OP-ED: A Perspective on Western Feminism

My lack of makeup, my unshaved legs and unplucked eyebrows are not some feminist statement. My short hair, frizzed and in its natural bird’s nest state is not because I am just too fab to care about how I look. It’s because hot water is scarce and my bags are heavy. So I don’t put a lot in my pack because I was taught that “if you can’t carry your own gear, then you don’t deserve to have it.”

There are a lot of journalists and travelers like me. I meet them in Ukraine or near the Syrian border. And most of them are men.

The number of women who are interested in going to these places, at least from bar room conversations, are high. But between contemplation to action, many drop off.

I came across Indie Chicks magazine. Their tagline is “Embrance your Inner Badass”. A promising opening, but I reached out to them to discover that they didn’t cover politics or current events. Further in, I found that they resembled Cosmo Girl – how to love yourself, how to deal with break ups, get the man of your dreams, and all that jazz. Which is great. But hardly in the realm of “badass”.

Kira Salak paddled nearly 600 miles down the Niger River
Kira Salak paddled nearly 600 miles down the Niger River

Many women think that the few revelations of Charlotte and Sex and the City are a form of empowerment in kick-ass high heels. It is absolutely important to stand up for yourself and what you want in a relationship – but shouldn’t we have learned much of this in High School or in the collegiate years?

No one is a bad ass for being able to stand up for themselves or learn to live without a man. That’s just adulthood.

The world’s movers and shakers and the history-makers are overwhelmingly men. They are rare. Rarer still are the women who stand among them.

So this is where the feminist movement loses me.

Most women don’t want to be movers or shakers. They are more interested in things like relationships, looking good naked, or getting the man of their dreams. The feminist movement has pinned itself onto not discriminating on weight, youth and sexuality. They call this discrimination a form of oppression. I think that they have stretched the definition of the word.

joan1The truth is, I can’t get on the new wave feminism because I know a singular truth – that equality begins with yourself.

In a sweater and beanie cap, I get mistaken for a young boy, and I realize I could be more fashionable. Yet none of the men around me care because I am surrounded by men of substance. The people most likely to comment are other women.

I’m certainly not going to bandy for their rights if they won’t fight for it themselves.

Because equality is not given. It is taken. It is not something that can be had in the passive tense. It is an action. I don’t believe we are created equal by a god. We make ourselves equal.  That is our responsibility alone.

No one is Atlas, carrying the weight of womanhood on their shoulders. My rucksack is too heavy to accommodate that burden. Most women have the resources to take their equality. But action takes effort. It’s hard. It’s easier to force others to do the heavy lifting – like a maiden in a tower, waiting for the good looking protagonist. Because being the protagonist in your won tail is just too much work.

There are women, and girls being sold as slaves by Daesh (ISIS) in Raqqah, Syria. There’s genital mutilation. There’s women kidnapped into sex slavery or sold as child brides. There are girls getting shot when they demand to go to school. There are women who are tried and executed for infidelity when their husbands get tired of them and want a new wife. There are men who order their 20-year-old wife to jump in front of an Army truck to die so he can collect the $500 from Coalition Forces.

These are more pressing issues on the table, and frankly, I feel that western feminism is like the pop music of women’s rights – catchy, accessible, and easy on the emotions.

I didn’t always feel this way, of course. I have changed my perspectives over time as experience altered my worldview. Equality under the law is good enough for me. Social problems? That can be overcome by not caring.

5 Comments

  1. Okay. First of all, I get it. I get that you’ve seen the horrors women worldwide have to endure. I get that most of the feminism you’ve seen in the states and in western Europe is focused on what, in comparison, seems like silly issues. I get that body image IS a silly issue when you’re seeing women killed, controlled, and mutilated just for being women. I think everyone can do a lot more to help women in those places, and I think it would be monumental if western feminism spent more time spreading awareness about those issues. The western world has money, power and access to forums that are hard to avoid–if feminism took a stand on those issues; if women in the western world were really vocal about them, then perhaps they could truly inspire and help. And more people need to go to these places and open shelters and help in any way they can.

