OP-ED: Thoughts of a Proud Feminazi

It would be the understatement of the century to say feminism has a terribly negative connotation in general; in Liberia, feminism has an even worse rap. The extreme negative reaction Liberians have to the word baffles me.

In other parts of the world, mainly in the West, there are courses taught on feminism and people are now opportune to major in women’s studies with an emphasis on feminism. This enables feminism to be discussed more openly with significantly less stigma attached to the word.

That’s not to say there isn’t any stigma whatsoever, because there is. But even this minute level of acceptance is not seen in Liberia, and it’s still unfathomable why so many Liberians feel personally attacked when they hear the word ‘feminism.’

Feminist movements in the U.S. have influenced major institutional changes such as giving women the right to vote, minimizing gender discrimination, and even contributing greatly to the civil rights movement.

In Liberia, the movement started by women to bring about peace was an act of feminism. These were women from all backgrounds coming together to promote peaceful initiatives in Liberia.

Recently, the unprecedented move that led to the amendment of rape law from rape as a non-bailable to bailable crime prompted a feminist protest in Liberia. A team of young activists, mainly young women, protested the amendment with placards having phrases like, “Change the system, Leave the law,” “No cash for rape,” etc. This protest against the government was an act of feminism.”

Women protest the amendment to the rape law. Photo: Gbatemah Senah

Clearly feminist acts have been at the forefront of the solutions of some of Liberia’s monumental issues, so why is there still such a bad taste associated with the word ‘feminism’ in Liberia? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

Our world has yet to start treating women as equals to men. It is a fact that up to 70 percent of women worldwide encounter violence and one in three will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her life. When a woman is raped or sexually abused, the questions that almost always come up are “what were you wearing?” or “Did you lead him on?” Questions along this line are symptomatic of the belief that women are less entitled to basic rights than men and that men are never to be held accountable for their actions.

I was getting to know someone recently and dropped the “I am a feminist” bomb to describe myself. After he sighed, I could feel him rolling his eyes on the phone and then he asked, “Why do you hate men?”

I thought he was joking at first but he was dead serious. To him, feminism means loving women and hating men, hence, it’s called ‘feminism’ and not ‘equality’ or ‘meninism.’ Suffice to say, I was shocked to hear this come from an educated man.

He is a black man so I asked him if he believed in Black Lives Matter and he said yes. I asked him if he thought saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ somehow negates the fact that all lives matter, and he, of course, said no. Then, I opened a Webster dictionary and defined for him feminism, which is simply “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”

Another definition of feminism I love is the one given by British suffragist Rebecca West:  “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” – people like men. Ergo, women are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as men are. It doesn’t mean I hate men. It doesn’t mean I hate bras. Well, I do hate bras, but my point is, it’s not a prerequisite to being a feminist. I know quite a few bra-loving feminists. But, I digress.

After that was done, I do what I usually do when I’m trying to open an African’s mind about feminism: I sicced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on him. I shared with him her TedTalk Video “We should all be Feminists” and I love doing this.

With the exception of the fact that she expresses the views of most feminists quite eloquently, I love doing this because she’s African. West African, even, like me. I’m always accused of having been corrupted by too many Western ideals that are “contradictory to my culture” so you can imagine that using a Caucasian, Hispanic, or Asian person to buttress my point would be counterproductive. So, thank the universe for the gem that is Madam Chimamanda.

Now, that rhetoric that African people go on about our “culture” is, to me, the laziest and most bullshit excuse ever. We reference culture when we have no actual reason for our stance on an issue and that is the easiest cop-out. I’ve experienced the ‘culture cop out’ in so many situations. For example, people say, “I don’t support gay rights because it’s against my culture” or “I’m anti-abortion because it’s against my culture.”

It is about time that we put to bed the feeble excuse of culture. Culture is a social construct which changes and evolves with time. People conveniently tend to forget that culture is created by people and therefore, culture can be changed and influenced by the same people.

Liberians’ tendency of defending their stance on an issue by referencing culture is frankly lazy. The example I always use here is slavery. Slavery was once an accepted international culture and that was changed, so I’m pretty sure your ‘culture’ of not supporting and respecting women can be changed. Just find a better excuse for being so adamantly against it.

Moreover, before the suffrage movement in the U.S., American women were not allowed the right to vote. It was culturally accepted for women to be second-class citizens. If the suffrage movement had not persisted, the patriarchal aspect of American culture would not have been hit as hard as it was.

As a mechanical engineer, I work in a male-dominated environment. At my current job, I usually have to tell men twice my size and age what to do. As you can imagine, that doesn’t usually go down well.

