This weekend, we witnessed something extraordinary: millions of people came together across the seven continents to demand a fairer world. It was profoundly moving and powerful. As I listened to speakers at the different marches with tears streaming down my face and a large lump in my throat, I found myself reflecting on my own journey to the women's movement.
Feminism is life changing. The pursuit of sex equality has transformed, transforms, and will continue to transform the lives of women and men the world over. I am a proud feminist, but this certainly was not always the case; my life was irrevocably changed the day I was raped. Not because of the trauma of the incident, but because of the journey it took me on to understanding the aims of feminism and feminist cultures, the importance of listening to different women's lived experiences, and why feminism remains so necessary in the world.
As a younger woman, I often dismissed feminist readings of pretty much everything, from the texts I studied as an undergraduate through to politics. I would refuse to engage in classes which focussed on 'Women's Literature' because I saw them as giving women unnecessary special treatment, I didn't bat an eyelid when an ex-partner of mine told me that he could never be with a woman who earned more than him, and I dismissed those who spoke of issues such as the gender pay gap; it was all a fuss over nothing as far as I was concerned: women had equality, I could do anything I wanted with my life and did not feel remotely disadvantaged, so why couldn't every other woman out there? (I imagine I probably sounded something like this Sky News video - my privilege leading me to selfishly and naively believe that because I thought myself the equal of any man it meant that all women were.)
Being raped changed that. The rape itself was a horrible act of violence, but it was the response of authority figures and people in whom I confided that really led me to doubt everything I had thought to be true. The aftermath of the incident showed me the reality of rape culture in UK society: being believed, and being taken seriously, was nigh impossible. It also highlighted the prevalence of internalised misogyny in the people around me (looking for things I did wrong was common), drew my attention to the harrowing pervasiveness of sex-based violence (approximately 85,000 women in England and Wales are raped each year) and led me to confront glaring injustices (of these many cases of sexual assault, only 15% are reported to the police, and then only 5.7% of reported cases end in a conviction for the perpetrator: this is far lower that other crimes). In short, it forced me to re-examine the notion of patriarchy.
I am sad that it took my worldview being upended in such a brutal way for me to have my eyes opened to the needs and experiences of millions of women from across the planet, needs and experiences that they have been talking about for years, had only I opted to listen instead of shutting them out to nurse own narrow, misogynistic, white perceptions. It had been a true reflection of privilege to think that I didn't need feminism.
My rape opened the floodgates to a never-ending educational experience. Feminist friends, articles and ideas were the only things that helped me make sense of what was happening to me. Learning about feminist cultures, from diverse feminists, answered questions I've long asked myself, and led me to ask more questions: Why is being able to take maternity leave a privilege and not common practice? How do we better represent majority ethnic women in mainstream media? How do we combat harmful racial and sexual stereotypes? Feminist thought quickly began to absorb most of my free time, and then became an integral and subconscious part of my way of thinking; feminism gave me a clearer lens through which to understand the world.
The feminists I've come into contact with, both online and offline, have challenged my thinking. They have encouraged me to ask more of myself and of the world we live in, and to continually seek out a plurality of voices and opinions with which to educate myself. I have much to learn from them and hope to do so throughout my life. These women and men have pushed me to think critically, to support other women, to continuously reflect on good allyship, to be active in my engagement, to understand that women's rights are precious, and precarious, and that we should never give up on them.
Feminism gives me reason to be hopeful: though the challenges of dismantling patriarchy are many, there is a fairer society to strive for, and there are changes that we can all make to get there. If you doubt this, I would encourage you to give Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a listen.
Feminism permeates everything in my life, from my professional goals to my personal relationships. Its power is transformative; changing the way you think is life-changing, and feminism is a life-long experience. I just wish I had come to the women's movement sooner.
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