I don’t remember how old I was when I realised it sucked to be a girl.
The barrage of stressful gendered situations that crashed into me as I hit puberty were pretty major; being warned not to “lead boys on” by daring to wear tops that revealed the fact that – gasp! – I had BOOBS in PUBLIC, that I ought to shave my legs because “girls don’t have body hair” (despite that fact that, y’know, girls DO have body hair), to not mention the fact I was bent double in pain because my uterus was ejecting itself through my vagina (the word “vagina” itself was like a swearword where as “penis” was just giggle-worthy) and the fact that “bitch” was suddenly an appropriate term for any girl who wasn’t liked.
But I also had to remember that sexism has followed me from childhood – from the small irritations of being told to sit a certain way appropriate for “a lady”, to being told that the boys who were bullying me through a combination of name-calling, inappropriate touching and in one case, throwing rubbish at me, were doing it because they “liked” me and that I had to put up or shut up.
Despite this, I never really thought about “feminism” as a way to tackle this relentless unfairness until I was about eighteen. I just assumed that the world was slanted a certain way in favour of boys and men and that this was as natural as the sun rising. Unfair, of course, but an unavoidable and inflexible fact of life in the same way gravity is. It was only when I made friends with a girl who talked about feminism and the fact that all of this could be changed that the world suddenly came into lurid, shocking focus. And I’ve never looked back.
Feminism is fundamentally, about giving women the respect and opportunities they deserve and are lacking on the basis of their gender. But the fact of the matter is that there is a LOT to look at.
Problems tackled in the name of feminism range from whether Barbie should have a more “realistic” body type to ending Female Genital Mutilation to body hair acceptance to ending the pay gap, so how on earth do we begin to approach a full understanding of what feminism “should” be focusing on?
It is vital that we realise that feminist efforts are themselves situated within contexts that are economic, racial, and geographic. What feminist hasn’t been rattled by those who demand to know why you’re angry about being judged for body hair when in some countries, women can’t even drive? Or why you’re so keen to end period stigma, when surely the main problem is the pay gap? Stop complaining about male students talking over you in lessons, at least you’re getting an education!
Sometimes, it’s difficult to feel justified in being angry at the comparatively mild irritations of men harassing me with sexual comments on the street and talking over me in class when I consider that this is small fry in comparison to what other women go through on a daily basis. But one has to remember that the disrespect of women on the basis of them being women is the basis of patriarchy, whether that be mildly annoying misogyny or violent and terrifying misogyny, and patriarchy is pretty universal.
But whilst patriarchy may be widespread, we must remember that identical female experiences of it are not. I may be a woman of colour, but I am also cisgender and able-bodied and have been born and educated in a Western country. This context affects the way I apply my feminism, the particular feminist lens through which I view social reality. I still have much to learn from listening to the lived experiences of other women from all walks of life.
Trans women and especially trans women of colour face an epidemic of violence, and the danger to trans women goes up exponentially if they are engaged in sex work, which many of them are [reference]. The danger of violence, abuse and general disrespect to sex workers is an issue the feminist community cannot ignore.
Domestic violence is consistently a topic under feminist attention, but rarely is it discussed that disabled women are twice as likely to experience it.
On International Women’s Day, when we raise our sleeves à laRosie the Riveter and sing about girl power, let us also remember those whom mainstream feminism too-oft forgets about or misunderstands. Women of colour, trans women, sex workers, disabled women. Let us fight for a world where all women are respected, educated, and supported by their communities; where all women have control over their own bodies, whether the body in question be fat, disabled, of colour, or trans, covered or showing skin.
And crucially, we must make sure that we do not use other women, especially non-Western women as examples purely to derail a conversation about another gender-based issue. Non-Western women who still suffer under the effects of the Western colonial legacy and the oft-misguided attempts at Western “liberation” are not there to be used as “gotcha!” cards in conversations about comparing female oppression worldwide, nor should they be infantilised as helpless against the misogyny they may be experiencing in their own communities.
On Women’s Day, we focus on sexism, but as Audre Lorde said “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Gender intersects with so many other elements of reality and this must always, always be taken into account when we think of how best we can support ourselves and all the women in our lives.