    And that’s a fault of the western world in general–we like to step in when it’s convenient for us, and ignore the world’s issues when we should really help.

    But here’s the thing: not all of western feminism is silly, and not all social problems can be overcome by “not caring.” I’m really glad that you’re surrounded by men of quality who don’t care how you dress. I’m really glad and impressed that you’ve managed to make a career and a name for yourself and that you are doing what you set out to do–not letting living out of a pack or being in danger stop you. But there are women here, Kat, who will never be able to do the things they want to like you do, by the very nature of the fact that they are women. There are women here who get paid 75 cents to the dollar a man makes–at a job where that 25 cents means feeding their kid or not. There are women here (my Armenian cousin, for example) who are required to undergo a “virginity test” before they’re allowed to marry. There are women here who are sold into slavery too, and women who are broken and beaten and raped and assaulted just for having female parts. 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime here in the states. And we are fed lies and insults from birth to tear us down and make us quiet about these things. Some of those things that tear us down are small and silly when taken individually, but in the long run, calling them out is all part of tearing down a structure of patriarchy that is burdening us in every facet of our lives.

    Western feminism SHOULD focus more on world issues. We should. That is a completely fair and appropriate criticism and I’ll take it. But it doesn’t mean that what we do focus on is silly or unnecessary. Because women for centuries have tried to overcome it by “not caring,” and you know what happens to them, 9 times out of 10? They get absolutely crushed for it. As a general rule, women aren’t allowed to “not care.” It’s part of why I love backpacking, because it’s one of the few places where we are allowed to–once you get out there, no one else on top of that mountain is judging you for your hair being a mess (or blue) or for not wearing makeup or even for your giant, smelly sweat stains. But as soon as you hike back to that road, the people who pass by start looking at you funny again. Back to reality.

    I super admire you, Kat. I think you ARE a badass like Joan of Arc and Kira Salak. I don’t want you to think I’m tearing you apart. I’ve just seen enough horrors too, across the U.S. and in parts of Europe, to see validity in western feminism. I haven’t seen what you’ve seen firsthand, but I know what you’re talking about. I stay informed, I have friends and follow accounts across the world and in varied locations, and my Armenian family has suffered horrors enough in their recent history that even from a young age I was never able to blind myself to the world’s problems the way so many can and do. When Tyler’s out of the military, perhaps I will be able to do more for those women suffering in other countries. Right now, I’m pretty much stuck in Virginia, and helping women is my passion–so local issues are at the forefront, both of my own experience and capability.

    1. Kat Argo says:

      Not gonna lie, was totally waiting for your response.

      “And that’s a fault of the western world in general–we like to step in when it’s convenient for us, and ignore the world’s issues when we should really help.” BINGO!

      “There are women here (my Armenian cousin, for example) who are required to undergo a “virginity test” before they’re allowed to marry. There are women here who are sold into slavery too, and women who are broken and beaten and raped and assaulted just for having female parts.” These are legit female issues, but that doesn’t get half as much air time as women quitting sports because they don’t want to look too muscly.

      I get that there is a long-standing problem of people being torn down from birth, but I don’t find that to just be a woman problem. Men get their share of it as well. I believe we ALL get a healthy dollup of emotional ass kicking as we grow up. And it fits us into certain roles of Tab A fits into Slot B, Nuclear Family, Hurrah! But even men don’t seem to want those things and stuffing that burden on them is also unfair – that being a provider, being masculine, being strong and must out-earn women in order to feel like they are worth it. That’s quite a lot of pressure, and plays on their insecurities as well. So strong men break out of it. Strong women break out of it too.

