Are you a feminist?

I’ve seen people flinch when the word is mentioned, and many vehemently deny they are “one of those”.

I imagine such an intense reaction is due in part to the association of feminism with unruly and undesirable images: angry, shrieking women, who are inexplicably also very disheveled. The target of their aggression? Men.

Certainly this picture is an exaggerated take on the protests that feminists have made on behalf of better conditions and rights for women.

Women (and men) in countries like the US and UK took to the streets, carried slogans and shouted some choice words about inequality in wages and work. The energy and frenzy of such movements were the result of long-held frustrations about the unfairness of many hours of backbreaking work women did for pitiful pay.

There was an urgency that spurred those marches, just as there is an urgency behind the current #MeToo movement to shed a light on and put a stop to violence against women by powerful men, which previously had always been swept under the carpet.

So when people don’t want to be known as feminists, I get it.

Feminism, and feminists, can be fierce, and that can be uncomfortable for quite a lot of people. Confrontation and public displays of passion are not everyone’s cup of tea.

But I’d like to broaden the narrative somewhat, because identifying as feminist and defining one’s aims and goals as a feminist can be a long and arduous process. Identities change, and goalposts shift.

Indonesian activists march for women’s rights to mark the International Women’s Day in Jakarta on March 8, 2019. Photo: Goh Chai Hin/ AFP

As certain milestones are achieved that improve conditions for women and for both genders — the introduction of breastfeeding rooms in malls, for instance, and mandated paternal leave for new fathers — other issues come to the fore that need tackling.

I sat for an interview recently with a research student writing a thesis on feminism in Brunei. Her opening question is a predictable one: “Do you call yourself a feminist?”. Easy, “Yes”. Second question: “Why?” Not so easy.

I gave her the usual spiel about wanting fairness and fighting against discrimination, but in reality it is not so easy to pinpoint a reason. There are simply too many.

Feminism also changes constantly, in response to changes in society and in the world. So maybe it’s not a matter of being or becoming a feminist, but rather seeing aspects of ourselves as already in line with the core values of feminism.

To me, one of feminism’s most important values is to challenge socially-constructed norms, beliefs and practices based on gender that privilege men at the expense of women.

So you may reject the label of feminist, but you are practicing feminism if you have ever spoken up against, drawn attention to and changed the ways, big or small, that women are undermined, subordinated, discriminated against and taken advantage of.

To take examples from the workplace, this could include things like:

  • When the same junior female colleague is made to write the minutes in every departmental meeting, even though there are junior male colleagues to rotate the tasks to
  • When a woman is judged in the workplace for her appearance, marital status and ambition, when men are not judged by the same standards 
  • When a women is assumed unsuitable to lead a group or organisation, and when she does, is criticised for being “emotional” when making hard decisions and dealing with difficult subordinates
  • When women are blamed and shamed for taking long absences from work as part of their maternity leave, even though men are also responsible for getting women pregnant
  • When women do most of the workload in group projects, but most credit and attention is given to men
  • When women are tasked with menial jobs such as being in charge of refreshments and cleaning up, when men are also perfectly capable of doing the same
  • When men get off lightly, or are lauded, when they make controversial statements, but women are harshly berated or ignored for voicing reasonable criticisms

And that’s only sexism in the workplace.

There are plenty of other scenarios where sexist norms are commonplace: when talking about body image; representation in the media; representation in politics and decision-making; the right to public spaces; to name a few.

One of the final questions I was asked in the interview was this: “Is feminism simply a label?”.

I have friends and colleagues who certainly think so, and who would rather that this label be flung very, very far away.

But these are the same people who are slowly tearing down gender barriers and restructuring gender relations. Some examples: by becoming the first woman in the family to do a PhD; or getting their husbands to take on domestic duties to balance out household responsibilities.

They just don’t want the negative connotations attached to the label “feminist”. 

As one colleague insinuated, calling yourself a feminist can be career suicide.

Feminism is a political stance, certainly, because it is concerned with the distribution of power and choices, but does it always have to come with such a bad reputation?

I don’t have an answer to that, but I do think we can get a lot more things done if we stop resisting the label and simply get on with it.

Let’s embrace a plurality of feminisms. Not everybody has to be a loud activist to be a feminist. Not everyone has to come up with a manifesto for gender equality. There is no one right way to feminism — this fact has led to disagreements between groups of feminists, but it has also created new ways of conceptualising and embodying feminism.

Rather than being afraid of the Big Bad Feminist, let’s celebrate the Everyday Feminist. The one who, knowingly or unknowingly, loudly or subtly, in ways big or small, has ensured that when you want to do something or achieve something, you are not limited by the fact of your gender.

Khairunnisa Ibrahim is a lecturer who reads and writes about gender, geography, maps, pop culture and the representation of women in science, media and technology. 

This article is part of our Voices section, where we curate columns, op-eds and personal essays.