Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are you a feminist?

So, my official COS date is August 3rd!!! That means that August 3rd is the first day that I am ‘allowed’ to go back home to America and the last date of my service here in Cambodia. My exact plans for what follows August 3rd is up in the air, but I hope to end up in India or Nepal somewhere around there. A lot of this is dependent on other factors like med school interviews, potential jobs (if that’s at all possible), and friends/family. But, it’s good to finally know a date.

Recently, I was on facebook and one of my friends had posted on her status “I’m not a feminist, but...” What followed was an article about women in the work world and how in some cases they are making more money than men. This is a very general summary of the article and should not be taken as evidence of anything. What struck me was not the article, but the fact that my friend  felt that she needed to preface posting it with “I’m not a feminist”. My response to her was “‘You’re not a feminist? What does that mean?”
Until maybe my Junior year of college I had no idea that the term “feminist” had negative connotations. To me, feminism is defined by each person. I think that if you generally believe in the ability of women to make choices for themselves then you are a feminist. You don’t have to believe that all women need to work or that women shouldn’t wear bras. You just need to believe in women. You just need to believe that a woman can make the choice to raise kids or run for president and that they have the ability to do either or both. It really does not seem like a radical idea to me. When I first heard that people were scared to be associated with the word feminist my first reaction was “Why?”

Why are people afraid to be a feminist? Coming to a Cambodia has brought feminism to another level for me. The wall between male and female gender roles here is so solid that it might as well be made of steel. Every day I see women come into the health center with their children. They finally found time outside of harvesting rice, cooking, cleaning, and any other work that needs to be done to bring their child to the health center. Very rarely do men come with their children or wives to the health center. In my host family, the boys get to go play soccer, school, see Siem Reap, but the girls stay at home. They go to school and they study, but they need to make the rice first. Every morning all the women in my host family pick up a broom to sweep and every night they do all the dishes. I don’t think I have ever seen one of the boys do their dishes and I’m not sure they know how. I’ve seen families where the eldest son got to go to school and becomes a nurse, the youngest son gets to go to Siem Reap for high school, but the middle daughter stopped going to school after grade 8 and stays at home to cook. These gender roles don’t just force people into certain jobs or livelihoods, but they affect behavior. Generalizing about girls in Cambodia, I would say that a lot of them are scared. They never get permission to leave the house or stay out past dark so they rationalize it into a fear. This fear self-perpetuates and keeps them at home and in turn creates parents afraid to let their daughters out of the house.  If you lived in Cambodia, would you be a feminist?

Maybe the term feminism is too limiting. Maybe part of the reason why people don’t want to associate with it is because it neglects men and some people picture “man haters” when they hear the term. Maybe I should call it anti-gender rolism to appeal to the masses. I guess sometimes people use "gender eqaulity" or anti "gender disparity", but what does that really mean? Mutual understanding between men and women, good communication, is crucial to subverting gender roles. Women alone may be able to start change, but to have worldwide sustainable change the other 50% of the population also needs to buy in. Men are also trapped by gender roles,  “oppressing is oppressive to those who oppress as well as those they oppress” , trapped in the cycle perpetuated by those in power (Frye 1983). If everyone feels oppressed by oppression then why don’t we stop? Because those oppressing still have an advantage they don’t want to give up. Over the course of a number of months I did a big project involving a girls club. As a large part of my work I ended up having many formal and casual conversations with people in my community about the girls club, gender, and related topics. Eventually I realized that many Cambodians, especially men, either don’t consciously see the gender roles in their society or they don’t see it as a problem.

I had a number of people ask me why I only had a girls club and not also a boys club. To me it was obvious and it was also obvious to the two male PCVs I worked with. With limited time and funds why would I choose to create a boys club when all of Cambodia is pretty much a boys club? However, to Cambodians it wasn’t so obvious. The purpose of the club was to teach girls the skills they would not learn at school: self-confidence, team work, leadership, career seeking, project planning, advocacy, anatomy, sexual health, etc. Many of these skills are taught to boys. 

“Women and disabled individuals are encouraged to apply” was a statement printed at the bottom of a job advertisement. Someone reading that in America might not think much about it. It’s a pretty standard statement that we see a lot. Someone in Cambodia once told me that he had no hope of getting the job because they would hire women first. Interestingly, he did not include disabled people in his lament. I asked him how many women and how many disabled people he saw working at this company. His answer was 2 and 0. Out of the 6 staff members 2 were women.  He ended up making it to the final round of hiring and they chose another man over him. One day I asked someone why are there no female english teachers at our school. His answer was because the female teachers all get chosen to work at NGOs or school in Siem Reap (which are larger and pay more). He felt there was unfair selection because they mostly got to work there. I don’t think he realized that of all the men that graduate every year only a handful of women do and that handful  probably had to be first in their class for their entire lives in order to work in Siem Reap.

Hearing people that think that these gender roles are a way of life and that nothing needs to be changed is almost more frustrating than seeing the gender roles themselves. Women are too scared to change, men don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and nobody communicates with each other. So when someone says “I’m not a feminist” I ask “Why not?” What are you scared of?


  1. Are you mad at me now, Helen? :) Jk. Thanks for this thoughtful post. Sorry if I offended you in any way by writing that. I guess my question would be, "If I'm a woman, and I claim I'm not a feminist, then is there something 'wrong' with me?"

    (Type more later... gotta run right now but wanted to say something anyways! Happy Holidays!)

  2. No I don't think there's anything wrong with you. I think I've spent a lot of time thinking about what a feminist is and what feminism means to me, but I don't think I know what someone who is not a feminist really is. I guess in my mind I just assume every awesome person that believes in women is a feminist. I don't really know what it means when you choose to not be a feminist.