      Frankly, you also live in the last bastion of the “Stepford Wife”. Being a military wife is the last place where they tell you to look away and forgive infidelity, to give unwavering support and to live in one of those plastic suburban communities. And yeah, I get the blue hair proooobably turn’s Mrs. Officer’s Wife head exorcist-style. The life didn’t suit me.

      I honestly don’t mind people taking up the call of western-style feminism. That’s honestly their business. But I watch it on the news, read the articles and it runs through me like celebrity gossip – I retain none of it because as I read, I can’t help thinking “Why should I care?” But I’m also the kind of person that sees school house bullying and thinks “come on kid, we all got our ass kicked growing up. Suck it up.”

      I’m kind of a dick like that. But I’m not so blind as to think that there’s no place for advocacy for school house bullying or western feminism (I relate the two in my mind because I do find them to intertwine a lot). Someone has to be the activist. And I’d rather that person not be me. I think we all fall into different roles – there are the advocates, the actors (people who take action, not people who pretend to be other people), the witnesses and everyone else. I fall in as a witness. You, as I know well, are an advocate, bordering on being an actor.

  2. Okay, so I’m posting this after reading both the post and the conversation between you and Samantha. You both have totally valid points in this, but I think you are right on many of the points, especially the fact that most western feminists get lost between the passive declaration and the actual action towards it.

    Samantha is correct – there is a REAL need for feminism here, but I also think that real need is being swept under the rug by what you have wonderfully dubbed ‘pop feminism’. I’ve met women who declare they are feminists, but do nothing about it. I’ve met women who share links on Facebook, declare how ‘over-trodden’ we are, but never actually SPEAK OUT or do anything.

    Not every feminist is going to want to or have the capability to become an earth-shaker or a history maker. But there should be more of us. There should be more wanting to stand up and make a difference, instead of just declaring feminism is our mantra and sitting back and watching as the world rushes by.

    “I think we all fall into different roles – there are the advocates, the actors (people who take action, not people who pretend to be other people), the witnesses and everyone else. I fall in as a witness.” ->BINGO. And I think that can sum up a lot of what is wrong with Western Feminism. We have a LOT of witnesses here, we have a lot of everyone else, and we have a lot of advocates. Where we’re lacking is actors. Is the women willing to stand up and be like ‘YO! I get that we’ve got some issues here, but we need to do something and stop talking, and we need to start looking to the women around the world too.’

    I once read a piece from a missionary who said that the best chance this world has of progression and becoming a better place is through the empowerment, education and freedom (meaning from slavery, sexual slavery, etc) for women in third world countries. Women are powerful. We may not be warriors in the same way men are, but we are still warriors. And when the women who are called to be the actors stand up and start taking charge (if they do), I think we could begin to see a very different culture in western feminism. We would see a shift from the ‘feel-good’ feminism that is being pushed over to a more action based feminism. And if/when that happens, I think the world is going to become a very different place.

  3. amanda says:

    Interesting read. Not just the post itself, but the comments, too. I admire women who stand out, who make a difference, and who break out of the cookie cutter stereotype as well. My grandma for instance was an ammo truck driver in the war. I wrote a paper about her in my Women’s Studies class back in college and she became my professor’s hero. We spent an entire class admiring the photo I brought in of her standing next to her ammo truck, looking like a badass. I always thought it was cool that I had pictures of my grandma in the service and not my grandpa, ha. I admire women like Amelia Earhardt, Malala Yousafzai, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Though I don’t necessarily think you need to put yourself in danger or travel to a country outside the US in order to stand up for women. Like Samantha said, rape happens here. Abuse happens here. Sure, it isn’t genital mutilation or getting thrown in front of a truck, but it’s still suffering. It still isn’t fair. It still needs to change. Volunteering at a homeless shelter or protesting with Planned Parenthood are both admirable in their own way. I agree that the word feminism is a bit “hip” these days and used loosely, but I sort of feel like, well, so what? I’ll take that over women not labeling themselves feminists. Women working together to make the voice of women everywhere stronger is never a bad thing.

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