For African men, the idea that a woman should give them orders rarely goes down well. I am their boss so they can’t cuss me out or anything but the subtle insubordination I get, you can’t even imagine. For example, a subordinate of mine walked into a conference room where I was sitting with a male colleague and greeted my colleague and not me. I tell a subordinate what to do and he defers to my male colleague to double check my instructions. And this isn’t an isolated issue that just happens to me – it’s in all levels of society. The saying “the higher you go, the fewer women you see” is so sad but so so true and stems from the same mentality: “Women are not meant to boss men.”

But, in order to tackle sexism and smash patriarchy, we must look at our society. A friend of mine once said to me, “Women can’t afford to be feminists in Liberia, we simply can’t afford it.” She meant that in the literal sense; she believes we don’t have the financial stability to afford feminism – to afford to be economically independent of men.

Sadly, I see her point. At birth, a woman’s place is predetermined in Liberia. At some point in her life, she is expected to become a homely and reserved wife and mother and it’s seen as a failure on her part if she doesn’t.

A woman above age 30 and unmarried and without children is seen as an unfulfilled woman, regardless of her achievements in other aspects of her life. It doesn’t matter that she might not even want a husband or a child because, why should her wants matter in her own life? Now, the day-to-day raising of children is automatically the woman’s responsibility. It’s never even a question as to who is going to quit their job to raise the kids; it’s automatically the woman’s role. How is she supposed to be independent of her husband without a job?

At birth, a woman is envisioned to be barefoot, pregnant, and tied to the stove, and as such, it is not deemed important to educate her. How can an uneducated or partially educated woman afford to be economically independent of men?

Our very culture paralyzes women and crushes our aspirations. Not only are Liberian women taught to be dependent on men, we are crippled by being inadequately equipped with the means to become independent.

A woman above age 30 and unmarried and without children is seen as an unfulfilled woman. Photo: Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Let’s take a look at the traditional Sande society some of our girls are made to join while growing up. On a drive through Bomi a few days back, there were a group of girls in their white costumes dancing down the road. They were apparently celebrating their graduation from the society. A guy looking at them commented, “Poor girls, all they now know is how to keep a home (cook and clean, etc.) and how their pleasure is secondary to a man given their lack of a damn clitoris.”

Yes, Female Genital Mutilation is also a rite of passage for the girls in the Sande society. Research shows almost half of Liberian women and girls are subjected to FGM. Consequently, measures taken to ban FGM in Liberia have proven futile.

While I’m sure there are many lovely aspects of the Sande society, including the spirit of togetherness and the strength of women working towards a common goal, the part of the society where young, impressionable girls are taught to bow to boys and men is the part I am firmly against. The part where women’s right to their own sexual pleasure is taken away without having them even understand what they’re giving up incites screams of frustration on their behalf. The part where their clitoris and labia are cut in such an medically harmful way that it sometimes leads to death by bleeding incites raging frustration and resentment.

This is what females in Liberia are faced with. The odds are stacked so high against us that it sometimes seems and feels insurmountable. However, the mere fact that females have to fight in order to be provided with the rights we’re entitled to from birth is the reason why feminism is needed in our culture. This is why we can’t stay silent and cave in, even when we are looked at as mad extremists when we proclaim we are feminists. In fact, those are the times when we ought to fly our feminist banners even higher.

Female feminism in Liberia is really intriguing, though. An acquaintance once said, “Liberian female feminists are a joke. They spout equality and all that but still will not pay for their own food at restaurants because they believe it’s the man’s job.”

Now, how do you counter that? Obviously, there’s the glaring fact that he’s generalizing and it’s not all of us, but it is arguably the majority. It all boils down to culture again, ay? It’s been the culture that the men pay on dates. This is even if the woman can afford it more than the man at that moment, she might still believe that the man should pay.

This patriarchal culture obligates men to feel the need to cover the expense of a date and that they are somehow less of a man if they don’t. This reasoning seems very hypocritical. How can one say that they’re a fighter for equal rights and responsibilities for both genders but a man is still obligated to feed them?

When a person asks me if I cook well simply because I’m female, I always ask them which part of their biology classes taught them about the cooking gene women are born with. Now, I ask women who believe that men are obligated to spend money on them, which part of your biology classes did you learn about the spending gene men are born with?

My Liberian women, by calling yourself a feminist and still believing in this antiquated thinking that men are responsible for providing food money, how can you argue when said man says you’re obligated to provide him with cooked meals and to simply ask “how high?” when he says “jump”?

Aren’t you just contributing to the patriarchal culture we’re fighting to demolish?

