Dr Shakuntala Banaji explores two specific issues: the belief that feminism is only for women, and that all feminist activity must help all women in some way. 

This article has been published as part of a series to mark Women’s History Month.

All sexism and sexist thinking is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult… . Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.” – bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.

Starting a blog post with a statement by bell hooks, a respected black feminist theorist, can be quite a dangerous thing. She’s said so many brilliant, nuanced things over the years about the subtleties of discrimination, ways of including and excluding, ways of being socialised into thinking patterns which harm everyone in society, not just women, about the dangers of ‘White’ feminism, that it would be possible simply to fill the entire blog saying what she has already said.

© Flickr user Michael.Loadenthal

However, using her words as a way into a lively debate about gender and representation, let’s take this opportunity to examine two specific issues: first, the mistaken and widely held belief that feminism is only for women, and second, the equally infuriating and widely held assumption that all feminist activity must surely help all women in some way.

We can do this by examining two current examples of representation which may or may not be thought of in terms of gender: the injured bodies of boys in the West Bank, who face or face-off daily with one of the world’s best equipped military machines. And the ongoing 11-year long hunger strike of North-East Indian activist Irom Sharmila against the Indian armed forces special powers act in her state, which has also claimed the lives of numerous young women and men. 

But first, a brief digression. Working on gender representation and media, one is confronted by two contrasting aspects of the term representation: that which posits it as advocacy or ‘voice’ and the other which posits it as depiction or ‘image’. Frequently, at the mention of the word ‘media’ the first sense of the term – ‘to advocate/speak on behalf of’ – tends to flee the mind and leave a vacuum in which mainly the second definition of representation, as image or depiction is explored. And undoubtedly there are plenty of issues around portrayals of gender, visual or otherwise, which we can and should fruitfully be discussing, analysing and critiquing. But problematically, it seems to me, we sometimes focus on these issues because they are more straightforward, less complicated, at least in academic circles, than issues of representation-as-voice, which are equally pertinent for feminists of all persuasions.

So, returning to the examples of the tortured and bullet riddled bodies of teenage Palestinians, sometimes young women, but generally boys and young men, and the pained, force-fed but always defiant Irom Sharmila, there are three points to be made.

First, going back to bell hooks’ insight that many people think that feminism is about women wanting to be equal to men, one might push the logic of this to its conclusion: surely we should then fight for the right for you and for me, for Palestinian and Manipuri girls to be shot through the cheeks or stomachs, or tortured with equal impunity to young men? Surely we should argue that to genuine feminists, be these in the Indian or American or Israeli armed forces, the phrase ‘women and children’ should have no resonance. And oddly enough, I agree. But not because I think that civilian women and girls should be allowed an equal share of pain and humiliation to their male counterparts. But because I cannot imagine not grieving and feeling furious over pointlessly killed or traumatised men and teenage boys.

Second, a focus by both new and traditional media on visual depictions of these young Palestinian people and their mutilated bodies or dead ‘insurgents’ or dead ‘villagers’ in the North East of India, whether critical, politically biased or perfunctory, has usurped the meaning of their courageous actions as human beings, as citizens, day after day. These acts of courage, of solidarity, are also acts of representation, of advocacy. But the advocacy is frequently ignored; the ‘voices’ frequently misunderstood or recast or annihilated by the superficiality of media noise.

Third, so curtailed and mass media-prescribed have even our academic understandings of gender, violence, culture and feminism become, we might actually think that only a fight against violence or control which affects ONLY women and girls can be defined as feminist. However, in standing up, unarmed, to an occupying and besieging army which prevents daily life from functioning for men, women, children and babies alike, which increases the likelihood of girls being required to stay in their homes or camps or prisons, these young people are campaigning for dignity, freedom from fear, equality and rights which many outspoken feminist academics also wish and strive for. In fact, the various struggles against violence against women or for girls to be allowed particular types of dress or education are ongoing, both where Irom Sharmila lives, and in the Occupied Territories. And these would only be strengthened and enabled by a cessation of racist or regional discrimination and violence.

So, perhaps, more than I do by drawing attention to culturally objectified female bodies in Bollywood films and more than some of my friends, who analyse negative comments made about German Chancellor Angela Merkel ‘because she is a woman’ as an instance of longstanding sexism, Irom Sharmila and the Palestinian boys and girls who represent themselves and their people, perform deeply feminist acts on a daily basis. They do this either simply by going out to school or, more immediately terrifying, by going to protest demonstrations in defiance of the physical might of an organised, weapon-carrying army, a coercive state. They do this by raising their eyes to powerful elites and looking directly, challengingly.

Whether we reach this conclusion by discursively identifying the armies in question with an aggressively patriarchal state and seeing the young oppressed citizens as somehow feminised by their encounter with military might – boys’ bodies are hurt and bruised as quickly as girls’ bodies are; Irom Sharmila refuses food, but her nose has been penetrated by Indian prison authorities daily for eleven years – or we do so by asserting that these fights for social justice and against violence are also feminist fights matters less than our acknowledgment of the agency and courage shown, the political commitment displayed.

So today, I could have written about any of the following things from a blog I follow: The fact that ‘In El Salvador, women employees of Taiwanese maquilabor Mandarin are forced to work shifts of 12-21 hours during which they are seldom allowed bathroom breaks; they are paid about 18 cents per shirt, which is later sold for 20 dollars each. They make clothes for the GAP, J. Crew and Eddie Bauer.’ Or the fact that ‘In Haiti, women sewing clothing at Disney’s contract plants are paid 6 cents for every $19.99 101 dalmatians outfit they sew; they make 33 cents an hour. Meanwhile, Disney makes record profits and could easily pay workers a living wage for less than one half of 1 percent of the sales price of one outfit.’

These facts could have been used to make the same point about not getting fixated on a particular aspect of gender representation because it is easier to analyse and tackle than another. Unquestionably, all work in the area of gender representation and equality is still much needed, whatever its aims and outcomes. But we must not forget bell hooks’ caution that one must first be aware of one’s own position in a variety of intersecting systems of oppression which all have repercussions for gender equality:

“The process begins with the individual woman’s acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labelling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization.” – bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism

All one has to do, then, when beginning to think about gender representation like a socialist feminist is to replace the words ‘American women’ in this paragraph reflexively with other phrases, and the enormity of the subject of gender representation is suddenly apparent: learning how we actually see and hear women and men, boys and girls from different countries, classes, races and cultural groups, learning to stop talking and writing about ourselves and them in essentialised homogenising ways; unlearning how we see and hear them and ourselves; and then learning to see again without limiting media or academic filters and frames. That seems like a good place to start the work and stop the post.

Correction: This article originally referred to injured bodies of boys in Gaza. This has now been changed to a more accurate description – injured bodies of boys in the West Bank.

Dr Shakuntala Banaji is a  Lecturer in the Media and Communcations department at LSE.