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Misconception Corrections: 1) Feminism Is Not… Degrading | Self-Victimisation | Redundant

While Feminism never disappeared from the collective consciousness, its manifestation has ebbed and flowed in four unique waves. Each wave served an absolutely vital purpose in improving life for women by advocating for social, economic, political and cultural equality.

Feminism in its earliest form rose from the dormant embers of 1900 years of inequality and oppression. Women’s social duties and responsibilities were not treated as equal to those of men: they worked longer hours for smaller wages, held no agency for those meagre earnings and were denied self-ownership because they were represented by their husbands and fathers. Its pioneers, the Suffragettes, challenged patriarchal power as it was, in this way, institutionalised in law and government. University professor and author of several essays on American culture, feminism and gender politics, Christine Stansell, once poignantly expressed the complex circumstance of early feminism.

Such challenges do not arise simply from a collective sense of sisterhood; they do not grow automatically from women’s everyday relations with each other. They involve a conscious organisation, collective changes in consciousness, and a shared set of ideas about the nature of power and how to seize it.”

They had no other choice: either they do something or forever be owned by, and inferior to, men, subject to laws they had no part in making or enforcing. In the utter absence of power, women banded together to develop strategies for change and advancement, with a focus on obtaining the right to vote. To do this required action above and beyond themselves, those men and those employers: they had to change the policy that upheld legislated inequality.

Emboldened by their dissatisfaction with their societal position, women – mothers, wives, workers and scholars – launched peaceful demonstrations and political protests for equal pay, self-ownership and voting rights. Their messages fell on deaf ears, and their punishment into hands desperately clinging to their privileged position. Suffragettes were beaten during protests, fired by their bosses, abused by their disapproving husbands and estranged from their children, for whom men were the sole legal custodians. They garnered negative publicity by staging happenings of public nuisance, ignoring the laws that ignored them, and were subsequently imprisoned in endless attempts to silence them.

Their battle was eventually won, but at great cost and with great sacrifice: women lost their families, jobs, freedom and even lives in the fight for these fundamental rights.

Just because we now enjoy social, economic and political equality does not mean that the driving purpose of feminism is redundant, nor its principles stuck in those decades in which women were victims of patriarchal mistreatment.

Feminism is Not Degrading | Self-Victimisation

Referring to the plight of the Suffragettes is a way of contextualising the social, economic and political rights that we now take for granted. The fight for equal rights was a war, and holding those who fought the battle – or suffered oppression before it was won – in living memory shouldn’t be frowned upon. Feminism does not decree that without it, you wouldn’t be able to get a job, it embodies the beliefs, actions and sacrifices made by others before you which are the reason that you can get a job. Feminism is not about what a disadvantage it is to be a woman: it is about leaving all remnants of disadvantage behind and addressing areas of society in which this progress – whether due to bureaucratic complexity, corrupt management or lacking information/education – lags.

Feminism is Not Redundant

Aside from the fact that there are still countries in which women are equally as oppressed – or worse so – as the Suffragettes, there are many reasons why Feminism is still a positive, relevant and important movement.

I’d like to put this into perspective, but I have long struggled to express my frustration with the ‘women are equal now, get over it’ logic (with which I believe many of the video’s stars are familiar). Lost for words, I turned to more primal communicative tools: a black Biro, some coloured felt pens and a piece of paper:

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To say that, in less than one-twentieth of the time in recorded history, almost 2000 years of oppression can be resolved and forgotten, seems preposterously ignorant of the bigger picture here. Can colonising races, having destroyed the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people of their acquired lands in a mere fraction of their existence, declare the score even by outlawing racial discrimination and granting rights to the formerly persecuted some decades ago? No. The score is not even: the colonised and the colonising are not born on equal footing. Resolution to any degree requires a doctrine of equity rather than equality, whereby consideration of the significant, continuing financial, cultural, social and ethical difficulties faced by disenfranchised indigenous people.

In a similar way, thousands of years of inequality have left remnants in our social and cultural consciousnesses which perpetuate the values of patriarchy. They are so deeply entrenched in our society and collective psyche that we are often not aware of their operating in our homes, workplaces, governments and everyday interactions. The biological designation of child-bearing to women continues to hinder their career trajectory due to management strategies in the recruitment and return to work stages, and parental leave legislation sustains a salary (and superannuation) gap which undermines the tenet of equal-pay-for-equal-work policy to which many cling as a comprehensive solution. And, though targets are being ardently worked towards by our businesses and governments, women remain largely unrepresented in management and policy-making positions.

This is the purpose of contemporary feminism: addressing and removing those remnants of inequality that imply women should be a certain way, do certain things, choose a certain lifestyle and limit us by doing so. Women, as well as men, should be, do and choose of their own will. But for their choices to be made free of these inhibiting stigmas, as are those of men, there is much still to be changed, and much to be understood.

The Gaze

Beauty is sometimes said to be a curse – I don’t believe that: beauty in this world is a social, economic and physical advantage. Indeed, there are times and places to enjoy being the target of desirous attention. There have been times of drought when a lingering stare or earnest compliment from a friend or passer-by has made my day. But there are also times and places when they irritate, unnerve and upset me: times when I don’t want to be looked at, fantasised about or antagonised by random strangers.  In this way, feminine beauty is more a double-edged sword: my breasts, bum, legs and any skin bared can feel like biological Hi Vis gear and collar bells robbing me of private and undetected passage in public spaces.

This is not to say that the Male Gaze is inherently malicious or intentionally offensive – it is natural for human eyes to seek attributes in the physicality of those around us to generate sexual attraction. Males and females alike find their eyes drawn automatically to bare skin and body parts associated with sex, and neither I nor feminist ideology, I proffer, take issue with biological truths and the behaviours in which they manifest. But there exist key biological and socio-cultural truths that problematise the female experience in today’s public spaces due to the Male Gaze: our generally inferior size and strength which can make us feel (accurately or not) vulnerable, and the statistically irrefutable implications that it has on our safety in public which we are loath to ignore.

