Living Your Feminist Principles

by | June 3, 2012
filed under Feminism

by Matilda Branson

Up to what point do we really live our feminist values? This is a dilemma I often face as someone working in gender, in a field I am so, so passionate about.  In Australia, in my formative feminist years at university learning about gender and women’s rights, I was unreservedly convinced high heels subjugated all women, that doggie-style sex could only ever be degrading and all-male sports teams and the military irretrievably transformed all men into masochistic crazies.

As a result of thinking about things too much, or perhaps not enough, I killed many a conversation through being overly intense and had poorly-formed, one-sided arguments and rebuttal when discussing feminist issues with friends. While it can be constructive to consider such topics, looking back I don’t feel I was living my feminist beliefs in the most nuanced way.

Now, in Nepal, I am faced by different worries. I encounter startling gender inequalities every day – at work, in the street, on the bus, in taxis, in my home. This is unsurprising – after all, Nepali society is  patriarchal.

Yet right now I gaze out my window at work where a new building is being built. A man is shovelling gravel into the bag of a waiting woman who will then carry a 60kg of gravel to the building site every 6 minutes, forward and back, forward and back, supporting the weight of the bag through a strap that goes across the front of her forehead. Ol’ Mr Shoveller stands next to the gravel pile watching her walk to-and-fro throughout the 12 hour day, rolling a ciggie in the shade while waiting for the woman to return for the next load, talking to passers-by and having a jolly old time.

If I visit a friend’s house, the women and girls of the family will never eat with me, but serve me and the male head of the household, watching us eat, at the beck-and-call of their husband or father.

Little girls automatically practice deference to little boys in the cricket games they play outside my bedroom window.

Going for a walk with some teenage girls who are deaf at a school I work with, a 40 year old man leers at them, shouting out derogatory insults and sleazy comments, knowing that they cannot hear. But I can.

What to do? Ke garne? The catch-phrase of Nepal. Make a scene, every time? Or appear the rude, overbearing Westerner? ‘Back in Australia, we do it like this.’  Every single day I see countless acts of gender-based discrimination, and I feel so conflicted. Sometimes I make a scene. But what if it’s a friend or a friend’s husband or brother being sexist or horrible? What if it’s not really my place to say anything? Do I let it go?

So conflicted. What do you think? Nothing cultural relativist though, please, about cross-cultural issues. I know inequality when I sees it, and (forgive my universalist view) some things are not ok. Yet sometimes I stay silent. Tell me, y’all, up to what point should you live your feminist values?


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  • I don’t envy you this very difficult position. If it will put a woman in harm’s way, I think it’s best to hold your tongue. But if you think at the most it might make people uncomfortable, to speak up. But if it’s a friend, especially if it’s a friend, being sexist and horrible, speak up. Ask. Ask why he thinks it’s ok. Ask him what he thinks women feel when he behaves that way. Ask why he thinks it’s alright to behave one way with women and another with men. Ask him to consider the possibility that his behaviour is not ok. I don’t think there’s anything you can do about the asshole shovelling gravel but with men you know, you might have opportunities to point out their assholery to them.

  • Michelle

    We can only do what we can do. But we must remember that many people in other cultures are doing just what we do here. They are doing what they can to help themselves and their families survive. In the case of the man shoveling and the women carrying the bag someone has to shovel and someone has to carry the bag. It would be nice if they would take turns, but human nature says that whoever has the easiest job tends to keep that job and leave the harder work to others. Sometimes its because they fear if they switch jobs the other person will not switch back. Would this behavior look just as abusive if it were two men or two women or the woman was shoveling and the man carried the gravel all day? Maybe the man carried the bag for many years while some one else shoveled and has earned his right to shovel. On construction sites are all men always shoveling and all women always carrying the heavy bags, then this is obviously wrong. But for this to change women in this society have to gain political power and wealth independent of their male spouses.

    The social structure of the family home is a different matter. What is the response of woman, if the man tries to share the work that is traditionally the women’s work. By keeping the man in what seems to be the male dominant role are they protecting their power and territory within the household from male intrusion. Waiting on the man hand and foot keeps him in what looks like the master’s chair, but it is also keeping the man out of the female areas of the household. Keeping the guest within what looks like the male dominated area of the house also keeps the guest out of the female dominated areas of the house and protects household privacy. If the quest is a woman, it prevents the man and the woman from being alone privately and helps keep the woman guest from sharing her husbands sexual favors within the family quarters and the wife’s personal space. When the women serve and watch they may really be standing guard.

    To understand if the male and female roles in a society are abusive one needs to understand totally the social structure within the society you are living. Only when a person becomes a close family friend will one know if this is how the family really runs on every occasion or if the family is just putting on appearances to protect themselves from intolerance within their country. Families differ depending upon the civility of the males and females that make up their family. After all it was the Spartan women who told their men when they went off to war to come back with their shield or on it. You must die in battle because running from battle, defeat, or surrender are not options.

  • Sometimes I think the most powerful thing you can do is to just go about doing what you’re doing. When you’re at that friends home and the women and girls are serving you, they’re also seeing a woman have a conversation with the male head of the house as an equal. They’re seeing that you dress the way you want, speak confidently, and go where you want without the permission or chaperoning of a man. Without you ever having to tell them that you think their way is wrong, they’ll be seeing that another way is possible and that will ultimately have the deepest impact.

  • Welcome to Nepal !