Let’s Talk Feminism

Over the past few months I’ve been seeing more articles and blogs pop up about feminism and feminist issues. I’ve considered myself a feminist for a while now, but it’s only over the last few months that I’ve been exploring what the term actually means to me and trying to comprehend what it means to other people around me. There are a lot of questions I’ve been asking myself; what does true equality look like? How are my experiences, opportunities, and privileges different from those of my male counterparts? What is the end goal of the feminist movement? I can’t answer any of these questions of course, I’m no expert on feminism and I don’t have years of reading books or having deep discussions about it to back up my opinions. However, I think discussion and dialogue is incredibly important in the development and understanding of any issue, so I’ve decided to share my exploration in the hope of engaging you in conversation about it!

Feminism means something different to everyone and I’m sure we all have a different idea about what a truly equal society would like. There are many inequalities between the opportunities and privileges accessible to men, verses those that are accessible to women. Some inequalities are glaringly obvious, such as rape, and involve specific actions or consequences, while others are so ingrained into our culture and our way of thinking that they often go completely unnoticed. It can be easy to pass off a joke generalizing women as bad drivers or to ignore a catcall or remark about our appearance. It’s seen as acceptable that a father might work full time while the mother stays home to take of the children, but it would be pretty unconventional if the roles were reversed. We don’t often challenge these behaviours or perceptions and they have simply become a normal, acceptable part of our culture.

If the term “feminism” means something different to everyone, than associating oneself with the term “feminist” certainly does as well. Some people are perfectly happy to consider themselves feminists, while others want absolutely nothing to do with the label. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of negative connotations associated with the term “feminist” and with people who consider themselves one. Some people view feminists as a group of angry, bra-burning women, while others associate it as something that is just for women and not accessible to men. There’s the view that the feminist movement is a threat to men’s rights or that it somehow makes you less of a man to call yourself a feminist. Finally, some people just don’t like the use of terminology like ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’, and feel that we should focus more on male and female rights together, rather than just on women.

This last opinion is the one that I find myself encountering most often. I know people that personally advocate for women’s rights and against issues such as the pay gap between men and women, yet are not comfortable associating with the term “feminist”. I think many people have a feeling that feminism is not inclusive of men and that as a result, it threatens their rights and liberties; that feminists are essentially sexist against men and that we should focus on promoting equal rights rather than improving women’s rights. I personally don’t agree with this viewpoint. I do want to see a world that provides equal opportunities and respect to both men and women, but in order to get there, I think we need to address the concept of male privilege. To realize that the way to equal rights is by talking about the disparities that exist between men and women and by identifying behaviours and social norms that perpetuate it.

Male privilege is a concept that is relatively new to me and I find it useful in comparing ways in which a man’s experience is likely different than a woman’s. To quote trusty old Wikipedia, “male privilege refers to the social theory which argues that men have unearned social, economic, and political advantages or rights that are granted to them solely on the basis of their sex, and which are usually denied to women.” I don’t really like the words ‘unearned’ and ‘denied’ in this definition because I don’t think this is always the case, but I do think that men often have an advantage over women or are favoured over women. The best thing I’ve read about male privilege is Peggy McIntosh’s “Male Privilege Checklist“, which goes through a list of examples in which a male might have an advantage or privilege a female wouldn’t have, such as the lower likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace or the higher likelihood of being promoted to a senior position. You should really read it. You can also find a full discussion about male privilege here.

I find McIntosh’s list helpful in identifying cultural norms that bother me so that I can gain a better picture of what I think equality in the workplace or in the home might actually look like. There are different expectations of men and women and different standards for what is considered acceptable. Decisions and opinions are formed by comparing a woman against her male counterparts rather than on her personal merits. The defining element of male privilege (in my opinion anyways) is summed up by the final point on McIntosh’s checklist, “I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.” Do many people consciously discriminate based on sex? I don’t think that they do. I’m sure that many men are selected for a job based on their competence and the fact that they were the best candidate. But I also can’t be sure that if a man is hired for a job over me, that it’s not because in the back of their mind, my employer is thinking that down the road I’m going to cost him maternity leave or that work is unlikely the be my top priority.

