To get noticed in social media these days, just start a Tumblr account, set up a Facebook page, and start tweeting under a hashtag that questions the significance of feminism. At least, that’s been the case for the grassroots movement “Women Against Feminism.” Despite its moderate Facebook presence (currently under 17,000 “likes”), #WomenAgainstFeminism has garnered attention from Time, MTV, BBC, Salon, and the Daily Beast—all in the same week.
We need a vision for humanity that transcends categories and labels and protects and nurtures life wherever it is found—whether in a slum, in a mosque, in a prison, or in the womb.To be fair, the buzz has less to do with the strength of #WAF and more to do with the perpetually controversial nature of feminism. In fact, many of the frustrations of #WAF are rooted in the perceived weaknesses of 21st century western feminism. It is too white. It is the luxury of the middle-class. It dismisses the contributions of men, makes victims of women, and disdains the traditional roles of marriage and motherhood.
In response, feminists have pointed to past successes and current gender inequities. Several prominent Christian voices have joined in supporting feminism, writing and blogging under the hashtag #FaithFeminisms. For them, feminism’s usefulness isn’t tied to our western context alone but to the atrocities women face globally. So while religious feminists may not agree with their secular counterparts on every issue, they are united with them in believing that feminism can effect positive change as it advocates for “the radical notion that women are people too.”
This “radical notion,” those familiar with the faith-and-feminism conversation may notice, is strikingly similar to wording used by lay theologian, writer, and philosopher Dorothy L. Sayers. In her 1938 essay “Are Women Human?” Sayers argues against male-normativity (understanding the male experience as universal), advocating instead for sex-equality and writing that “a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as man.”
On the surface, Sayers appears to have successfully merged faith and feminism, but while Sayers’ language is similar to modern faith-based feminists, her rhetoric is not. In fact, Sayers makes a rather disappointing voice for feminism, even agreeing with the claim of #WomenAgainstFeminism that the time for feminism has passed (this in 1938!). For her, the answer to sex-inequality was not found in advocating for a specific class but in emphasizing individuals. Here is the complete quote:
“A woman is just as much an ordinary human being as man with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.”
Sayers’ point—and one widely missed in the back and forth over feminism—is that we cannot advocate for women’s rights without first advocating for individual human rights.
“If you wish to preserve free democracy, you must base it—not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may act or think except as a member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick, and Harry, and the individual Jack and Jill—in fact, upon you and me.”
And suddenly the inability of feminism alone to fight the global oppression of women becomes clearer. If a society does not value individual freedom, it will be impossible to advocate for women’s equal rights because what, in fact, are we advocating for? Despite feminists’ hopes, the “radical notion that women are people too” will have little effect in societies with mistreatment run amok. In such societies, the oppression of women only comprises a small part of a widespread lack of individual liberty, human rights abuses, and the subjugation of political opponents, members of lower castes, and religious minorities.
Take, for example, the April 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian girls by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram. After these girls were abducted, they were transported across the border and either sold as domestic workers or forced into Islamic “marriages.” On the surface, this incident is a classic example of the need for feminism. Until you hear journalist and author Alex Perry’s reflections. Discussing his recently released The Hunt for Boko Haram on Fresh Air, Perry explains that these girls were kidnapped because they were girls. If they had been boys, they would have been slaughtered.
Or consider the case of Meriam Ibrahim who gave birth to her daughter while chained in a Sudanese prison, having been tried for adultery and sentenced to die simply for marrying a Christian man. Was this a question of women’s rights? Or was it about religious freedom? Maybe it was an issue of political freedom—the right to self-determination and free movement?
Absolutely, gender oppression occurs, but oppression is rarely based on gender alone. More often it centers on the intersection of gender, class, religion, and politics. Feminism alone cannot halt the global oppression of women. Instead, as Sayers suggests, the solution must be rooted in something deeper: a robust understanding of human rights.
Still, if intersectionality reveals the limits of feminism, it also reveals the parochialism of #WomenAgainstFeminism. For many, feminism is no longer necessary because they live in a western context with individual freedom as an established norm; they forget that historically feminism was a tool used to establish that norm, a tool essential to societies still developing an understanding of human rights. In these societies, feminism will eventually play the role that it played in our own, helping to answer such basic questions as whether or not women have the right to vote, own property, or divorce abusive husbands. And at that point, the fact that women “are people too” will have tremendous significance.
So do we need feminism? Yes and no. If you are looking to feminism to secure a bright future for oppressed women, you will be severely disappointed. Feminism alone cannot do this. For that, we need a vision for humanity that transcends categories and labels and protects and nurtures life wherever it is found—whether in a slum, in a mosque, in a prison, or in the womb. But that is a vision not so easily hashtagged.