December 2, 2015

LEUNG | Just Say It

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Feminism. What is wrong with that word? Ask whoever told Emma Watson to refrain from using it in her 2014 United Nations speech. The actress gave a speech to the U.N. Women’s HeForShe launch event last year, encouraging men to fight with women for gender equality across the world. She proudly used the word “feminism,” explaining that it is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, not a term that is used to label man-hating. She told The Evening Standard in a recent interview that she was encouraged not to use the word, for “people felt that it was alienating and separating and the whole idea of the speech was to include as many people as possible. But I thought long and hard and ultimately felt that it was just the right thing to do. If women are terrified to use the word, how on earth are men supposed to start using it?”

Watson’s speech might have occurred last year, but the spotlight on feminism shouldn’t fade — especially in light of this recent news revealing that Watson was told not to use the apparently “alienating”  word. The amount of criticism that came from her speech was equally disconcerting. Much of it focused on how Watson ignored men when talking about feminism. Although she told men that “gender equality is your issue too,” people immediately criticized the name of her campaign: HeForShe. It still targeted men as the problem and disregarded the sexism they face as well. In a TIME magazine article, Cathy Young wrote that the present form of feminism “has too often ignored sexist biases against males, and sometimes has actively contributed to them. Until that changes, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.” She used examples of how assault victims receive less media publicity and less outrage when they are male, as opposed to sexual assault cases where the victims are women.

I do not disagree that male victims receive less sympathy and media attention for sexual assaults or sympathy for domestic violence acts against them. However, it is also true that one out of every five American women has reported experiencing rape in her lifetime. For men, it’s one in 71. And it doesn’t only stop there. White American women earn 78 percent of their white male counterparts earn; black women earn 64 percent of what their white male counterparts earn, and Latina women earn 53 percent of what their white male counterparts earn. Furthermore, 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women — a historic high.

So although Young and many others alike criticize Watson for being part of the discrimination against men, there is concrete evidence that gender inequality exists, and it disproportionately disadvantages women. Young believes real conversations must “let men talk not only about feminist-approved topics such as gender stereotypes that keep them from expressing their feelings, but about more controversial concerns: wrongful accusations of rape; sexual harassment policies that selectively penalize men for innocuous banter […]” People are trying to turn the issue towards men and away from women. Feminism is about promoting gender equality for both genders, and it is evident that females are facing the brunt of sexism.

Furthermore, the majority of those criticizing Watson for her speech seem to have missed the point. They are merely trying to find problems with a speech that was meant to inspire and promote change. Malala Yousafzai, an activist and blogger who survived a Taliban attack on her life for demanding equal access to education for both girls and boys, and was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, decided to call herself a feminist because of Watson’s speech.

Yousafzai explained that although she constantly fights for the rights of other women, she didn’t quite identify as a feminist before the speech. She had heard many negative connotations surrounding the word and hesitated whether or not to to call herself one. After hearing Watson speak, she told the actress, “When you said ‘if not now, when?’ I decided there’s nothing wrong by calling yourself a feminist. So I’m a feminist and we should be a feminist because feminism is another word for equality.” Yousafzai’s switch to call herself a feminist reveals how powerful Watson’s speech was and how “feminism” shouldn’t be viewed as a taboo word. It should represent an inspiring and empowering ideal. Men and women alike should strive for gender equality.

“Feminism” may seem like a mere word that shouldn’t hold so much power. But it does. There is a negative stigma surrounding the word — which should not exist. People are afraid of using it, for they don’t want to identify themselves with “men-haters.” If people who believe in promoting gender equality have the courage to call themselves feminists, and feel comfortable using the word ‘feminism,’ the word will hold its true meaning.

I am a feminist, because I believe in equal rights and opportunities for women and men.

Gaby Leung is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached atgl376@cornell.edu. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.