On Battling the Patriarchy (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism and Gender)

(This piece first appeared as part of a weekly column for The Sunday Morning)

As someone who identifies as a feminist, I often find myself in conversations that ask me questions about my own ideals and how I believe them to be feminist. Feminism is often treated like a religion – you can be asked to defend ideals and interpretations of others just by valuing the fact that you subscribe to the same label.

We must remember that it is not a one-size-fits-all concept and it is not for everyone. We all don’t have to agree, and indeed, difference in opinion should be celebrated. For me, being a feminist is about giving everyone the choice to choose what they want to be and what they believe. For me, it is about battling a patriarchal system that affects us all – no matter what gender or sex we identify as.

People get very defensive when the word “patriarchy” is brought up, perhaps because, in the age of feminism, people are confused if a patriarchy should even exist. So it’s easier for them to ignore the whole concept. It’s wrong to believe that feminism and patriarchy are mutually exclusive; they can and do survive hand in hand. Each concept is genderless, so there’s no reason one cancels out the other.

You don’t have to be a woman to be feminist; conversely, you don’t have to be a man to favour a patriarchal society. You can have men who are staunch feminists and women who strongly uphold the values of a male-dominated society. This blurring of lines seems to intimidate many – because, as a woman, is it okay to admit you aren’t a feminist? Short answer – yes, it is.

Women are not a homogenous group that follows one set of ideals, and we don’t need to be. Just because you’re a woman, you don’t need to be a fighting feminist, you can just be yourself. Feminism has turned into a label, defined by a few loud voices. In reality, there’s a whole spectrum of feminism.

For instance, there are people who say “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal rights”. What they often mean by not being a “feminist” is not subscribing to largely western ideas of the term, because they may not fit in with our local cultural values, but the fact that they believe in equal rights does mean they’re feminist.

In fact, the fundamental idea of feminism is that it gives people the right to believe whatever they want, even if that means being against abortion or thinking all women need to shave their legs. What feminists are asking for (and I’m one of them) is the freedom to decide your beliefs for yourself, instead of them being defined for you. This includes deciding whether you want to fight for feminism or not.

I don’t feel it is right for women to say if you’re not a feminist (or if you’re not fighting for women’s rights), you’re a bad person. You don’t have to do or be anything. What I’m fighting for is the right for women to feel whatever they feel and act however they want, without imposing on other people or being held to some crazy standard.

In truth, feminists are often seen as caricatures. A feminist is often seen as someone who doesn’t believe in traditions and rules, who is “western”, who has short hair, who’s a lesbian…there’s all these associations, which is not to say that any of those features are bad things, but we’ve assumed that you have to be some of those things if you want to be a feminist. You don’t. I’m a feminist who wears a sari, because to me, a sari is not representative of a constricted society (which many people think it is); to me, a sari reminds me of my mother and how she never let anything stand in her way.

Fighting a war doesn’t have to mean aggression; there are more subtle ways to do it. To navigate a patriarchal society, you need to understand it and its expectations. To beat it, play to those expectations, but play it on your terms – how you believe it should be done. Sometimes, you have to manoeuvre your way through a patriarchal society, because constantly fighting against a brick wall may not work. Sometimes, conforming to expectations can give you what you want. It’s how you play the game. You can work outside the system, but there’s also room within to get in and smash from there.

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