Feminism is perhaps the most divisive and stigma laden F word in the English language.
For some, feminism invokes a noble struggle for equality and is a movement for liberation and justice.
For others, ‘feminist’ is an expression of contempt, conjuring up images of deranged shrieking women who spend their spite-filled waking hours railing against the patriarchy and devising ways to emasculate men.
At its most basic, the term feminism simply relates to advocating equal rights for women. In most of the Western world gender equality is not – at least theoretically – a controversial concept.
Of course, there are some deranged types, such as the ‘neo-masculinist’, Daryush Valizadeh, who appear to be genuinely anti-female. Men like this are in the very small minority and their views generally ridiculed.
Most who recoil at the very sound of the word ‘feminism’ would agree, when pressed, that they do believe men and women should have equal political, social and economic rights. By the simplest definition of the word, there are very few in New Zealand who are not feminists.
So where is the hostility towards this label derived? Here are a few non-exhaustive possibilities based on my non-expert observations.
Some men have detected what they perceive to be double standards. For example, the perception of gender bias towards men subjected to domestic abuse, or the discriminatory policies held by some airlines where they will refuse to seat a man next to an unaccompanied minor.
While there are plenty of activists and noise on feminist issues, many men feel that advocates are lacking for males in situations like these.
This may well be true, and these are real concerns facing men, which need to be addressed in our society. But it would be nonsensical for those concerns to be used as an argument against the goal of feminism – equality. It seems trite to say, but advocating for the rights of men need not clash with advocating for the rights of women.
Most men do not feel as though they hold a personal position of privilege in their day-to-day lives (and quite probably, they do not). When they hear or read of women facing discrimination – some of whom appear better off than they are – it can seem faintly out of touch with reality.
Others are put off by the extreme over-the-top nature of some feminists, such as those involved in the ‘Killallmen’ twitter campaign. These rare instances create an impression that feminism equates to anti-man. However, just as it is nonsensical to treat every man boarding an airplane as a potential child molester it is equally absurd to write off all feminists as man-haters due to the extreme actions of a few.
There is a prevailing view among anti-feminists that gender inequality in the west is a relic of the past, rendering the term feminism redundant. Therefore, the reasoning goes, western women should stop complaining.
Anti-feminists point to the severe discrimination faced by females in places like Saudi Arabia and Somalia – as if to suggest that modern western women do not know real inequality. After all, privileged western women are allowed to drive cars and are not subjected to genital mutilation, what could they possibly know about discrimination?
There are many women around the world facing horrendous conditions on account of their sex. But this should not be used to trivialise the more subtle discrimination women face in the relative comfort of the west. If we only ever compared ourselves to places with worse conditions, we would never make progress on any issue.
Women in the west continue to face inequality, much of it institutionalised. For example, women in New Zealand still earn less than men for the same work, they are more likely to be subjected to violence in the home, less likely to reach a position of authority and more likely to face harassment at work or on the street.
We can do better. One can be horrified and speak out against barbaric medieval practices like slavery or stoning for adultery, occurring elsewhere, and still take a stand against discrimination on our own doorstep. We do not need to put our own human rights progress on hold until other countries catch up.
The stigma associated with feminism is unfounded. Every reasonable person should want equality for the sexes and every reasonable person should consider themselves a feminist.