I have never been one to call myself a ‘feminist’. It is a word which frightens me to this day. Strictly speaking though, we are all ‘liberal feminists’, apart from those of us who are sexist, of course. For a feminist does not necessarily have to be from that radical school which advocates a world in which women take over the planet through an army of shaven-headed she-warriors. No. The fact is that anyone who considers men and women to be equal in society are defined by that dreaded eff word.
In this day and age, sexism is not nearly as much of a problem as it once was. Much has happened since our own Emily Davison of Royal Holloway threw herself in front of the king’s horse, acting as martyr to the suffragette movement in 1913. Women are able to vote now. Sexism in the workplace is punishable by law. I have been fortunate enough to receive exactly the same education and opportunities as my brother. This is more than enough for me. For a long time, I would watch some of the more radical feminists on the television and become embarrassed by their emotional outbursts and androgynous appearances. We have equal rights to men now, what more do they want? It was not until really quite recently that my eyes were suddenly opened to the full picture of what women are made to face, without even realising it. Sexism has been ingrained so deeply into society that we women abide by its rules, without even being conscious that we are doing it. Not that I am saying that this is a bad thing.
Being from a mixed race background, I have been exposed to two very different kinds of sexism, and it always gives me a shock when moving from one environment to another. In Western civilisation, women are perceived as ‘things to be looked at’. That is what the top shelf of the magazine rack in the newsagents is all about. But Western sexism is not only made apparent through the sex industry. Even the fashion industry continues to promote restricting styles of clothing draped upon size zero frames. Of course, women are not made to squeeze into corsets as we were in Victorian times so that breathing becomes a difficulty and fainting becomes a norm, but how many times have you stumbled bare-footed back from the Student Union carrying your high heels in your hands because it is more comfortable to step on the gravel than bear the blisters?
It is all very well to complain about the fact that we are expected to wear uncomfortable clothes and face being looked at. But these are things that most women in Western culture have learnt to accept, and even enjoy. Dressing up in ridiculously impractical clothing and colouring in our faces is all part of the fun of being a girl! In fact it is so much fun, that a sizeable proportion of men choose to join in and do the same. The women who thrive in Western civilisation are those who take the sexism imposed upon them and use it to their advantage. That, my friends, is how Katie Price makes her living. The difficulty then comes when you have learnt to thrive on Western sexism, but then are plunged into an environment of Eastern sexism which turns all this on its head.
In the Middle East, efforts are made to protect women against the evils of Western sexism. Women are encouraged to cover their bodies to hide them from the unwanted stares of undesirable men. When I visit my relatives from abroad, I am advised by my family not to wear short sleeves or leggings out of fear of offending my aunts who believe headscarves to be the most appropriate choice of attire.
I know many girls in this country who are encouraged to take up the veil. Some rebel against this, seeing it as a means of control from their parents. They end up living a double life and leave the house looking respectable in their family’s eyes, but under their layers hides a pair of hot pants and a makeup bag. They rebel against what they see as Eastern sexism, only to adhere to the Western form instead.
Sometimes when told to change my clothes before seeing my aunts, I would feel the same way. I would feel angry that I am being made to hide my woman’s body, as if it is something which I should be ashamed about. Why is it that a man is not made to do the same? It was then that I visited the Middle East. I realised that just as Jordan gains her status through ‘flashing’, women from the East enjoy a similar escalation in status through ‘covering’. One of the problems of taking the veil in the West is that it tends to put you into a minority group, evoking a fear of being discriminated against. But in the Middle East, there is no such fear. Rather, my aunts feel that wearing the veil gains them respect, as well as a feeling of general peace, wellbeing and sense of closeness with God.
Of course there will always be leftovers of sexism in society. Whether from the East or the West, women will always have times when we feel hard done by. But much of the time, this can be used to our advantage. Whether haggling a discount through some cheeky feminine charm or demonstrating your respectability by covering and being modest, it is possible for women to thrive by utilising such remnants. It is possible to thrive through sexism.