A screengrab of Jinan Younis' piece for the UK Guardian.
Recently, I wrote that feminism was ‘finding a way of being a girl that doesn’t hurt’ a way for girls and women to re-negotiate our understanding of the world so that we can become a full and equal part of it rather than just a means of decorating it; to move towards a place where the mere act of being a girl isn’t used against us as both a threat and an obligation. Through feminism, I have found a peace of sorts from the sense that my femaleness required a constant apology so that I might be given permission to pass through these narrow corridors.
But it isn’t an easy transition. As schoolgirls in Britain recently discovered, there’s an irony in the fact that liberating oneself from unnecessary pain forces us to endure so much of it. When Jinan Younis started a feminist society at her all-girls school, she was met by ugly opposition from the boys in their wider peer group. As she wrote:
“The more girls started to voice their opinions about gender issues, the more vitriolic the boys' abuse became. One boy declared that "bitches should keep their bitchiness to their bitch-selves #BITCH" and another smugly quipped, "feminism doesn't mean they don't like the D, they just haven't found one to satisfy them yet." Any attempt we made to stick up for each other was aggressively shot down with "get in your lane before I par [ridicule] you too", or belittled with remarks like "cute, they got offended".
For Younis and her friends, the lesson was clear. By defending their right to be treated as equal human beings, they were given a swift reminder of just how little power they’re allowed to wield.
It would be rare to find a woman who hadn’t endured some kind of ridicule for stepping out of line. When the market dictates that a woman’s value is primarily attached to her looks and deferential behaviour, it’s the threat of sexually degrading insults that help to keep her in check. How many of us have weathered the experience of a man calling us ugly or fat, simply because we disagreed with him or didn’t want to entertain his attentions? How many of us bristle when a carload of rowdy men drives past, preparing ourselves for either inevitable demands that we show them our tits or unasked for comments on the paucity of our looks and knowing that if we don’t acquiesce to such an invasion of our personal space then the consequences for our self esteem will be much worse?
As I write this, an anonymous stranger is bombarding me with messages calling me “a stupid cu*t” who needs to “curl up and die”. “What have I done to deserve this shrieking harpy bitch?” he asks, as if it is me who’s wandered up to his house to scream random insults through his window. “How come all feminists are ugly?” he wonders aloud. “Do they become feminists after being constantly rejected by men?”
The battle for liberation is apparently the last refuge for women unable to participate in an economy that places their sexual availability at a premium. Having someone want to fu*k you is evidently more of an aspiration than wanting them to see you as an equal human being in your own right, with opinions and thoughts worthy of consideration and an autonomy that is yours and yours alone.
The arrogant belief that women are all ‘desperate for the D’, as Younis’ male peers might put it, is what drives much of this ridicule. It’s why women who speak out against rape jokes are told they’re just jealous that no one wants to rape them. It’s how the ‘shrillness’ of women’s opinions are thought to be curable through the swift application of a rogering cock. I can only presume this kind of withdrawal of erectile approval is why someone thought it would upset me to anonymously email the observation that I was ‘one ugly mother fu*ker’, and then follow it up by saying, ‘Wait, I don’t even think your mum is pathetic enough to fu*k you.’
The reasons for such vicious reactions to a challenge of entrenched power are perhaps best summed up by Younis, who describes receiving both physical and verbal assaults after protesting the sexual commentary of a group of men one day. In a situation all too familiar, Younis and her friends were catcalled from a car. When she chided them for harassing a group of 17 year old girls, they turned on her.
“Speaking up shattered their fantasy, and they responded violently to my voice.”
In June’s Quarterly Essay, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny, Anna Goldsworthy writes, “Within parliament, a successful sledy is one that is both particular and recognisable, such as Keating’s characterisation of Hewson’s performance as being “like being flogged with a warm lettuce”. A successful sledge homes in on a perceived area of weakness, including appearance: Kim Beazley and his girth; John “spot the eyebrows” Howard. But what message is being conveyed to our daughters when being female is the weakness, is the Achilles’ heel?”
In our current society, it is considered a weakness to be female and a treason to protest this. Highlighting inequality results in aggressive insults and threats, all of which are propped up by the repeated narrative now that women are ‘playing the gender card’. And this is the final insult. That of all the unfair things associated with women - the violence and insults, the financial oppression, the very undermining of our worth as human beings - it is the acknowledgement of these inequalities that gives us some kind of unfair advantage over the men who benefit from them.