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.

 

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What About Your Husband?

 

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You might meet this guy. He might want you to have kids.

One thing that African people like to ask me— well, if I’m being real, it’s not just Africans, it’s damn near everybody— likes to ask me when they find out that I’m not having children is “What about your husband?”

I asked my mom a few years ago if she wanted grandchildren. She said it wasn’t really about whether or not she wanted grandchildren, but that was about what I wanted. And besides, would I really have a kid just because she told me to? I was not expecting her to answer this way, and I extremely relieved to have that pressure lifted. Then she said “What about your husband?”

I have a Japanese friend who also doesn’t want to have children. In his words, “I can see no benefit to having a child.” We talked about it a lot. Then one day he asked me “But what about your husband?”

I don’t understand why people are so preoccupied with this phantom husband. Why do the wishes of this hypothetical man trump my own rights to determine what happens to my own body?

I was at a conference for work a few years back in Accra, and I met a  Ghanaian woman who had married a Norwegian man and moved to Norway, and yet somehow had the audacity to lecture me about not having African values. Yes, of course; the best way to demonstrate your commitment to African values is to marry a white man and then immigrate to Scandinavia. (Note: I’m not against interracial marriage. Or immigration. I just found this a strangely obtuse and hypocritical thing to say, given her choices.) Among a bunch of other stupid shit she said, she told me that my boyfriend at the time was going to have to be the head of the household, because he’s a man, and there’s no way two people can be equal because the United States has a president and a vice president.

Obviously, I disagreed, since I’m a grown-ass human being, and no one is going to be the “head” of anything in my life simply because he was born with external genitalia and I wasn’t. She asked “what about when you have children?”

I can’t lie. If I had been able to lie, I would maybe have said something along the lines of “We will parent them equally.” Or as one of my friends said about her house “We rule jointly has heads,” which cracked me up. (Specifically her use of the word “rule,” as though her house is a kingdom. Queendom, I mean) Unfortunately, I said “Yeah, I’m not having kids.”

[Cue storm of shit.]

“But- you- well, he’s still an African man, you know. If you’re not going to have kids you need to tell him now. You have to have children.” (This same woman had passed around pictures of her “three beautiful children” earlier completely unsolicited, so she might just have had an irrational preoccupation with parenting.) Why she thought I wouldn’t have discussed that with my own boyfriend, I will never know. I told her that being my boyfriend, he was already well aware of the fact that I was not having children, and she did a bunch more sputtering about “the love you have for a child” and how “he’s an African man” and that “No one ever dies wishing they had spent more time at the office.”  And you know what? She convinced me.

Just kidding, of course she didn’t.

When I was still with the aforementioned ex, he told his sister that I didn’t want to have children, and reported that she had something along the lines of “How can she deny an African man children?” and that she was going to want to lecture me about it when we met. He also told me that she said he could find a “better girl” than me who will have kids.

The idea that a man is entitled to use someone else’s body, a woman’s body, for his own desires makes me sick. This “what about your husband?” business is rooted in misogyny. It’s just a way of reinforcing the idea that a woman is secondary to a man in every way, and specifically that African women are secondary to African men. The idea that a man is entitled to use a woman’s body because of where he comes from is completely abhorrent, and it’s completely sexist.

For most people, the expectation that a woman is “supposed to have children” doesn’t seem to be an issue because most people want to be parents, and most people also don’t question the ideals they were brought up with. That’s how it’s all “supposed” to function. The man pays a dowry (buys a woman from her original owner, her dad), then she moves into his house, becomes his property, and when she gestates, births, feeds, and raises the children, they get his name, because he is the “head of the household.” And according to these patriarchal standards, a woman who understands that her role is to submit and to continue a man’s lineage is “better” than one who has the audacity to think she’s in charge of her own body.

My mom’s question floored with me with how sexist it was, and it also showed me that I’m a child that she had for her husband, and I have nothing to do with her family. As a woman, I’m to do the same thing for my husband, even if I don’t want to, or even have a husband. According to my ex(’s sister), I don’t have the right to “deny” an African man a child. What fucking right does anyone have to “deny” a human being the right to decide what happens to their own body, African man or not?

Oh, that’s right, I’m not a human being. I’m a woman. By default, I have conceded control of my sexual and reproductive rights, because some man somewhere might marry me, and my life and body are all about what he might want.

What do other childfree Africans think? Are you married? Do you want to get married? Will you forego marriage because it means that you don’t get to be childfree? Did you want to have children when you didn’t want to because of societal expectations? What’s the obsession with the imaginary husband?

Photo credit: Mila Supinskaya via Shutterstock