Choice Feminism Part II

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I mentioned in Part I of Choice Feminism that I try to make choices that minimize my complicity in systems of oppression. As a black, African woman, I reject white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia, because to not do so would be to be complicit in my own oppression. However, I believe that my responsibility does not stop there. As someone who does have certain forms of privilege, like cis privilege, and a degree of class privilege (I’m part of what economist Guy Standing calls “the precariat”, that is, someone who doesn’t have job security, but I am still well-educated and have a job for the time being), hetero privilege and other forms of privilege I may not even know about yet, I also see it as my responsibility stand up for the rights of other people who don’t have those forms of privilege.

To that end, I try to make choices that  minimize my participation in white supremacy; capitalism, and patriarchy to the best of my ability. Still, I make choices all the time that support oppressive systems. I buy products made and sold by corporations. I have an iPhone and I’m typing this on a computer, even though I know that people — black people — die in wars to control access to cobalt. I fly, even while knowing the effect that planes have on the environment. I do these things not only to be a society (it would be difficult to hold down a job in development without at least using a phone, computer, or ever traveling at all) but also for my own enjoyment. I like watching Netflix and keeping in touch with my friends all over the globe. I like to see different countries. I go to Japan to see my family.

I think, though, that one difference between capitalism and patriarchy is that while capitalism and requires people to be obsessed with consuming, a capitalist economy can exist alongside a socialist welfare system. In Switzerland, where I work, for example, salaries tend to be high to allow people a decent living standard (although this happens alongside their complicity in eroding women’s rights around the world by providing tax havens to allow the 1% to avoid paying their taxes).Patriarchy, on the other hand, cannot exist alongside gender equality.

I recognize that people, particularly those who are not white, male, and straight,  are conditioned into rejecting, suppressing, or hating parts of themselves or their whole identities thanks to the society we live in, regardless of where we are.  And we’re rewarded for doing so, even as we’re slowly killing our authentic selves. We receive access to employment opportunities when we destroy our natural hair, it’s easier to find a partner, and it’s just generally easier to navigate the world when we capitulate than when we resist. But it’s still reductive to ignore the fact that these choices help support our oppression and that of others who share some or all of our identities. Saying that feminism is about choice is not entirely erroneous, but it’s too simplistic to leave it at that without further unpacking why we make the choices we do.

The overwhelming majority of married women I know, for example, were thrilled to take their husbands names and give their children their husbands names, because the erasure of their lineage is something to be proud of. At least, that’s how it looks to me, although no one has ever said that to me in so many words. That’s a choice they are “allowed” to make, no question. But many of them posted social media statuses and articles about how it was a feminist choice, because feminism is about choice. And while it is a choice, it is certainly not a feminist one.

I often (read: constantly) run into other people who are not the beneficiaries of these systems, and are much victims of them, trying to railroad other people into participating in them. On a personal level, I constantly have people disrespecting my choices and identity, and trying to alternately to persuade, mock, or bully me into participating in patriarchal heteronormative relationships, have a child which I don’t want, cut off my locs and straighten my hair, wear makeup, get my nails done, wear dresses, and stop lifting weights, to name a few patriarchy- and white supremacy-approved behaviors.

If you are a woman who experiences patriarchy on a daily basis — policing of your appearance, nonstop attempts to legislate your reproductive organs, a wage gap, being kept out of employment because a man in power either thinks you’re too pretty and he will get “tempted” or alternatively that you’re “too ugly” and what’s the point?, sexual harassment and assault — and you run into a woman who has decided that none of that is for her, why is it so important to you that other women choose to actively participate in the system(s) that harm both of you? 

Like Sway, I don’t have the all the answers. But I don’t think that means it’s invalid for me to ask the questions in the name of “respecting people’s choices”.  Do I go up to random strangers and berate them about their unfeminist choices? Of course not. But it is clear to me, that at the very least, making choices that are true to your identity (living with a same-sex partner, not wearing high heels or dresses, transitioning to a different gender, being childfree, being atheist or having a subaltern sexuality) is different from making a choice that is the result of patriarchal conditioning.

 

 

Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

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Choice Feminism

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Photo by Xan Griffin (via Unsplash)

“Feminism is about choice! It’s my choice to [decidedly unfeminist thing]!”

This is a common idea and refrain in feminist circles. It’s usually invoked as a defense by a self-identified feminist, after another self-identifying feminist has questioned a choice that the former has made.

“Choice feminism”, while without an official dictionary definition, basically boils down to a woman deciding that any choice she makes is supported by feminism. Clearly, women should be allowed to make choices about how to live their lives.

Regarding choice feminism, Fem Magazine points out, however,

The argument… seems to ignore the results of socialization, which mediate every decision humans make within a given culture. We are socialized to uphold a power structure in which women are valued based on their adherence to strict Eurocentric beauty standards. Deviating from norms can result in social rejection or at the very least, endless questions on why you are not simply conforming to certain standards. Our fear of these consequences subsequently influences how we navigate our own behavior and social interactions.

