Watching a documentary about social issues on TV is an interesting experience. That’s because you get to see the ads as interludes. The discrepancy between the narrative of a film featuring human tragedies and that of a capitalism-driven commercial can be astonishing.
This morning I watched a horrifying documentary about human trafficking on the Nepalese-Indian border. The vast majority of it was women trafficking. At some point, the protagonist of the movie was explaining how, on top of being kidnapped and abused, she also had to face her family’s response to her tragedy.
Her mother was a conservative traditional Nepalese. Once she learned what happened to her daughter, she declared that she must now marry her abuser. Simply because she was involved in sexual intercourse — even if against her will — the societal tradition deemed her to bear responsibility and be faithful to the one who broke her life.
As I felt tears growing in my eyes, the documentary suddenly stopped. It was time for ads. The first one that came up was Monica Bellucci showcasing an anti-ageing cream. Embodying the “mature womanhood” at its best.
The contrast was so striking that my first reaction was: in the West, we don’t need feminism as much as these girls in Nepal do. We really aren’t so doomed if our biggest pain points include how to battle skin ageing or cellulite.
But ARE THEY our biggest pain points really — or is it just what the advertisers try to tell us?
I recently visited a close friend of mine, whom I haven’t seen in a long time. He always had a taste for slightly waspish jokes and I suspected that this hadn’t changed. As he picked me up from the train station, one of the first things he said to me was: “You look like a feminist.” I guess it occurred to him because I’d cut my hair short and put on glasses since he last saw me.
His comment was obviously not meant to be a compliment — and I could feel it straight away. Without engaging with it, I changed the subject. This was our first live interaction in over a year, and I didn’t want it to start with a heated discussion about feminism.
But during the following week I spent at his place, the topic came back. A lot. And as we discussed it, I went from “mildly shocked” to “disturbed” by the arguments that my friend was putting forward to express that he doesn’t think feminism is a valid movement anymore.
For example, his reasoning included a statement that women are rightly paid less than men for doing the same jobs. That’s because it is more likely that they will take maternal leave at some point. It is mere biology that dictates that an average woman will work fewer hours overall than an average man in the same position. And fewer hours obviously should mean a lower salary, right?
Looks like it’s just the woman who should carry the responsibility for childbirth and pay (literally!) for the fact that Mother Nature designed her to be the one carrying, bearing and feeding the offspring.
When I heard him speak about this, I felt agitated — but didn’t know how to respond. You see, my weak point when I find myself in a heated discussion is that even when I know I’m being presented with some bullshit argument, I often struggle to express my disagreement. I get caught up in my emotions and become incapable of showing the other person the flaws of their reasoning.
Maybe it is partially because after all, I am a woman. Maybe I have been trained to stay quiet and agree with the man, who is more likely to be right. But I will say no more, not to create another case for female self-victimisation.
Another argument of this kind came from my own brother. The discussion we had was also about the salary situation of men and women.
As we agreed that the inequality of pays for men and women is indeed a problem, he questioned what the source of that problem was. His bottom line was that maybe the issue is not systemic — but comes from the fact that women are less likely to ask for a rise or better treatment. In other words, he suggested that the responsibility for the problem may be on the side of the women, since they have not adapted themselves to corporate environments in which everybody needs to act tough in order to survive.
At the same time, he mentioned some of his female friends as examples of how women can also use their “appeal and charisma” to get what they want — i.e. better pay or promotion. And while he is my brother, I love him deeply and I never doubted his intelligence — there is something about his attitude that makes my soul rebel on the deepest level.
Why should we agree to live in a world where our salary and professional position are determined by how loud we ask for it? Why should we resort to using “appeal and charisma” — no matter male or female — to manipulate our supervisors into treating us better? Why wouldn’t our professional value be measured by our actual skills and experience, rather than anything else?
Unequal pays are just a fraction of what the feminist movement is concerned with. We didn’t even touch upon deeper problems in the conversations with my friend and brother. One possible reason why it was so hard to talk about it may be that they consider feminism to be an attack on their masculinity. But I didn’t realize they could feel this way while we talked.
If I did, I could have started our conversations by explaining that attacking is not what feminism is about.
The feminist fight for equality may seem unnecessary to those who are too privileged to see certain problems society is facing. That’s understandable — with few exceptions, we all live in some kind of a bubble. Usually just one. And it is very hard to adopt a perspective of somebody who lives outside of our bubble.
This is why women who don’t see themselves as feminists exist, too. They may be those who never had to compete for their work position with men. And those who never had to take an abortion decision. Nor were they subject to sexual harassment or belittlement because of their gender. And so on.
But if we embrace this logic, we may come to the conclusion that the problem of inequality is arbitrary and only applies to some individuals — while not affecting others. We may end up saying things like: “Gender inequality is only a problem in the underdeveloped and traditionalist countries, where women trafficking is still a thing.”
Or: “Feminism should only be regarded with concern to social customs — without interfering in the political and economic matters.”
Or: “In our country, the equity of men and women is guaranteed by law.”
So what that it is guaranteed by law? It is not abstract political agreements that matter. With feminism, we are talking about real experiences of real people. Some of them may be victims of human trafficking. Others are regarded merely as bodies which are not supposed to age — and so they are obliged to buy the cream marketed by Monica Bellucci.
It may seem that there is a profound difference between the first and the second of the above-mentioned groups. The trauma that human trafficking survivors (or non-survivors) experience, permeate their lives to the point when that life could be no more. The women pressured to buy the cream are merely reduced to objects — without this conceptual reduction threatening their very survival or even well-being.
On the individual level, these experiences are, of course, dramatically different. But once you look at the big picture, it’s obvious that they stem from the same cultural root.
The problem of inequality is systemic, rather than a random effect of random events in random people’s lives. And a systemic problem cannot be treated with individualistic solutions, like putting abuse survivors in therapy or telling women to speak up for their rights in the workplace.
A part of that systemic solution needs to be about making everyone aware that we still need feminism in society. Especially in those places where the white male-dominated culture is trying to tell us that the problems feminism is tackling are made up. And that’s not just at the Nepalese-Indian border — but most of the world.