Feminism epitomizes equality, not “equality, only when it suits the woman.” If you are a woman and you call yourself a feminist, it would be my thinking that you ought to fight for equality in all senses. That includes equality in paying for your own meals if you can and without expectations that the man is responsible for your meal. If you think a man is obligated to pay for your bill, you are a hypocrite. As Smith put very succinctly, “any feminist who doesn’t account for all aspects of feminism is not a feminist at all”.

Here’s the thing though, I will still allow a man to buy me drinks or take me out to dinner and pay, if I’m interested. However, I absolutely do not believe that a man is obligated to do any of those for me and it doesn’t add or subtract from your dating score.

Whether or not a female feminist should feel impressed or insulted when a man offers to cover the bill is dependent on that woman, in my opinion. This isn’t a cult so there aren’t blanket rules on how you should feel about certain things; to each her own.

Personally, a man throwing his money around is actually a turnoff for me but that’s another digression. I have paid on dates and I haven’t. The only distinction here for me is the fact that I don’t feel like it’s owed to me and I don’t feel like it’s a man’s responsibility. The same way I don’t feel like it’s a woman’s responsibility to like cooking and know how to. If she happens to like it, fine. If he happens to pay, fine. Neither of them have any obligations to perform those actions.

I recently came across an article in a Catholic publication that discussed the barrier that religion poses to feminism today. While I’m more of a spiritual person than a religious one – God (who in my head is neither male nor female), peace, serenity and the Dalai Lama are my religious starpoints – I was intrigued.

I sincerely believe most of the issues we face in this world are a result of organized religion, i.e. man’s interpretation of God’s teachings.

The author believed that religion was hindering feminism and pointed out the fact that U.S. bishops opposed the Affordable Care Act because of the quintessentially “women’s issue” of access to family planning: “Would anyone deny that the ‘politics of religion’ influenced this struggle?”

An opinion piece in the Guardian took a more radical approach: “religion means one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”

She pointed out that God is almost always male and that most teachings say that women are “unclean” during her menses. To put it shortly, she said, “The patriarchal values that religion instills, has led to the murders of countless women. It’s in the name of religion that girls are denied an education; in the name of religion that more than half a million women die every year because they cannot access safe abortions; in the name of religion that AIDS continues its unrelenting progress across Africa, and in the name of religion that women throughout the world remain subjugated, impoverished and denied individual agency.”  Needless to say, she is not a fan of religion.

I find myself midway between these two women. I believe that human’s interpretation of religion is the hindrance to feminism and that’s what the issue is. Holy books are not straightforward at the very least, which is why countless people dedicate their lives to deciphering and understanding them. So forgive me if I don’t believe that God literally meant I should bow to a man’s every whim.

It is a fact that the Roman Catholic church bans female priests and the ones that exist are in danger of being excommunicated. In Islam, females can only lead prayers (serve as imams) when there is no man present; the prayers of men praying in a female-led prayer are considered invalid. There have been some strides made in females becoming rabbis but it is still nowhere near being considered “normal.”

A friend of mine succinctly put it like this when I asked what he thought about the idea that religion is a hindrance to feminism: “Take Christianity for example, when the first story states that a woman has come from the rib of a man and not from the same dirt, problems with equality should be expected to arise, and has arisen, for the next 5,000 years.”

I strongly believe that so many of the issues women face today are rooted in not so much the concept of religion, but how people choose to interpret and understand what’s written in holy books.

Photo by Cameron Zohoori.

Some might argue that the varying goals of feminism cause discord rather than unification. A friend said to me: “Beyonce’s version of feminism differs from Taylor Swift’s. Sheryl Sandberg wants respect in the boardroom, a woman of color just wants basic respect.”

I don’t believe that these are opposing goals, I just think some are more myopic than others. As a black woman working in the corporate world, I want both basic respect and respect in the boardroom. To quote Judith Warner, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author, “Feminism should focus on structural problems and not individual maladaptation. Women need to find experiences that unite them without forgetting the differences of class, race, education, and empowerment that set them apart.”

For me, identifying with feminism is a source of pride. I have a reputation for being the one who always points out sexist comments and actions among my friends and I relish it. I’ve been called a Feminazi on many occasions and it just makes the fire burn brighter in my belly. I am on a mission to purge the world of its unfavorable views on feminism and, to quote Ms. Chimamanda, show them why we – both men and women – should all be feminists.

Shari Raji

Shari Raji is a mechanical engineer with a passion for writing. She is also a social justice advocate so she is constantly fighting the good fight of attaining equal opportunities and rights for all irrespective of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc.

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