So sure, a woman may choose to wear makeup and that can be a feminist method of self-expression, but often times the “choice” women make to wear it is rooted in the desire to conform to patriarchal beauty standards. The same goes for shaving and most other beauty rituals, which all serve to reinforce the same narrow and oppressive idea of femininity.

Feminism can’t always be invoked as a woman’s justification of her choices, otherwise it begins to lose all meaning. (Reminder: feminism is a political ideology that is concerned with the economic, political, social, and cultural equality of all genders.)

I, for one, have made the choice to not have children, romantic relationships, to live alone (for now, anyway), not to wear earrings, makeup or dress in a “feminine” manner.  These choices go against patriarchal conditioning and norms that state that a woman is to enter a cishet marriage, change her name to the man’s name (this varies depending on culture), be responsible for all emotional labor while being being the submissive partner in the relationship (see: changing her name to her husband’s name), have children who also take that man’s name, because, well, women are men’s property, and women exist to create more property for men. Don’t @ me.

Sure, everyone has a right to make choices, as long as these choices don’t harm others. Still, I would also argue that not everyone has to agree with everyone’s choices, particularly those that are made as a result of, and thus support, systems of oppression. Even while typing, I recognize what a slippery slope it is to say that not everyone has to like everyone’s choices. This is, after all, the argument used by bigots to justify their homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. What’s the difference between saying “I don’t agree with the homosexual ‘lifestyle’” and saying “I don’t believe that children should automatically be given their father’s surname”? The difference is obvious to me: one of these is a choice made out of being is conditioned in an oppressive system, and the other…. well, isn’t.

No one’s choices are made in a vacuum, and no one’s choices are above critique. This includes mine. I’ve chosen a field of work whose goal is to loosen the grip of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy around the world’s throat. So then, why do I choose to be an active participant in a capitalist society when I could move to the woods and live off the grid when I know that capitalism is an oppressive system that enriches very few while undermining the rights of many? While I try to make the most ethical choices possible, I no doubt fail to live up to all of my ideals, probably on a daily basis.

Where I start to find it difficult to reconcile things, is when women make choices that are clearly rooted in patriarchy, choices that help to fundamentally sustain women’s oppression in both overt and insidious ways, and pressuring other women to do so. As I’ve written about before on this blog and elsewhere, women constantly hassle me about my choice not to have children, demanding what I would do if I found a man who wanted them, telling me that I’ll change my mind, or alternately just pretending as though they don’t know that I’m not having children (despite me having been explicitly clear on the subject. I have this blog, for fuck’s sake). Women constantly hassle me about my choice to not engage in romantic or sexual relationships, when plenty of anecdotal evidence indicates that hetero relationships require far more work on the part of the female partner. The stories being told by women (and some men) right now also suggest that the safest thing a woman can do is to stay away from men, both socially and professionally.

People actively choosing to participate in their own oppression extends beyond gender and applies to other systems, and is manifested in myriad ways. It’s gay or poor people voting Republican in the United States. It’s black people having complete and utter disdain for their phenotypical characteristics to the point of using damaging chemicals on our hair and skin to change them.  It’s British people voting to Brexit when they didn’t really want to leave the European Union.

Maybe instead of yelling that “feminism is about choice”, when making unfeminist choices, women should own that their choices run counter to the goals of feminism, but that they’re choosing them anyway.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any answers. But these are issues that I’ve been grappling with for quite some time, and it seems they won’t be going away any time soon.

 

We Don’t Owe Men a Goddamn Thing

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You really think I care if some hypothetical man wants me to have kids?? How cute!

I have been crap about blogging for months. I have no real excuse. Weeks just turned into months, before I knew it, summer was gone and now we’re halfway through October.

This summer, my mom came to visit. She had never been to Europe before so we did a lot of traveling. None of this would have been possible had I had a child to raise, and who knows, maybe she would have made it to Europe years ago had she not had two kids.

Recently, I came across Bethany Webster’s blog post, Leisure Time, Motherhood and the Mother Wound, where she discusses women’s agency within a patriarchy: “…The age-old lie of patriarchy to men is that they are entitled to the control of women. The lie to women is that we are ‘less-than’ and deserve to be controlled.” Although the idea that men are entitled to control women is clearly absurd, it’s also a pretty prevalent one in nearly every society around the world.

Women are taught that they should be submissive to men, both through subliminal messages and overt aggression. The president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, just made the ill-advised statement to the press that his wife, Aisha Buhari, after she criticized him publicly, shouldn’t be running her mouth because she belongs to various rooms in his house. A tape of American presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women recently surfaced, and people are tripping all over themselves to defend him, stating that it’s locker room talk and that American women read 50 Shades of Grey, and therefore men are entitled to their bodies, or something.

Poland recently tried exercise even more governmental control over a woman’s body by completely banning abortion (which was already illegal except for cases of rape or if the woman’s life was in danger), and now a right-wing member of parliament who I’m not even going to name is trying to force women to carry unviable pregnancies to term, because religion. And it’s not like abortion access is free and fair throughout the rest of the world.

