Feminism

Now as much as ever, feminism is vital

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Twitter is awash with condemnations of Alabama’s new abortion legislation, which has outlawed all terminations – including in the case of rape or incest. Doctors who perform an abortion could receive a 99-year jail sentence.

On the surface, such measures seem to have been met with widespread denouncement, not least as part of a growing trend of restrictive abortion legislation across much of the United States. But it only takes a toe tipped beneath the surface of Twitter to break this illusion. Responses to Jameela Jamil’s tweet, sharing her story of a teenage abortion, were frequently anti-choice in tone. ‘Come one [sic] you killed a life,’ said one. ‘You can ask your dead baby if he/she agrees with your humane decision’ said another.

Certainly, pro-choice Americans are in the majority. Data for Progress recently published statistics indicating the proportion of support for banning abortion across the US; not one state indicated a majority. But in order for such draconian measures to have emerged in recent months – surely spurred on by the election of Donald Trump and his courting of the evangelical right-wing – a powerful minority has been very vocal. The only answer must be that feminism becomes even more so.

Feminists in the West are frequently lambasted. Accusations levelled at feminist campaigners are often based in the same assumptions: third-wave feminism has gone ‘too far’, or feminism (especially in the Western world) is outdated and unnecessary. Katie Hopkins, once prominent for her consistently incendiary remarks on political issues, is not alone in her belief that women don’t want equal rights – ‘they want special treatment’.

But nothing is a more effective testament to the continuing need for feminism than Alabama’s recent abortion ban. Even in the United States, ‘land of the free’ and a nation free from such exclusionary gender laws as, for example, Saudi Arabia, is seeing widespread attacks on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. So to state that feminism is outdated and unnecessary in the twenty-first century is, quite simply, wrong.

Such assumptions are also deeply skewed by a particular world view. While changing abortion law in Alabama and other Bible-belt states is indeed draconian, women’s rights have been and are consistently being breached elsewhere in the world. Closer to home in Northern Ireland, a nineteenth-century law continues to prevent women from exercising their right to abortion under any circumstances, apart from a severe threat to the life or long-term health of the mother.

Elsewhere, feminist and human rights campaigns are seeking basic human rights for women. Only last year was the ban on female drivers lifted in Saudi Arabia; a man can still divorce his wife without her knowledge, and according to the male guardianship system women require permission to even apply for a passport. Meanwhile, the WHO estimate that more than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).

The trope of feminism as ‘too far’ or ‘outdated’ also fails to acknowledge the many ways in which women are degraded and discriminated against that are not so immediately obvious. Amnesty International have reported that one in five UK women have experienced abuse or harassment online, almost half of which was misogynistic in tone and 27% of which threatened sexual or physical assault. Online platforms are also one of the many ways in which gender-based discrimination interacts with race discrimination: Labour MP Dianne Abbott has reported receiving hundreds of racist letters every day as well as threats of rape. 

In response, feminism is adapting: intersectionality is the order of the day, calling on feminists to consider how race, sexuality, gender and all other social identifiers interact. In so doing, feminism is evolving to became even more relevant in the twenty-first century.

Women not in the public eye – or even on social media – also experience gender discrimination in insidious ways. A 2018 report by the Young Women’s Trust confirmed that women continue to endure lower pay than their male counterparts as well as (often unreported) sexual harassment in the workplace. These kinds of practices serve to harm women directly, but also to reinforce existing assumptions about women as less capable or less deserving of top jobs by preventing us from occupying senior roles.

Arguments for feminism as ‘gone too far’ or ‘outdated’ are not only inaccurate but also serve to limit our view of gender-based discrimination. No one can deny that women are breaking class ceilings now more than ever. But to assume that feminism is outdated because sexism and misogyny are not immediately visible undermines the very real breaches of women’s rights the world over. Sexism hasn’t gone away, though in many cases it has moved below the surface. The only answer can be to root it out more ferociously than ever before – regardless of geographical or political distinctions. Alabama’s insistence on forcing women’s rights back forty years ought to open the eyes of those still resistant to the feminist cause.

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