This post is dedicated to my girlfriends.
This year in China has brought about all kinds of changes for me. It has made me more independent, it allowed me to experience field-research, it made me reconsiders my personal boundaries and priorities.
I did not expect, however, to develop a fully-functioning feminist awareness while in China, but this is one of the processes I went through here. Somehow at exactly this point in time, when I in a place where social norms and gender expectations are opaque to me different in relation to me (being a white woman in China involves a whole different set of expectations. I don’t feel that my experiences up until now are enough to actually write about it, but my friend wrote an awesome post about it) – I started pondering gender expectations, oppression of women and equality in my native society. Maybe being away from the place where the daily shocking headlines take place helped speed up this process of getting interested in and engrossed in feminism.
Although I was always stubborn, strong-willed and for some reason wildly self-confidant, I did not always see myself as a feminist. I didn’t like the way the worded sounded or looked like – I thought feminism was for women who suffered inequality, not like me. Plus, I’m ashamed to admit that for a long time I thought I didn’t really like women. I always told people that “I didn’t have many girlfriends in high-school”, but come to think about it – I might not have had many girlfriends, but they were very strong and meaningful friendships. Somehow my relationship with my female friends during middle school and high-school seemed less important, less like real friendships than the ones I had with my male friends (and I am only referring here to pre-LPC high-school). Why did I think of these girlfriends as less important, less special? I think it is because of the kind of girl I was and the kind of girls my friends were. TV, movies and media in general taught me what normal relationships between girls my age look like – you have sleepovers, share cosmetics and fashion tips, talk about boys, sunbathe in the backyard, and sing into random objects. Me and my girlfriends almost never did any of those things. We weren’t that into cosmetics or fashion and we listened to music that you wouldn’t really sing happily along to. I remember thinking that I don’t really like girls, and I don’t really want to hang out with girls who do stupid things like read fashion magazines or go to the mall. I thought that those images are what friendship between females are like and said to myself, thank god most of my friends are guys and that we actually talk about stuff.
If only I had feminism then, to tell me that girls are people – and that just like any two people would have a different relationship, so would any two girls. And that not liking fashion and screaming into the phone doesn’t mean I don’t like girls. When I was lucky enough to meet some truly awesome and amazing women who became my best friends in the years after high-school, I told myself that I have finally discovered the joys of female friendships. But that is stupid. What I actually discovered was that pretty, smart and sophisticated girls – the ones who looked like they were popular in high-school, which meant I despised and was intimidated by them – could also be my friends. But even after starting university, meeting amazing women and having deep and meaningful friendships with them, I didn’t fully develop a feminist consciousness. I remember once, in my third year of university, talking to my sister about prostitution. I claimed it was “natural”, it was a woman’s own choice to sell her body or not, and that women should have a right to be prostitutes. My sister patiently tried to explain to me that this was not a hypothetical debate about a hypothetical med-student who loves sex and is putting herself through school with money she made from sleeping only with men she choose whenever she choose and in a way that made her feel protected like a workplace should be. But I didn’t understand.
And then there was the summer before I came to China, which saw a large civil protest in Israel starting triggered by the rising cost of living and ending in recognition that the problem was the governments’ priorities (military first, social welfare last in a nutshell). I saw my closest and most cynical friends protesting with true conviction that something was going to change and my own research interest – student movements – suddenly came to life in front of me. What I was left with was a strong urge to be involved, in some way. I realized that I must try and be involved in making the society I live in a better place, but I didn’t know how.
When I came back to China after my semester break at home, the hot debate in the news was a law proposal to incriminate customers of prostitution. I started reading and thinking about this topic and its various legal and social implications, and was exposed to a plethora of interesting, well written and intellectually challenging blogs about gender and feminism in Hebrew. The internet is a wonderful thing. An essay written about the issue from a legal and gender history perspective by Dr. Noya Rimlet, a law professor at Haifa University, made clear the points my sister raised in our conversation on the topic two years before (if you want the article ask me to email it to you). After that I read anything I could find online on the subject, nursing a jetlag for more than a week reading until 6am.
My feminist consciousness did not spring up over-night, though. It was a process. These are some of the main steps I remember. My feminist journey is not over, either. After making sure I didn’t miss anything written about the subject in the Hebrew-language cyberspace, i expanded my search to English language websites and blogs and into actual books (Judith Butler here I come!). Right now there are two problems that I am thinking about – the first is the feminist struggle and other anti-oppression struggles: is moral relativism applicable to gender equality? Should I, as a feminist, be willing to overlook the systematic oppression of women in society’s that are constructed on completely different values, like religious societies? The second question is what it means to be a woman: to what extent does biology have to do with gender roles. If anyone has suggestions for good reads on any of these topics, I would love to hear!