I have heard countless times, from both men and women that women need to be submissive. When I was living in Senegal, a Ghanaian ambassador told me upon finding out that I don’t cook — completely seriously, mind you — that I needed to cook because my husband would pay the bills while another diplomat told me no Ghanaian man would every marry me because I don’t cook.

A Cameroonian woman I met recently, upon finding out that I’m not going to ask children, asked what I would do if I met a man who wanted kids (my favorite question). I told her that it’s my body, and therefore, it is my decision, and that my decision is not to have children. She told me that was “extreme”.

A woman thinks that another woman exercising control over her own body is extreme. She found it more important that my body is used to fulfill some hypothetical man’s wishes than it is for me not to be miserable. She’s not alone, but that really struck me. The underlying assumption is that a woman’s primary purpose is to belong to a man — cook for him, bear his children, clean for him and do all of his emotional labor. Fuck her own desires and her agency. Fuck basic human rights. A hypothetical man out there might want to force his will on another human being and force her to use her body in a way she doesn’t want, change the course of her entire life, and relegate her to doing chores and childrearing that she never wanted to do (in every society, women are still responsible for doing the bulk of unpaid housework) and that is his entitlement, goddammit.

This mentality is also responsible for the prevalence of violence against women. People who think that women don’t have the right to control their own bodies, well, don’t think women have the right to control their own body. Our bodies and our entire existence are meant to be in service of men. As Webster put it,

For those espousing the viewpoints of patriarchy, nothing is more enraging than a woman who doesn’t feel indebted or self-deprecating…

Nothing is more offensive than the woman whose presence unapologetically states:

                         I don’t owe you a child.

                         I don’t owe you a fuck.

                         I don’t owe you my approval.

                          I don’t owe you ego-stroking.

                          I don’t owe you explanations.

  I don’t owe you my attention.

  I don’t owe you anything.

I am enough as I am.

I don’t owe you shit.

 

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Book review: Swallow

 

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Sefi Atta’s novel, Swallow, was both a blessing and a curse. I bought it three years ago to read on my Kindle because I knew that I had a long bus ride coming up, but I couldn’t put it down after I purchased it. I was already halfway through it before I even boarded the bus. There was a lot of thumb-twiddling for the last two hours of that journey.

It was hilarious, insightful, harsh, and nerve-wracking. I really got into the characters. Atta discusses everything from workplace sexual harassment, corruption, poverty, what those of us raised in the West would call “child abuse” and what our counterparts raised in Africa would probably just call “parenting,” prostitution, to relationships— between mother and daughter, husband and wife, roommates, neighbours, and colleagues.

One central theme is motherhood and its relationship to marriage. One of the characters says that in childhood, she believed that

the worst thing for a woman was to be married. Yes, I knew that I would be one day. All girls did. You reached a certain age and you were married off. Your family arranged that. They received your dowry: cloth, yams, palm oil, goats, or whatever your husband’s family could afford, to show his appreciation for your upbringing. It was a token, nothing more. You moved into his home, had children, and took care of them.

The same character, later, when berated for not having had a child thinks, “So that was all I was born for, to give birth?”

Although she’s a fictional character speaking about what I’m guessing is the early 1960’s, is it really all that different from real life in 2016? Although those in urban areas are less likely to participate in the dowry system, in my experience, it’s still a given that you leave your “father’s house” to go and join your husband. My maternal cousin, for example, when she knew that I was getting married (don’t worry, that crashed and burned spectacularly) and wanted to have the wedding in Japan because that’s where I grew up, agreed that’s where it should take place, but for a totally different reason: “He’s coming for you, so you should have the wedding your parents are.” “Um, no,” I said. “He’s not buying me.” She said “I know he’s not buying you, but he’s coming for you.”

How is that different from buying me?

My paternal aunt also once made a comment that when I get married, since I will be absorbed by my husband’s family, maybe the family curse would be lifted for me.

I was working at a human rights organization where I was chastised for not subscribing to gender roles. A human rights organization. People constantly tell me that I’m never going to find a man who will accept that I don’t want to have children. I was once at a birthday lunch where my Ghanaian-American friend who I’ve mentioned before announced to the entire table that I didn’t want to have kids because I didn’t want my body to change, and everyone (except the birthday girl, who, ironically was pregnant) began attacking me for it.

I am not joking. They descended upon me like a bunch of fucking vultures on a wildebeest carcass. Arguing with me that their bodies bounced back, trying to analyze why didn’t I want to,  and my friend’s mom telling me that I’m a woman and I have to give a man children because they’re entitled to have them, and wouldn’t tolerate a woman who wouldn’t have children.

Right.

It’s common for everyone to think that they know a woman’s mind better than she knows her own- she will change her mind about wanting to have children, or she will realize that it’s her obligation to her husband/the earth/as an African, and will do so. When you add specific cultural expectations, it seems to me that women’s agency is nonexistent; that personal rights are meaningless, and that the messages in Atta’s book are reality for so many.

Have you read Swallow? To what extent do you think it reflects the realities of being an African woman today? Do/did you feel pressured into having children even if you didn’t want any? Do you think an African woman is obligated to have children for her husband?