The first time I was ever asked the question, “So, are you a feminist?” was when I was 26 years old.
The mild state of shock, which I entered following it, was induced by the fact that I simply didn’t know what to answer. I had never thought of myself in such terms before. Having viewed myself as a very political person, it was rather embarrassing that I didn’t have a ready-made answer, that I did not have, at that point, a clear and formulated position.
I had been lucky enough to have a very clear perception of an innate equality between the genders, and I knew just as well that in reality this equality was far from being in place, specifically in my native Israel, but also in the world over. I also had the fortune of growing up in what I now know to have been a distinctly feminist household – my father was at times the “stay at home dad”, at least to the extent that my mother fulfilled the more classically gendered role at others. But in contrast to a variety of other political and social categories, which I gladly cast myself into and identified with, I had never thought of myself as a feminist.
Since I was first asked that question, I began a journey towards the understanding of gender inequality, of discrimination, of abuse, of condescension, and of a variety of feminisms in the plural, not just a singular, monolithic feminism. I began noticing patterns of inequality varying from glaringly apparent, violent manifestations, to much more mundane, day-to-day and often cast as benign ones. I understood that the latter often held no less weight than the former in maintaining inequality and discrimination, at times even more, if only because they were trickier to single out, call attention to, and deal with – they were after all, only “small things,” “silly,” “exaggerated.” The reason for my initial confusion as to whether I was a feminist or not, could perhaps be explained by how often feminists, and feminism, were sneered at.
I wasn’t brought into feminism gradually or slowly, I was plunged into the water of the most disconcerting and alarming portrayals of what inequality and gender power-relations meant head-first, and the water seemed freezing at first and took a lot of getting used to. But with time, admittedly not an awful lot of time, which makes sense given the intensity of my exposure to the subject, I began identifying myself as a feminist with no less conviction than I did with other perceptions which I held dear.
I began seeing clearly the cost which gender inequality had, not only for women as a category, but also for me as a man, and for society as a whole. Gender inequality is debilitating to all our society, and to all societies. One only needs to take into consideration the numbers: 52% of humanity, Women, are discriminated against socially, economically, politically, professionally, educationally, sexually; their emotional and physical well-being are always jeopardized, if not altogether abused; their capabilities are deemed “naturally” lesser than those of men, with no grounds whatsoever. Even if we are to think in strictly opportunistic terms, this hardly makes sense, this is humanity making use of much much less than 48% of its potential. And much good it’s done us so far…
All of this is especially true in our region – all of our societies are patriarchal, chauvinist and to an extent traditional – there is of course variety and differences between and within societies, but as a rule gender inequality here is worse than in many other places, where it’s already bad enough to be unbearable. Add to that the political fragility, the conflicts, the lacking human & civil rights, the inadequate education and economic opportunities, and the constant threats to human security. The math, again, is very simple: to create the Middle East & North Africa we dream of – free, equal, prosperous and reinvigorated with hope and opportunities – fighting for gender equality and against gender inequality, for the rights of Women everywhere, is absolutely crucial. There’s no going around it. Each and every one of us, no matter our gender, should proudly see ourselves as a feminist. Gender Equality, it’s been said recently time and time again, is not “a women’s issue”: it’s a social issue related to all of us and our futures. Men should join this fight, with humility, but just as forcefully.
Besides, look where so many centuries, millennia even, of male dominance has gotten us – I think it’s about time we realize that a different order, a different system is due.
Nimrod Ben Zeev