it because He’s God and what We say He says goes. STOP TRYING TO ‘GET’ IT.
There were other ridiculous rules. So. Many. Other. Rules. But as a teenager these seemed particularly frigging awful/nonsensical. My body became a battle ground and my moral compass was reset – chastity, humility, purity and submission (all male-defined, natch), were the only measures of goodness. I was told that women should never be leaders (they’re too emotional), that marital rape and domestic violence are grey areas, that the education system is a dangerous place encouraging destructive freedoms, that women should walk behind their husbands, that unmarried women shouldn’t leave the house unaccompanied, that my body and my sexuality made life dangerous for me, and that gender equality was a fallacy invented by the West. It was, quite frankly, a bonkers time. I spent many an evening hatching my escape route and fantasising that I was in the middle of a Truemanesque practical joke. Cue conversations with God that went like this:
“Dear God, if you exist, I TOTALLY get it; it was all a test. Good one! You had me for a minute/years! But in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve passed with flying colours! You plopped me into this insanely illogical existence where my vagina dictates my every move but, despite that, I haven’t committed GBH. So, where’s my gold star? Can I start living for real now?”
A few years later, I went to uni, fell in love, was disowned, and began a long process of forging an identity from scratch. There were moments of joy, but mostly it was a relentless slog with some truly hideous forks in the road. God works in mysterious ways and all that jazz *cynical snort* Aaaanyway, I’ve moved on. I no longer apologise for my body, or my thoughts, or my voice, I no longer radiate shame, I know I’m as good and as capable as any man, I don’t stand for misogyny or sexism, and to top it all, I bloody LOVE being a woman. And that’s been made possible for a variety of reasons, not least because I discovered the deep, deep joy that is being a feminist.
My feminism started out as a slow burner. Every so often the universe whispered to me “it doesn’t have to be like this Steph, resist the bollocks” and it gifted me with moments that chipped away at my passivity. Moments like listening to Mrs Gregory’s stories, seeing my mum cry with laughter at gutsy, anti-establishment comediennes on 80s TV, looking at my younger sisters and knowing they deserved more, feeling the disappointment as the men I loved screwed up monumentally, time and time again, and knowing the women I loved would fix it back up as best they could. I was taught painstaking lessons in female fragility and male dominance, and while I sat quietly taking in all the hate, the women in my life danced furiously and silently across my horizon, carrying the weight of our world, like pissed off ballet dancers. These moments were snapshots of technicolor breaking up the black and white static. Clarity amidst the blur. I took them all in, until something snapped, and a little, shakey voice inside my head said “sod this for a game of badgers”. Because it dawned on me that our expectations (social, cultural and religious) of women are nothing but a construct, and they suck the frigging joy out of life. I wanted out. And so, another feminist killjoy was born.
Until I hit 30 I could only say the word feminism using my inside voice; a teeny-tiny apologetic whisper. Because society is still pretty hideous to women who talk loudly about sexism and inequality. But now, at 34, feminism is one of my favourite words. My understanding, appreciation and involvement in the world is massively enhanced by feminism and I’m so thankful to the people who made it accessible to me, whether that be teachers, writers, family, or friends. Last month I had the most incredible night celebrating one of those people, a feminist I love to bits, Caitlin Moran. The night was made even more fantastic by discovering chips with curry sauce (holy crap they were good), and drinking stupid amounts of rosé (al fresco…straight from the bottle *ahem*) with two strong, empowering women who I’m lucky to call friends. At 34 I’m over my nights out feeling like a weird anthropological experiment on human mating rituals, so to spend an evening feeling so empowered, safe, and full of joy (and wine) was a revelation. Caitlin read from her newest book, How to Build a Girl, and told stories about her life. There were so many good bits it’d be impossible to tell you about them all, but here are a few things she said that stuck out for me.
1. We have barmy issues with blood. The message is clear: there are two types of blood in the world. The good stuff is manly *grrrrrr* and we’re super happy to watch it spurt out of decapitated characters on Game of Thrones, or any TV character post-watershed. The bad blood is the *whispers* icky woman ‘stuff’ that we’d rather not mention by name. But, small detail: menstrual blood is our lifeblood and the reason each of us exists. So why is it that watching a gore packed action movie with the family is a social norm, whereas an artist showing the teeniest patch of menstrual blood on Instagram is met with the equivalent of a worldwide dry retch? Why are women shamed into self-loathing over their periods? Why are we taught from puberty to see them as a dirty secret? We pretend that they aren’t a massive pain, that they aren’t messy, or debilitating. And don’t even get me started on the truly disgusting price of feminine hygiene products that makes dealing with periods so difficult for the growing number of women living in poverty in this country* If I had the time I’d blog about how the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions have a lot to answer for when it comes to menstrual shame. Alas, I’ll have to save that gem for another day.
2. It wasn’t until I hit 30 that I properly found what Caitlin Moran, and many others, refer to as the ‘feminist goggles’. I’m 34 now and I feel like they’re surgically attached to my face. Realising that whole chunks of your life; experiences, opportunities, and relationships, have been destroyed or made shit just because you have a vagina, is like a floodgate, there’s no going back. I don’t process many things without thinking about gender inequality. And, like Moran, my feminist goggles often make me feel like shrieking “my eyes, MY EYES, they burn!”.
3. Which leads me onto: it’s good to get angry. Unfortunately women are taught not to get angry at every stage of their lives, because its unfeminine and it threatens the patriarchy. I still get anxious about being angry in my blogs, that’s despite the fact that I’m 34 and they’re my spaces. It’s not really the ‘done’ thing to blog with rage, especially as a mumblogger – the saccharine is lauded, while angry truths are sidestepped. I’d like to see more loud, empowered women in the mumblogging community, the kind of women who don’t shy away from getting angry about injustice. In its best form anger is motivational, empowering, and a force for change.
4. Feminism is simple. At it’s most fundamental level feminism is such a no brainer I think it’s a crime not to honour it. It goes like this:
^^This perfect tea towel is available to buy from here, with all profit going to women’s charity Refuge ^^
5. Standing on a chair and yelling “I AM A FEMINIST” with over a thousand other people (men included) feels incredible. You should try it.
I can’t end without mentioning the feminist smile. I won’t say anything apart from the fact that it’s the most glorious middle finger to fat shaming and the objectification of the female body. It made me laugh and cry. Just watch this.
I LOVE YOU Caitlin!
Apologies for the ‘braindump’ nature of this post. I’m so snowed under with work at the moment that I had to write it in 10 minute slots. It’s taken me a frigging month. There’s a high chance it’s disjointed and nonsensical in parts. I nearly lost the will to live writing it. And, at one point, I looked up mid-sentence, to discover my children running around the garden buck naked. So, yeah, you’re welcome.