I don’t call myself a feminist. Since I was a teen, it has been plaguing me as to why everyone chooses to call me that instead of say, a postcolonial critic, a mathematician, a writer, a goof, or any of the things that I do actually identify myself as.
Once, a friend joked that if we were playing Taboo and they said ‘Annie’ as a clue everyone would immediately guess feminism.
How did I become synonymous with that?
Then, that I am a feminist is an extension of my belonging to a particular community and feeling the daily trials associated with that. So my angst about postcoloniality and neo-imperialism is of the same vein. Then why is it that people don’t engage with me on those topics and instead continue to discuss/ask me about women’s empowerment and gender? I didn’t even know who Judith Butler was until a couple of months ago and even then, my friend had to explain her ideas with the help of pictures of cats!
It was at an event on the environmental, political, and economic issues surrounding a government project in Sri Lanka that I was struck with the answer to my question.
Out of 12 speakers providing expert opinions on the viability of the project, my friend and I noted that not one of them was a woman. The audience consisted of various stakeholders and interest groups and was split roughly 40:60 women:men. An ex-colleague of mine was also there with her female colleague as their organization had been consulted for the series of expert opinions. Of course, this meant there were a total of two women representatives in the audience (to listen) but one male representative ‘expert’ (to speak) from that organization.
It is trite to say that while women make up large numbers of workforce in Sri Lanka, men comprise the majority of leadership or public representation positions. It is curious, however, to note this phenomenon in government. Of the 13 women parliamentarians, there are 5 women in ministerial positions: Minister for Women’s Affairs, Dep. Minister for Women’s Affairs, Minister for Children’s Affairs, Minister for Foreign Employment, and Dep. Minister for Irrigation. 4 out of these 5 portfolios deal with what society treats as essentially ‘feminine’ domains (Irrigation being the odd one out; Foreign Employment deals largely with our biggest foreign workforce: female domestic workers). The other parliamentarians are representatives from various districts or are from national lists. Needless to say, they have been chosen for their popularity to rally votes for a particular party and once in parliament are fairly inactive. So I wondered: where were the women experts in parliament on issues that aren’t ‘feminine’?
This is where the assumption of my being a feminist suddenly made sense to me. It doesn’t matter to people how knowledgeable I may be about various issues: to them, I am essentially a woman and the only field in which my expertise is acknowledged as superior/valuable is regarding women’s issues. This is a microcosm of government dynamics where women only have access to leadership positions in quintessentially feminine domains, whether or not they really are ‘experts’ on it. Conversely, women experts in other fields, such as my environmental conservationist ex-colleague remain on the sidelines while their male counterparts continue to be the publicly acknowledged ‘experts’.
For comparison, I thought of a close male feminist friend. He shares almost exactly the same interests in global issues, welfare, public policy, etc except he is actually actively engaged in feminist advocacy. However, amongst our friends, he is recognised for his work in development and diplomacy while I am recognised for women’s rights advocacy. And this is a domain I don’t claim to have much expertise on, I just happen to talk a lot about what affects me as a woman (hence this article, even). Somehow, for our friends, I cannot be anything other than first and foremost a feminist.
So please, stop calling me a feminist. Yes, I am one. But I’m a lot of other things before that. If you can start to recognize that in me, as with other women professionals, then perhaps we can get to some place where Sri Lanka will have more women representatives leading us in fields where they actually are experts.
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On a side note, for comparison and because everyone likes statistics in pretty diagrams, below is the constituency of graduates from government universities by field in 2013. A little over 60% of all graduates were women and in only 3 out of 13 fields did men outnumber women. While I understand that political representation doesn’t appear to require a tertiary degree, we must acknowledge that there is something seriously wrong in a society where the gender split in representation and leadership (in public and private sector) so greatly differs from the gender split in those qualified as experts in their fields.
Source: University Grants Commission. University Statistics 2013. ‘Graduate Output By Higher Educations Institution and Academic Programme 2012-2013’, Table 04-01
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This article was originally written in late January 2015.
Credit to Manthri.lk for information about politicians
The kitty picture-filled explanation of Judith Butler referenced in this post can be found here: http://binarythis.com/2013/05/23/judith-butler-explained-with-cats/