x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Confused by these feminists? So am I

The last 12 months of feminism talk has made be both excited and disillusioned

her say

The last 12 months have made me feel both increasingly disillusioned and more excited by the growing discussions about feminism in global discourse.

The volume has been turned up about women’s rights, their position in society and their and treatment. Every day there is coverage of issues that affect women disproportionately, whether it is the horrific refugee crisis in Syria, female foeticide in India, or pay differences in the workplace.

For those outside the west – especially for some Muslims – feminism was seen historically as a means to establish western hegemony by undermining traditional values. That women in these societies suffer and are not given the rights that Islam has given them was conveniently overlooked. Yet a huge number of social movements, many Islamically inspired, work hard to improve the lot of Muslim women. Some call themselves Muslim feminists, some Islamic feminists. Some call it justice. I see it as the necessary rise of many feminisms. And this year we have seen the increasing possibility that feminisms can and must exist in many forms.

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban, challenged the notion of what a Muslim feminist should look like – simply by the fact of her existence, and her assertion that her values as a Muslim are what inspire and drive her. But her criticism of America’s use of drones in her country signalled a shift that feminist movements would do well to heed: that feminism shouldn’t be the handmaiden of the imperialist enterprise.

Nor should feminism be a pied piper for the kind of capitalist exploitation men already suffer. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In was about women stepping up in the corporate space. It was lauded as part of feminism’s resurgence. But it made me depressed: it’s bad enough that men are sucked up and chewed out by a system that sees them as nothing more than economic units, now feminism is encouraging women to do the same. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but not at the expense of being human beings, and avoiding the exploitation of others.

It is these kind of feminist movements that uphold the social structures that continue gender and social oppression and inhibit radical social transformation.

One story that never seemed to end in 2013 was Miley Cyrus and her hideous twerking, to the lyrics of a song seemingly about rape. Cyrus calls herself a “big” feminist for telling women not to be afraid of anything. Beyoncé has also begrudgingly admitted she’s a feminist.

Wo-hoo! Feminists are now upholding the exact system that perpetuates sexualised womanhood on us. And hurrah for 2013 feminism that means we must be either making money or looking sexy, preferably both at the same time.

Fourth wave feminism gave us “choice” as its defining characteristic. Today’s most feminist of activities is women’s free choice in determining how to live our lives. But then how do we deal with confusions like those of Sandberg, Cyrus and Beyoncé which perpetuate systems of oppression, but which the women themselves say are the actions of free choice?

If a free choice by a woman is unfeminist in its effect, is it still a feminist act? This question, and the assumptions it carries with it, is one that feminists in 2014 will need seriously to address.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk