x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Talk the talk or walk the slutwalk: how to be a modern woman

If womanhood can't be limited to being a slut, an obedient wife, a political activist, a feminist or a girly girl, what is it?

"Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised," said a representative of the police in Toronto, Canada. "Slutwalking" - protest marches that have so far taken place in cities all over Canada, the United States, UK, Australia and Europe - were created as a response to this insinuation that rape is a result of provocation by the woman's clothing. Slutwalks state clearly that it is the perpetrator not the victim who is at fault.

You can't disagree with this blunt sentiment. But I disagree with identifying as a slut. To me, this does not empower women; instead it limits them to being seen only as sexual beings. I'm divided: I support the underlying cause, but not the method.

The slutwalking terminology has also divided feminists. Some opinions embrace it as "creative and energetic"; others say "trying to turn a sexist slur into a badge of honour is a mistake".

At the other end of the extreme, June 24 also saw the first World Femininity Day. The ethos of this campaign is empowerment through femininity. The symbol of the celebration was to wear a flower in your hair.

It's a bit girly, isn't it? At least that's what feminists seem to suggest, and they scoffed at the idea. But like my Slutwalk dilemma, I have mixed feelings.

I'm proud to be a woman and proud of being what we describe colloquially as "feminine". I don't think "feminine" means lesser, or weaker, or helpless. I think femininity can and should be a social asset.

However, in today's real world women are often put down by being told to be more feminine or that certain activities are not suitable for a woman.

Look at what happened in Tahrir Square. Men and women stood shoulder to shoulder to oppose the regime. And yet, barely had victory kissed the Egyptian people than women were pushed down and told to get back to their place. On International Women's Day on March 8, Egyptian women were surrounded and attacked by men who expressed sentiments such as: "Not now" and "What the hell are you doing here? You should go home."

And speaking of women "knowing their place", June saw the launch of the Obedient Wives Club in Malaysia, whose ethos is the importance of the wife's consenting to the husband's needs and that offering sex-on-tap stops men from straying. Government and religious leaders, along with feminists, rushed to express their opposition. Yet this kind of phenomenon is growing among women globally.

It is just one more social movement trying to answer a question that seems ever harder to answer: what does it mean to be a woman today?

Once, the answer was simple: being a woman meant being a daughter, a wife, a mother, with success measured on how well she played out each of these roles in the shadow of the men in her life.

Today, is womanhood about being a slut, an obedient wife, a political activist, a feminist, or feminine?

The answer is muddled, with wide - even opposing - variations. All the campaigners try to argue that they are reclaiming words from the patriarchy in order to empower women. But being a slut, a girly girl or obedient does not give me power.

Womanhood is not about being weak or submissive. It is not about being solely sexual. I don't feel a duty to rehabilitate such loaded words as "slut". For my part, I'm a feminine feminist: I take pride in my womanliness, and womanliness includes my standing up to claim my right to be treated as an equal human being.

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