I have a confession to make. I used to be afraid of feminists. Strange, right? Considering that I identify as one and that a large percentage of my work and social media postings pertain to women’s issues and the fight for equality. How could I ever be afraid of what I have become? The journey to this identity I feel is an important story to share considering what I have been faced with lately, with the constant transformation of this title and the realization that it is never totally safe to call yourself a feminist.
I was always afraid of offending people by not knowing enough or not being able to defend my thoughts and feelings around the often confusing labels and definitions that go along with each wave of feminism. Over time, I learned to find my voice, and just like spirituality, I learned to live my own truth as a woman, and a feminist.
Recently a youth, introduced me to the phrase, “White feminist.” I cringed at the title because I had been taught that equality is intersectional (intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination) and labels that segregate by race are wrong and not within my moral spectrum. (Wiki)
I will admit, I am a bit of a Pollyanna, a person who always wants to look to the bright side of life and just wishes that everyone would get along, and I never really saw myself as someone who viewed life through a race-coloured lens. For example, when I meet someone my first thought is never, “Nice to meet you Kim, you are Chinese.” It was just the way I was brought up, having been exposed through my mother’s work to people from many cultures who explained their different life perspectives as we shared dinner at our kitchen table.
But maybe to be a true intersectional feminist, I did need to put on a coloured lens, just not the coloured lens that was defined to me in childhood.
After my meeting with the youth I went home and researched White Feminism. I listened to women of different cultural backgrounds talking about what White Feminism meant to them. As I listened to these women, I began to see a different perspective of what this term meant.
I always tell youth that it is important in life to create a safe space for people to admit that they “don’t know” something and that they “want” to learn. That, in my opinion, is an important step in how we begin to break down fear and begin to change the world.
As defined in the urban dictionary, White Feminism is: A brand of feminism centered around the ideals and struggles of primarily white women. While not outright exclusive, its failure to consider other women and its preoccupation with Western standards and the problems faced by the “average woman” is often alienating to women of color, non-straight women, trans women, and women belonging to religious or cultural minorities. For Example:
“Muslim women shouldn’t be allowed to wear hijabs or burqas because they are oppressive.”
“That sounds like white feminism. Many Muslim women wear them of their own free will.” (Urban Dictionary)
This was at the forefront of my mind the next day when I was attending a diversity conference. The keynote speaker was Zarqa Narwa. Zarqa is a comedic writer, and in 2005 she created the ground breaking documentary, Me & The Mosque for the National Film Board. It was a film about Muslim Womens’ battle with patriarchy in the Mosque that ultimately inspired the television series Little Mosque on the Prairie.
Little Mosque on the Prairie was the world’s first sitcom about a Muslim Community living in Canada’s West. It had record ratings and it finished airing its 91st episode in 2012 after completing sixseasons, and is now being broadcast over 60 countries.
The show demystified Islam for millions of people around the world by explaining how practicing Muslims lived their lives from dating, to marriage, to burying their dead. (Zarqa Narwa Bio)
When I sat down with Zarqa I mentioned a little bit about my conversation with the youth around White Feminism. I wanted to get her opinion on the topic and how she identified as a feminist. Here is our conversation:
I love that you identified as a feminist when you were giving your keynote presentation. How do you define yourself as a feminist within your work? You are very passionate and you talk about a lot of issues with your own religion, culture and experiences in life. How do you take that message and inspire others?
For me I define feminism as social justice for everyone, both men and women. I feel as a woman I have to work within my community and outside of my community. I believe the circle of oppression for women is everywhere. Some people will say, “Oh, it’s just Muslim women that are oppressed,” but we need to turn around and deconstruct that and ask, “Why do you say that? Do you not think that the problems of patriarchy and misogyny also exist in the west?”
We see it in different forms. You have to go example by example. The example I always give is whenever I tell people that FGM (Female Genital Mutilation)[is there something missing here?]. It is a central African problem. It is not a Christian problem or a Muslim problem; it’s a problem of culture that has to be rectified because it causes great injustice towards women. But, we also have Labiaplasty on the rise. It is one of the fastest growing new plastic surgery procedures in the West, by Western women.
It’s a huge problem and that problem comes from the pornification of Western society and the incredible sexualisation of women’s bodies. So you can have one culture that covers up women too much and then you can have another culture that uncovers them too much. Both cultures objectify women in different ways but they end up with the same type of problem. Women are seen as objects, women see themselves as objects, objects that need to be fixed for male consumption. So it exists in our society here and it exists in societies abroad.
We all have to work as women together to help women of all cultures, all religions, and all races. Otherwise what’s happening is we are focusing on one culture exclusively. The Western culture, I feel, is suffering because we haven’t focused enough energy, time, money, education, towards bring out those problems and as a result of that you see that Labiaplasty are astronomically increasing in the West and soon will beat out breast implants as the number one plastic surgery women choose.
I always hear, “women in African countries are being forced to do it against their will,” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s true but women here also do not make cultural choices in a vacuum and are also influenced by the social factors around them. In fact, it might even be worse because she believes in her mind she is deformed and she voluntarily makes the choice of having the surgery. It is a big problem because at least in Africa you can change laws and you can criminalize that behaviour and that practice, but here a woman can make that free choice. She has the right to visit her gynaecologist and those insidious cultural influences that are affecting her are more difficult to eradicate because it is part of our social media and our culture and more challenging to me, in fact, to eradicate.
Soon, what we are going to be seeing, is that Western culture will be the only culture where we cut both sexual organs, breasts and Labia. What does that say about our culture and how we value women? It’s a problem and I think we need to stop looking, “OVER THERE” and those “OTHER” people who oppress women and look at all us, together, as a whole and say, “We all, as women, have to acknowledge that there is misogyny, patriarchy, everywhere, in all countries regardless of race, religion, creed, orientation. Deal with it as a collective whole.
Otherwise, we have black holes in our experience. People are surprised when I tell them about these stats; they are really shocked because we are looking at the other cultures and saying, “They’re bad over there but over here everything is fine, and it’s not fine. We have problems with domestic violence and abuse, murders; we have thousands and thousands of Aboriginal women who have been killed, why is that? What is happening to our culture?
If you talk to any female professor at any university in Canada, they will tell you how afraid they are to be in certain places on campus. She will tell you what men say about her in evaluations forms. Why is there such anger towards female professors in Universities by, in theory, some of the most enlightened men in our country? It’s a huge problem. It’s something we need to talk about and recognize in ourselves.
I really loved what the man who was sitting next to you said and how honest he was in sharing his thoughts about the things he was hearing. He had incredible life experience but it still bothered him, and made him angry to hear about how normalized violence and racism is, especially in the lives of women. What do you think about what has happened these past two years, 2014/15, with, for example, the Jian Gomeshi scandal and the birth of the hashtag #beenrapednotreported? How is it important to bring men into this conversation?
I think that we for sure need to bring men into the conversation. I think men are also feminists, they support us and they are allies. They want to work with us, they want to understand what the root causes are to these problems. They can also raise boys and girls to be empowered individuals that respect each other and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think we can solve these problems unless both men and women work together in tangent. Men want things to change and have female partners, sisters, daughters, friends, who they want to see live in a better world. They want to be a part of that world.
We have to recognize they are helping us and not demonize them and say they are the problem. Yes, some men are of course part of the problem, but so are some women. We have to acknowledge everyone and work together.