I took a women’s studies course last year in which we talked about how men and women face different issues and problems, making it okay to focus specifically on women’s rights, rather than on both male and female equality. Focusing on women’s rights doesn’t make men’s rights any less important, it just acknowledges that we’re different. For example, we discussed the benefits of having women-only health clinics to address health issues such as birth control, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion. Likewise, there is legislature about abortion and other women’s rights that, while it does affect men, only applies to women. The decision by a woman to get an abortion (or the decision not to) will have an impact on their counterpart, but the law surrounding the right to decide isn’t a law that will ever be exercised by a man. Therefore, when the legislature is formed, women should make up at least half, if not the majority of those that influence the decision. However, since men form the majority of elected roles, it is men who make many of the laws and decisions regarding women’s rights.

I just want to acknowledge that I realize much of my discussion revolves around feminism as it exists in the Western world. I think there is a large portion of people that are pretty indifferent to feminism; that are content with the status quo or oblivious to the divide that exists between men and women. Some see feminism as belonging to the era of women’s suffrage, when women fought for the right to vote, to work, and to earn a salary. Feminism has a very different meaning for me in 2013, but in many other countries, women are still not encouraged or permitted to work outside the home and are expected to fill traditional gender roles of homemaking and child-rearing. The opportunity to shape and influence their own future is not necessarily accessible to them.

Finally, there are those who are happy to associate with the feminist label. I’ve been seeing a lot more articles and posts lately from men who are entering the feminist discussion (see my friend Evan’s wonderful new blog and this article about being an ally to women) and I have to give them props for their sensitivity. I don’t really put that much thought into my opinions or how they are perceived because they are shaped mostly by my experiences growing up and by my experiences as a woman working in a male-dominated industry. Many of the male privileges in McIntosh’s list didn’t occur to me until the last few years and I can understand why they would be a blind spot for many men themselves. I’m sure it’s much harder to enter the feminist-sphere as a male when you don’t have the common female experiences of worrying about your body image, walking home alone at night, or being judged by your wardrobe. Either way, there are both men and women active in the fight against gender norms, I consider myself one of them and I hope you’ll join the discussion too!

Thanks for reading,
Maria

Disclaimer: this blog solely represents my own personal views. I choose to view it as a thought and learning experiment and I welcome your opinions, so long as they’re respectful.

Changing Rape Culture

I’ve decided to change gears today and to write about something that is hard to write about and hard to talk about. Three things caught my attention today; two young men were found guilty for raping an unconscious girl at a party (see article), a Swiss woman was gang-raped outside a small village in India (see article), and my friend Erin shared with me the fact that rape is the first sexual experience of 20% of Ghanaian women. These things all frustrate me and I think it’s time we talked about them. I’m certainly no expert on rape, but I am tired of the way we talk about (or don’t talk about) rape in our society. I’m tired of a culture that blames the victim and doesn’t talk about sexuality and respect.

As a young female, rape has always been by biggest fear when traveling. When I went to Malawi at 20-years old, my biggest fear was that I was going to find myself in an uncomfortable situation, outside of my control, that might result in rape. When trying to meet new people in London, I was consciously aware of the guys I was meeting and the situations I would put myself in with those guys. When walking back to my flat at night, it was instinct for me to stick to busy streets and I was always intensely aware of my surroundings until I reached the safety of my house. I’m sure I’m not the only female that thinks this way.

I’ve always watched my drinks when I’m out with friends. I’ve always been careful about the company I might attract. I’ve felt a relative amount of security because I thought I never put myself in situations where there was the potential for rape. The problem is that I should never have to think like this. What a woman wears or whether or not a girl is drunk should not constitute an excuse for why she might have been raped. Instead of analyzing the actions of the victim, we need to be talking about a culture where boys don’t see anything wrong with sexually assaulting an unconscious girl; a culture where men feel entitled to sex and where women don’t feel safe walking down the street at night.

