Almost Empowered: Reclaiming Feminism in a Not-So-Inclusive Space

Sarah Everard was taken minutes from my home on a street I drive down multiple times a week and have walked down more times than I can count. Her abduction and murder, and the movement that has followed, have been sobering and we are all too aware of how easily it could have been one of us. But it wasn’t, and more than anything my heart hurts for all the women killed by violence and the ones who love them.

At first, I found myself jarred by the outpouring of sharing. I couldn’t figure out why I was uncomfortable, it almost made me angry. I’ve always found it difficult to wholly align myself with mainstream feminism but my guttural response seemed to lack empathy, which is unlike me, so I questioned myself. Maybe it was because I thought there ought to be room for grief, or that it wasn’t the time to be centering ourselves when this had happened to somebody else, or maybe that I was measuring people’s suffering. The more conversations I had and the more space I gave myself from socials, I realised it wasn’t any of those things — it was triggering. I was being forced to digest the knowledge that it could have been me. Not in an “I could have been walking there” kind of way. Not even in an “as women we have a shared experience” kind of way, although these are both absolutely true. In that, it made me reflect on the situations I had put myself in and feel humiliated, and then realise I am sat here telling men not to blame women all while blaming myself. I have been trapped by the problem itself and now I have to look inward. I reflect on situations that I passed off at the time and can look on now as harassment and assault. Even now, I feel insurmountable shame and fraud, as if being drunk or feeling pressured or the fact it was a night out means I gave some form of consent invalidating any uneasiness I may have felt.

We are manipulated to blame ourselves and strip men of accountability and I have unconsciously been doing it for years. It’s been exposing and I’ve asked myself: have I been a victim? Have I been a bystander? Am I part of the issue?

Since I was a teenager, I have been screamed at for not dancing with a guy, had my bum grabbed, boobs groped, hugs forced on me, kisses launched at me, pushed into walls, hit, seen men masturbate on the street, pressured to perform sexual acts, catcalled, sent unwarranted d*ck pics, sex chats, looks, remarks — I remember when I was 16 sat on the front row at a comedy night and the first joke the male comedian made was about my “big tits” and meeting him round the back after the gig. Granted, this man did not know I was 16, but I was clearly not old enough to have those jokes directed at me and that’s kind of beside the point. And the worst thing is, mostly my response to all of this has been to laugh it off. I never questioned it or gave much thought to how sinister it really is and I have continually given these men excuses. I understand that the onus is on men to look inward now and I wholeheartedly support this, but what about the women (myself included) who haven’t looked completely inward themselves yet? This continues to be an extremely upsetting and sensitive process and patience is required. I am tentatively knocking at the door of feminism but I am nervous for the response.

In truth, this space does not always feel welcoming to non-white, non-cis women and even writing this now comes with a sense of imposition. Over the years, it’s almost felt like feminism has been a dirty word to me. I identified with the issues but I intentionally wouldn’t use the word ‘feminist’ to describe myself. I am aware that part of this will be internalised misogyny, but the feminism I’d come to know I found to be alienating and judgemental. This feminism doesn’t consider culture; in fact, it shames women for it. It doesn’t consider the intersectional issues of race and gender. It assumes oppression without discussion. It doesn’t consider choice, and it speaks to a singular, privileged experience. As a woman of mixed heritage, I understand my mother has been shaped in some part, by a misogynistic Islamic culture and although my dad is extremely progressive and open, he has experienced the world as a straight white man. Mainstream feminism does not speak to my experience so I do not know how it can speak to others.

It puts me in mind of a friend’s old university group chat. Understandably, the last few weeks had been triggering for some of the women and led to some of the men seeking to educate and hold themselves accountable; but it quickly turned into a free for all to call out and shame others. I understand the importance of calling out men who had been part of the problem, even if I don’t see the value in shaming them. However, where I really take issue is the handling of women who simply deal with things differently. Calling someone out for a difference opinion is not a valid argument and it takes attention away from the true issues that need to be interrogated. It lacks compassion and feels inconsistent to believe your opinion is representative of all women. This is a small-scale example of how I have experienced mainstream feminism. Although I do believe it is evolving, it is important to acknowledge that this is an intersectional conversation that all women need to be included in, and discrediting other women isn’t productive.

It is too simplistic to look at things as purely good or bad. While I do believe that the vast majority of men are good, a lot seem to have some questionable ideas about the role of women in their lives and use harmful language towards them. We all have men in our lives, men that we trust, and rightly so. There are some beautiful, kind-hearted, genuinely brilliant men out there — I have some in my own life. These men have never harmed a woman, nor do they know someone who’s harmed a woman, so it feels like somewhere, someone is lying or the line is completely unclear. Or maybe it is clear and they are just too afraid to call it out when they see it being crossed. Fear of judgment and shame is silencing us all and clearly, it’s putting lives in danger.

I get it, sexism can be difficult to define with every individual having a different definition. Most things are difficult to define when it comes to emotions, which is why clarity is essential. Ask clear questions, give clear answers, and make your boundaries known. I have had uncomfortable conversations with some of the men in my life, but I know how important it is and I have never hidden away from a challenging debate. I hope these conversations will continue to happen, as much for my own growth as for men’s, because for change to happen the conversations need to be revisited over and over again, from every angle, gently. This is truly what I believe.

There is still a narrative that men are instinctively more primitive, acting from a primal place, and don’t know how to control themselves, where we as women are conditioned to control ourselves and manage our expectations as custom. There is a narrative that women should know better how to carry themselves. But by this argument, there are men who should know better how to carry themselves and not harm us. There is a narrative that somehow men are entitled to women’s spaces, while women are not entitled to safety. The disparity is alarming and it’s not new. It is, of course, time that men listened, and listening can be hard because listening forces you to look at yourself and chances are, it will make you feel shame. But I ask that you process that shame, because I have dealt with shame at the hands of some men throughout my life and I am tired. Equally, it is time mainstream feminism let other women make mistakes without feeling damned. It is time mainstream feminism understood the issues faced by the vast spectrum of women. It is time mainstream feminism diversified.

It is okay not to know. I don’t know. This is one for the women who feel triggered, overwhelmed, or absolutely lost — it is okay to not feel completely empowered yet, I am still learning. Like so many things, it’s about seeking out your safe space, and if there isn’t one there, carving out one for yourself. There is no one way to be feminist and too often those who have the least to say, shout the loudest. Be gentle with yourself, and do not judge yourself. It was not your fault. It is not your fault. We are still strong women.

Sara Assad-Mannings

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