Feminism is not a dirty word

Feminism is not a dirty word

I am a feminist and my best friend has two wives

If asked, my friends would tell you how often they stare at people while we are conversing, scared for the poor soul who just made a comment that is ostentatiously sexist or ignorant of its sexism. In my close circle of friends and larger circle of acquaintances, I am a well-known defender of women's rights. I see the world through the eyes of a feminist and I am not afraid of using the word in public (as the title of this post shows).

I am not afraid of saying I am a feminist because I know what my feminism stands for and I am proud of it. Years ago, I decided we needed to take ownership of this word back because feminism is not a dirty word. Feminism is about equal rights for all. It is a recognition of double standards and unjustified inequalities based on sex, race and class. Feminism is not owned by a particular movement, country, or wave of thoughts. It is the general belief that women should be treated equally in all spheres of society, from the most private to the most public paradigms.

I often ask people: do you believe in equal rights for all people? Do you believe it is unfair that women cannot choose ‒ without being judged ‒ what to do with their bodies? Do you support sexist comments and jokes at the office? Do you think your mom deserves the same salary as your father for equal work? Most people I speak to (but not all, sadly) answer ‘yes’. So I tell them: "Then you are a feminist! Congratulations!"

What usually follows, after that first suspicious look I get, is a conversation during which we wonder about the definition of feminism, women's rights and so forth. During those debates, which can be either very boring or harshly heated, I like to offer various challenges so that we do not end up just discussing stereotypes because the sad reality is that each of these conversations always ends up with the same question: are women and men physically different? For sure, you cannot ignore that, right? (It should be the subject of another blogpost)

So, I usually tell them, truthfully, that my mentor and best friend is a wonderful and clever man who happens to have two wives. Now, THAT usually shifts the debate and after the suspicious look, I get a look of awe and deep suspicion. How in the world can I define myself as feminist and support polygamy?

First of all, I do not support polygamy. I would only support it if polyandry was equally accepted. If people wish to have several spouses, I have no objections if both women and men can do so. Obviously, this is not so in the majority of cases, particularly in religions which advocate polygamous practices. Yet, I happen to have friends who are in relationships of that type. What these people taught me is that the cliché which we associate with this practice and to these relationships is a fraud.

Imagine a wife or a husband who is established in a polygamous marriage. Many of us will describe the wife (or wives) from a remote or distant place with negative associations (i.e. backwards, submissive, narrow-minded, needed to be saved, etc.) and the husband as dominant, barbarian or other unpleasant attributes. Yet, as is often the case, the reality is different, because it is far more complex. My friends ‒ those wives ‒ are very autonomous and powerful women who covet no other matrimonial arrangement. They are neither more nor less happy. Their model has constraints obviously, but also advantages because they have extensive freedom through the course of their married life. They also have, or can have, economic independence.

As for my male friend, he has had a bunch of children including daughters; every one of them has been encouraged, if not pushed, to pursue higher education. You see, this man was born in a society which practices polygamy, yet, he is also one of the most generous and open-minded people I have ever met. His views on politics, gender and society contrast with who and how we imagine him to be. He understands that the world in which he lives has evolved and he understands the need for his children to be adaptive if they want to thrive. Of course, I must also tell you that we do not agree with each other on every topic. We have our challenges. Yet, isn't that the case with everyone with whom we debate?

The point of this blog is that realities are complex. If stereotypes sometimes help us describe a scenario or make sense of a situation, we must always remember they are stereotypes. Our realities often conflict with these stereotypes and for good reason! As such, we need to remember to keep an open mind, because patriarchy is not about religion, a practice or a category of person. Patriarchy is solidly engrained in each and every one of us. At home or in business, we need to remember that in order to make sure we make educated, enlightened decisions.

Dorothy Seguy is a participant in RSM's 2-year Executive MBA programme. She has a passion for writing and is an activist for women's rights. During her time at RSM she will share an insight on her perspective on matters involving gender equality.