Friday, 22 July 2016

I Don't Want to Burn My Bra

I don't know how to be a good feminist. 

I wouldn't say I read a lot of feminist literature. I adore Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I've read Woolf, and tore her to shreds in a seminar because I didn't appreciate her bourgeoisie ideals. I read I Killed Scheherazade by Joumana Haddad and appreciated the insight she gave me, but winced at her anger and tired of her self-indulgence. I read comedian Sara Pascoe's Animal because I wanted to know how and why my body affects my behaviour towards others and myself (but also because I just really love Sara Pascoe). Aside from that, I appear to have glided through the lectures and seminars on Beauvoir's The Second Sex without noticing and I briefly flipped through a borrowed copy of How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.

Maybe that's why I haven't really found who I am as a feminist. I know I want everyone to have access to the same rights and freedoms. I know that as a white woman who attends university that I have more rights and freedoms than many women across the world, and in fact many men too. I know that as someone who grew up in a derelict town, where no one had much of anything, I absolutely could not stand A Room of One's Own upon reflection, though I admit at the time I devoured Woolf's archaic, privileged brand of feminism. I also know that I despise the oppression Haddad describes in I Killed Scheherazade. But how valid is my opinion, given I'm a white girl living in western society? How much can I say before I become part of the problem? What if I say too little about that which does not concern me, and instead of being the inclusive feminist and humanitarian I wish to be, I become one of the dreaded white feminists rampant online?

I think what's important to remember when one is a feminist who happens to be white is that you really are privileged in ways you may not even realise. As everyday racial and religious tensions continue to rise to a disgusting degree across the western world, I am made aware of a privilege I have, but is denied to other women:

I can wear a headscarf without fearing judgement or, worse, fearing for my safety.

It seems insignificant. It's autumn, it starts raining, and I pull my scarf over my head, completing the 80 year-old going for tea and scones chic look I apparently aim for in the colder months. In London, no one looks twice. In my hometown in Yorkshire, no one looks twice.

Picture another scenario, though. A 20 year-old girl, much like myself, places the same scarf on her head before leaving the house. It's a physical embodiment of her religious and moral beliefs. In London, no one looks twice. In my hometown in Yorkshire, people glare, they move away from her, they whisper about her, and they might even fear her. I've seen it happen. Worse, they may start abusing her in the street. They talk loudly about how much they hate immigrants, refugees, Muslims, spitting the words out like they're acidic on their tongue. I've waited for busses in the rain, scarf upon my head, listening to proud racists spouting this kind of vitriol, and wondering how they would behave if my skin and hair were a little darker, and my eyes something other than an indiscriminate shade of blue or green. I'll never understand that fear, that's my privilege. But I know I never want anyone to experience that fear, and I know I want to work against that as a feminist.

There is another enemy to the hijab-wearing woman, though, that I want to fight against as a feminist: the white, western feminist, who, like me, does not understand what it is to be a woman who wears a hijab, a niqab, or any other kind of religious clothing, but instead of attempting to tackle the man or woman who loudly declares their prejudices on the no. 37 bus, they attack the hijab itself. This is done with honourable intentions, but centres on the white feminist's own beliefs, that she would feel oppressed if she had to wear a hijab. She forgets to recognise that there is often choice in wearing a hijab, that her feelings towards it are shaped by the society she grew up in, and that it is entirely possible for one to feel liberated through wearing a hijab. I'm sure, of course, that there are girls and women forced into wearing religious clothing, but I don't want to insist that women in the street tear off their hijabs, niqabs, and burqas in a misguided attempt to "liberate" them. As a feminist, I want to give women a choice, and I want to tackle the wider problems that deprive them of choice.

This all, of course, is just one extended example of the problems I will never understand, but continue desperately to attempt to educate myself on. There's so much more to be said for Black women, Asian women, Arab women, and every woman in every country across the world. I fear excluding these women from my own personal version of feminism, but I also fear becoming so involved that I unintentionally begin to speak over them, or speak for them.

There are certain issues that I know definitively where to stand. I know that women should not have to ask permission. I know that black lives matter. I know that forced marriage is wrong, child marriage deplorable, and that female (and, in fact, male) circumcision is mutilation. But is the hijab oppressive? Or are scantily clad models on 30ft billboards the ones who are really oppressed? Was Taylor Swift's video for Shake it Off really a celebration of culture, or was it cultural appropriation? How on earth am I, a girl who has spent the past day devouring Bridget Jones's Diary, quietly noting the fact that 9st really isn't overweight and Bridget possibly has some form of body dismorphia, supposed to be able to tell?

I really don't know how to be a feminist.


  1. Alisha, this is so thoughtful and honest, I loved reading it! I really appreciated your confusion, as weird as that sounds, because I think lots of people our age feel the same way. I don't want the angry feminism that's so well-known to be my feminism either, but it's important to read it and know it. I hope you keep writing as you learn and find your feminism — your perspectives are really insightful and unique. Let's keep in touch!

    1. Thank you so much, Sareeta! I am beyond flattered - and also a little embarrassed because I noticed I made a typo in my comment on your blog, ha. I would love if we kept in touch!