Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Coming Out

Today is International Women's Day -- the 100th edition, in fact. Not only that, it also happens to be Feminist Coming Out Day. It's a day to celebrate women, their accomplishments and their importance to society.

Doing that alone and putting a happy face on things would miss the point, though. Women's rights and the ongoing push for equality have come a long way from the Bad Old Days, but as this Guardian article reminds us, there is still so much more to do.
How, asked Michelle Bachelet, the first executive director of UN Women, would those "courageous pioneers" view the world today? "I suspect … with a mixture of pride and disappointment," she said in an address marking the anniversary.
Bachelet, the former Chilean president, chose to celebrate the day in Liberia with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female president in Africa. "The last century has seen an unprecedented expansion of women's legal rights and entitlements," Bachelet said. "The advancement of women's rights can lay claim to be one of the most profound social revolutions the world has seen.
"But despite this progress over the last century, the hopes of equality expressed on that first International Women's Day are a long way from being realised. Almost two out of three illiterate adults are women. Girls are still less likely to be in school than boys. Every 90 seconds of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications."
Some countries put more stock in the day than others, of course. Small wonder unmarried women older than 30 are considered oddities in Russia.

If you're not in the mood for grim reading, how about some videos? This one is making the rounds on the Interwebs, and it's quite arresting.
Has James Bond ever paused to consider the rates of sexual assault of young girls going to school in the developing world? That's one of a number of startling questions posed by a new short film by the artist and director Sam Taylor-Wood, released to coincide with International Women's Day and starring Bond actors Daniel Craig and Judi Dench.
"We're equals, aren't we 007?" asks Dench as M, opening the film in voiceover, as Craig walks towards the camera. "Yet it is 2011 and a man is still likely to earn more money than a woman, even one doing the same job."
It is the only explicit reference to his role as Bond, though the film hints at some of the character's womanising ways in comparing his situation to that of a woman.
"As a man you are less likely to be judged for promiscuous behaviour, which is just as well, frankly ... There would be virtually no risk to your career if you chose to become a parent ... or became one accidentally. For someone with such a fondness for women, I wonder if you have ever considered what it might be like to be one?"
Also starring is the excellent Rebecca Watson (of Skepchick and Skeptics' Guide to the Universe fame). Her video lays out some of the issues facing women today, including this hideous bit of legislation in Texas, part of the revived "War on Women" by people who ostensibly believe in small government.

Frightening stuff. So what's a guy who supports women's rights and their freedom to choose to do when it seems the very fabric of society works against women? My thoughts after the break.

I've had a few friends in my time who would be glad to be called feminists. Elise, my dear friend in Boise, springs quickly to mind. Another person -- who remains an Internet friend for the time being but is by all accounts a wonderful woman and a top film maker -- is Therese Shechter. It was on her blog that I first saw "Men and Feminism" by Shira Tarrant, a book exploring men, masculinity and their place in feminism.

Fast-forward about 18 months, and what do I see in the Sociology section of the Kinokuniya book store at Plaza Senayan? This very book (only slightly marked up at Rp 200,000). As I stated earlier on this blog, I have problems when it comes to walking into a bookstore and not coming out with more books. With that nugget firmly implanted in my brain and a desire to keep ridding myself of the inherent BS that comes with my place in life (white, middle-class, American male), I said "why not?" and bought a copy.

"Men and Feminism" is a brisk read at 150 pages (not including index, sources, etc., which adds another 50 pages). In it, Tarrant lays out the history of men's involvement in the feminist movement, contemporary organizations, the issues men face in trying to support women's fight for equality and what men can do to actively aid in the fight and not just be a bystander.

By far the most challenging and thought-provoking chapter was the one on male privilege. Like the author writes, it's not really something that occurs to you in daily life. I don't walk the streets of Jakarta thinking "Gosh, I'm less likely to get raped because of my gender" or worry about people judging me because my appearance isn't sexy enough. (Pro tip: People expect you to look disheveled when you're a sports writer. Some journalists struggle against this stereotype, and good on them for that. I say, why fight it?) Nonetheless, you can't deny male privilege exists if you take a rational look at the world. Tarrant lays out a 22-point list of advantages that come with being male -- most were spot on, some I quibbled with and others would've seen my answer change depending on which culture I lived in at the time.

If I am to make good on this self-examination and "man up," as Tarrant exhorts her readers to do, and not just support from the sidelines, dealing with male privilege will probably be the main issue. I can read up on feminism, donate time and money, call out sexist behavior when I see it, etc., but actually altering behavior and changing an ingrained worldview is more difficult (as my waistline will attest). Male privilege isn't something you can suddenly revoke or shed with just a thought.

So, to the question of the day: am I a feminist? That's hard to say. I certainly support the feminist cause, but to call myself a feminist would, in my mind, cheapen the title for all those people (women and men) who gave years worth of their blood, sweat and tears -- if not their lives -- to help bring women the equal treatment they deserve. "Meninist," which Tarrant mentions, has a nice ring to it and is just Colbert-ish enough to be interesting. Truthfully, I've never been a fan of labels, and having an -ist or -ism by your name can be just another invitation for other people to categorize and pigeonhole you.

In closing, I think Phil Plait nailed it as only a Bad Astronomer can.
I am something of a moral relativist; I know that cultures differ, and what is art in one place would be a grave insult in another. That’s OK, because people are different.
But if you take half your population and relegate it to second class, forbid them from learning, don’t let them participate fully in society, then there is no relativism in my book. You’re wrong, and you’re stupid.
To all the women in my life -- thank you. Words can't express how much you mean to me, so I can only hope my actions do you justice.


  1. Cool post. Interesting, indeed! I understand about the labels issue, and agree that it often gives people an excuse to write you off or ignore you, think of you a certain way, etc. But at the same time, you probably wouldn't say you didn't believe in civil rights for African Americans because you didn't get out in the streets and give your blood, sweat and tears (to steal your phrase), would you? I would support you calling yourself a feminist. You obviously believe in the idea and support the practice, whether or not you're out there protesting in take back the night gatherings. But it's your choice! Thanks for the post. Glad to have come across it today. (btw, I know Therese via internet, too! She did an interview on my blog, Her Film, about women filmmakers.)

  2. My pleasure, Kyna, and thanks for replying. As I said, I'm still pretty new to actively taking part in feminism, so my stance is certainly subject to change.