The Male Gaze can make public space perilous for women because of the generally heightened intensity of flirting, the blatantly sexual nature of attention often received at bars and clubs and antagonistic behaviour that sometimes results from politely ignoring, firmly declining or outright rejecting it.

On a recent trip to Bali, my sister and I donned our ‘kinis and beach kits to hit Potato Head, one of Seminyak’s most popular clubs, for sunset cocktails. We had no misconceptions about the type of people we might meet at night clubs in Bali, so we were wholeheartedly unsurprised to see trios of Brits Abroad (identifiable by their vibrant, salmon-coloured skin), 18-year-old squads in cheeky shorts and Cons, and least of all, Australian bucks parties, boistering sloppily at the swim-up bar. After making brief eye contact, our expressions coloured with hesitance and disdain, we took a deep breath, squared our shoulders and sat at the pool’s edge with our feet in the water. We smiled – the sky was a soft, pastel peach, the music was popping, waves were crashing in on the beach beyond the club’s sprawling day beds as the sun set in the distance.

As we settled in, our skin prickled with droplets of sweat in the humid 5 o’clock sunlight. We decided to take a dip. No sooner had we stood and raised our hands to remove our shirts than did we notice the muttering, glassy-eyed gangs of drunk men moving towards us, looking us up and down. We exchanged a glance – nope, shirt’s good. As I re-took my seat, burnt ochre-coloured alpha-Geordie edged over and bellowed, I thor’ you wa gonna tehk I’ off, swee’heart? Cum on luv! TEHK – I’ – OFF! TEHK – I’ – OFF!

Some of the Australian yobs that happened to be co-mingling with the chavvy Bucks from Newcastle joined in on this detestable chant as we stood, frozen in horror. Not wishing to be sour and accepting the drunken sleaziness of Bali clubs in general, we laughed it off and continued to talk amongst ourselves and with the chanters and their friends who elected to occupy our immediate area of the poolside in great numbers. This was fine – meeting new people and socialising is part of going out. What tarnished and eventually ruined our experience was the incessant, obnoxious and inappropriate behaviour some of them showed.

Are you girls single? Are youse sisters? You look heaps alike, are youse twins? Can I buy you a drink? Where are you staying? What are you doing tonight? Who are you with? Got boyfriends? Are you gonna finally take that top off and get in the pool, love? I felt slightly discomforted by the eight sets of eyes hungrily looking my sister and me up and down, over and over, and was tiring from the energy exerted in avoiding further advances – no, I don’t feel like a swim, no, thankyou, I don’t need a drink, thanks but we are just doing our own thing tonight, no, I am leaving my shirt on. I felt uncomfortable and irritated when our polite but firm refusals began to be met with antagonistic and rude comments. Not havin’ a good day, luv? Come on and just get in the pool luv, I won’t bite! Aw, this lass don’t like me, too good for me ey? One of them had three strikes before he was out for fondling my feet in the water and tugging at my leg to lead me into the pool, and the final straw was his assertion that his plan for tonight was to fuck hot chicks and asked if I would like to be a part of that plan.

Ferk this. We got up, fished our scarves from our backpacks and draped them loosely over our torsos like makeshift Burqas and made for the beach. On our towels we took refuge from the Gaze and launched into astonished recounting of our time at the pool.

The behaviour of these men, though perhaps not ubiquitous, exemplifies perfectly the cause of negative experiences of the Male Gaze which taint public space for women of today. It occurs to me that while in the past I have looked at Muslim women wearing their Hijabs and Burqas and thought how uncomfortable, hot and restrictive they must be, they probably look at me in skirts and singlets and think how objectified and harassed by the male attention I must be.

I HATE this behaviour; it features in many of my top 10 worst experiences ever in one way or another. While we can not necessarily expect privacy in public spaces, we deserve respect of our ownership of our bodies, and what is owned is private property. There are boundaries which should never be crossed unsolicited, and this behaviour turns harmless visual admiration into obnoxious, invasive harassment. The feeling of being visually feasted on, persistently approached and propositioned is awful, worse still when you’re not prepared or in the mood for it. This behaviour objectifies women, treating us as objects of desire existing to be looked at and fantasised about while in public. It disrupts, however briefly, my confidence and sociability, and I am ready for a change.

When we go for an afternoon run, walk home from work at dusk or interact with flirtatious strangers ogling us in bars, gyms, shops or streets, we have this in the back of our minds: 17% of women in Australia have been sexually assaultedwomen make up 83% of sexual assault victims in Australia and 58% of kidnap or abduction victims, and 3.8% of all Australian women have been sexually assaulted by a stranger, more than double the 1.6% of men. These morbid truths, I believe, are often miscommunicated and misunderstood: our hesitance or refusal to engage with men in public can be read as an unnecessarily phobic distrust of all men as perpetrators of violent crime. Feminism suffers the same misunderstanding for its encouragement of assertiveness and empowerment for women, particularly victims of assault. But the truth is, we would be naïve or ignorant not to acknowledge our instincts for self-protection, and our experience of public spaces would comprise less angst, discomfort and irritation if the Gaze was executed with greater restraint and empathy.

Ogle subtly if you must, not obnoxiously. Flirt politely, not aggressively. Compliment kindly, not perversely. Proposition once, not persistently. Take no for an answer, not for an insult. Read body language and back off when it’s closed. Meet refusal with respect, not antagonism. Touch solicitously, not unsolicited. And never, EVER, initiate chants for clothing removal. With a little decorum, we might someday enjoy an unperturbed sense of safety and privacy in public.