The thing that struck me about the cases in the news this week is that they both involved groups of people. The friends of the two football players that raped a girl at a party participated in that crime by not stepping up to help the young girl, by laughing at her shame, and filming as she was assaulted. On two different occasions, groups of men in India got together and thought it was acceptable to gang rape a woman on vacation with her husband and to sexually and physically assault a young student on a bus (see article). 20% on Ghanaian women should not be dealing with rape as their first sexual experience. Clearly we are living in a society that doesn’t talk about equality, respect, and sexual expression.

I know ranting about rape culture is not very effective, but if we’re ever going to change it, we need to start talking about it. Advising women on how to be safe and not get raped is not addressing the causes for why it happens. Engineers Without Borders put a lot of focus on gender representation for International Women’s Day this month and it got me thinking about the inequalities that exist within my own profession and the way that we address (and ignore) gender within our respective cultures. Our overseas partner Erin Aylward wrote a great blog on how we’re not afraid of changing culture, but of addressing the deep-rooted issues that result in that culture.

To finish, this is a completely different type of blog for me and it was difficult to write. However, I’ve always felt that my voice does have power and that it’s important to share it, even if I’m not that eloquent. While the circumstances that started the discussion are awful, I’m hopeful about the conversation that has resulted from it. I hope we can keep talking about it and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Maria

A World of Creative Thinkers

Hello,

As most of you know, I’ve been involved with Engineers Without Borders for more than 4 years now. I worked overseas with EWB in 2010 and I was the President of the MUN chapter in 2011 and 2012. I originally created this blog to chronicle my experiences in Malawi. I’ve learned so much through my work with EWB and have been given so many wonderful opportunities. I’ve been inspired by the people I’ve worked with in Canada and in Malawi and by the movement that EWB has been creating. Every year, EWB does a holiday campaign to promote its overseas programs and raise money to support them. I’ve decided to dedicate this blog entry to EWB and to share with you why I’ve given more than 4 years of my life to this organization! I hope you’ll take the time to read this and consider making a donation. I’ve posted the link to my campaign below.

Thanks, Maria

https://imagine.ewb.ca/mariaadey

2036: the year a baby born in 2012 will graduate with a university degree. This is the theme of EWB’s campaign this holiday season. What do you imagine the world will look like in 2036? What’s your dream for the future? My dream is that the babies born this year, whether in Canada, England, or Malawi, all have the opportunity to be who they want to be and believe in the power they have to influence the people and the world around them. I want to see a world of socially aware individuals and thoughtful, responsible leaders. I have been so privileged in my education and in all the support I’ve had in my own personal development. I believe the children I met and lived with in Malawi deserve the same opportunities and support as children growing up in Canada. I believe in engaging students in global issues and fostering their personal and leadership development. This isn’t just my dream – It’s EWB’s dream too.

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I joined EWB as MUN’s “School Outreach Director”. I went to schools and community groups and spoke with young students about global issues and their potential to do something about them. In Malawi, I worked with local leaders on developing their skills and increasing the effectiveness of the work they were doing. As Chapter President, I tried to build leaders by helping people realize their potential. Engineers Without Borders believes in building incredible, critical thinking, innovative, inspiring leaders – both in Canada and in Africa. They believe in questioning the status quo, in challenging our Canadian leaders about the effectiveness and transparency of our foreign aid, and in building strong African leaders, capable of striving day after day to improve the country in which they live.

EWB has had a profound impact on my life and the lens through which I view the world. They’ve inspired me to dream big and then to work hard to accomplish those dreams. They’ve invested in me as an individual and as a leader, supporting my personal development and enabling me to grow. As I soon put my undergrad behind me, I believe it’s now my turn to invest in EWB. This has been my passion for the last four years and inspires me as I move on to the next chapter of my life.

YOU have also inspired me. Thank you to my friends, family, colleagues, mentors, and all who have supported me throughout my degree. I greatly appreciate all that you’ve given me; the advice, prayers, words of support, and words that were sometimes harder to take. It has all helped me to grow as a person. I hope you’ll consider making a donation to EWB in support of both my dream and theirs. Funding is what enables our programs, so please donate, and donate generously. Then, after you’ve donated, please go out and realize your own dream; I believe we’re all capable of creating positive change and I would love to support your dream!

With love, Maria

https://imagine.ewb.ca/mariaadey

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