I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I’ll just straight out say it. I have a vagina.
I don’t feel one way or the other about it. It’s just something I was born with, like the colour of my skin (brown). But the longer I get immersed on Twitter, and the more I listen to women argue with men and with each other in newspapers and elsewhere (especially about what a ‘real’ feminist is), the more I feel as if I’ve somehow let down my vagina by not being angry enough, or angry in the right way, about anything to do with having one — sexism, patriarchy, raunch culture, pornification. It’s like I missed the passwords to get into the clubhouse.
I don’t deny that these things are real issues; I despise them in varying measure and for complex reasons. I don’t deny that certain injustices are based on gender, that many social and cultural structures inherently disadvantage women. I have no quarrel with the truth of these. But I do wonder about the limitations of framing unjust attitudes and practices from a singularly female perspective.
For one thing, it often has the effect of excluding men and fortifying adversarial positions. This is patently unconstructive, given that all of us have a role to play in ensuring that equity becomes the norm. Men need to own the serious imbalances, too.
There is a useful analogy in the American civil rights movement. People forget that many whites were involved in pushing for equal rights for African-Americans. James Zwerg, for example, was beaten during the 1961 Freedom Ride. The mob in Alabama did not distinguish him from his dark-skinned colleagues, and in one sense rightly so. The Freedom Rides helped to elevate the issue of colour to a higher truth about shared humanity — an idea that posed a monumental threat to the status quo.
This is not to say that whites were instrumental in the success of the civil rights movement. The point is that social problems rooted in prejudice cannot be solved by a mirror prejudice against members of the dominant group. It does not persuade them to change. Accommodating them in the struggle, does. This is the radical thing to do, if one must be radical. It is certainly a demanding and sensitive task to turn your oppressor into a partner. But it is one that I think has more merit than maintaining conflict.
Such a task would be aided by elevating the discourse to a shared humanity. This element has been remarkably overlooked in favour of a gendered approach to resolving inequity.
It is important of course to identify and describe the prejudice from which emerge many inequities against women. But it is time to frame these injustices first and foremost as an affront to human dignity.
When we narrowly frame the burdens under which women labour as the female experience, then we play into the very system and language that we seek to overhaul. It upholds victimisation as a gendered experience rather than an assault on the entirety of the human person. The fact is, women are more than their vaginas. There is more to being a woman. There is being… a human being.
The many transgressions against women around the world: son preference which leads to gendercide, child brides being treated like chattel, rape being used as a weapon of war — these are appalling because in essence they are a violation of human dignity. This ought to be the primary source of our outrage. For if we only ever decry injustice that involves women as victims, then we have a stunted view of what injustice means and serve no one.
If instead we embrace the idea that human dignity is gender-neutral, then the task of preserving it invites partnership instead of rancour. Our goals can better intersect, we can foster shared optimism rather than self-indulgent righteousness, and most of all, work with greater effectiveness instead of remain impotent in division.