To be a male feminist

I haven’t ranted in a rather long time, so here goes.

A (male) friend of mine voiced an opinion recently that, surely, everyone ought to be a feminist. At least, I shall rephrase slightly in deference to those with the greatest experience on the subject, everyone ought to aspire to feminism. It is a perspective, after all, not a club. (By “feminism”, I mean the struggle for equality, of course, and not the absurd man-hating caricature, mislabelled as “feminism”, that functions as a piñata in certain male-dominated political circles.)

Except — and this is where it gets tricky — feminism is actually a collection of perspectives, some of which are mutually contradictory, and not all of which acknowledge the existence of the others.

And then there’s another, stranger term — “feminist ally”. Say we define feminism to be a movement seeking fairness and equality between genders1. A feminist, then, is simply someone who believes in and supports this cause. So what is a “feminist ally”, if not an actual feminist? In what sense can someone outside the movement, who then by definition doesn’t believe in and/or support the cause, be an ally of it?

They can’t, so the term presupposes a different, stricter definition, one that excludes people on grounds other than their beliefs and actions. The most obvious of such exclusions is gender-based — you can’t be a male feminist.

Opinions seem divided on this. On one hand, some (whatever their gender) subscribe to the reasoning above and say that men can, and in fact should, be feminists. On the other hand, some (who are, again, not necessarily of one gender) reserve the classification for those with a more direct, personal stake in the struggle — i.e. women — and that a man claiming to be a feminist is portraying himself as a part of the oppressed group. Men supporting feminism are thus to be described as “feminist allies”. This contradiction neatly removes any possibility of a “safe” answer with respect to whether I, as a man, am a feminist (other than just keeping my head down and pretending it’s someone else’s problem, which it isn’t — I’ll come back to that).

So, I must make a choice, to the best of my cognitive abilities. While women (maybe some more than others) are clearly invested in feminism in ways that men never can be, feminism is still a cause that one joins by choice, not an underprivileged demographic in itself. For those within the feminist movement who suffer oppression, violence and discrimination, this is unlikely to be due to their being a feminist, but rather simply being a woman2. We shouldn’t conflate the words “feminist” and “woman”, and we should be able to deal with the notion of a “male feminist” without imagining that the man is necessarily equating his personal situation to those of women. (If he is, then that’s poor form, but labelling himself a “feminist” is a bizarre way to do it.)

This is all very theoretical so far, so let’s turn to the more concrete. I’m a software engineering lecturer, and in spite of all efforts thus far, female participation in the discipline is absurdly low. The first-year classes I teach tend to have around 100 to 150 students, only 5 to 8 of whom are women. I am the first to admit that this is a shameful situation, given my (perhaps biased) view that software engineering increasingly underpins the infrastructure on which the whole of Western (and even non-Western) society depends.

Some might retort that, well, so what? Universities in Australia admit whoever they can. There are no particular university policies that act to filter out women. When it comes to a choice between (a) sexism or (b) more money, university management displays pragmatic enlightenment. Female participation in many university courses is actually very high. (I know this just from observing the disparity between my classes and other, non-computing-related classes during the exam period.) So, if women chose not to enrol in software engineering, that’s their choice.

But it’s an uncomfortable reality, because without knowing why it happens, we could be ignoring a festering problem.

It seems implausible to me that the gap could be the result of “different brain types”. We’re the same species, and it just doesn’t make sense for the same DNA (of homo sapiens), fighting for its survival (in evolutionary terms), to rob one gender almost entirely of the ability to conduct creative, abstract reasoning, which is what software engineering entails. Even allowing for gender roles in prehistoric societies, how could such deprivation possibly increase our overall odds of survival? (I realise that there is a wealth of research on the subject, but I haven’t ploughed into it myself.)

Of course, the existence of women authors, artists, scientists, etc., and the feminism movement itself, seems to roundly contradict that notion. If women can take on those jobs, they can be software engineers too. The women who do study software engineering perform no worse, as students, than their male counterparts, and some routinely rank among the best.

The issue, then, is almost certainly societal in origin, and that should be concerning. Even if we say that the gender ratio in software engineering is not a problem in itself, it still provides strong evidence of some underlying imbalance in society at large.

The best explanation I have (and I’m hampered by a complete lack of first-hand experience) is that girls in high school, and perhaps even primary school, are dissuaded from studying technical subjects like maths, science and computing due to a persistent, self-reinforcing myth that these subjects are simply “for boys”. The myth of different brain types may be a sort-of self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, getting back to the original point, am I a feminist? I certainly aspire to feminism. Perhaps the litmus test, depending on who you ask, is whether I am actually making a difference. Unfortunately, I can’t point to any particular evidence of this yet. We shall see.

  1. I think a majority of people would broadly agree with this definition. Some might wish to clarify or extend it, but I don’t need a particularly finely-tuned definition here to make my point. []
  2. I’m sure there are cases of discrimination on the basis of feminist beliefs and actions, separate from any gender consideration, but I would be surprised if this was comparable in scope to discrimination against women generally. []

False security, false feminism and false secularism

There seems to be a growing school of thought in Western countries that the burqa (or other forms of Islamic headdress) should be banned, with several European countries (including Belgium, France and Spain) debating or already having passed laws against it. There are murmurings here too, by the Liberals’ Cory Bernardi and the Christian Democrats’ Fred Nile.

The most ludicrous claim is that such religious clothing is a security risk. If that were so, we ought to ban all manner of clothing, including just about anything you might want to wear if the temperature drops below about 20 degrees C (as it has been known to do, on occasion), or even if it doesn’t. Bernardi and others claim that the veil obscures the wearer’s identity. This may be so, but implication is that none of us are entitled to anonymity – we must be readily identifiable in any public place to which we might venture. Why? We are not (yet) a police state, and I rather like the idea of being anonymous when out in public. I suspect most other people would as well, if they thought about it. Identifying specific circumstances in which the veil may cause problems does not justify a blanket ban. The security argument is simply designed to press the buttons of islamophobes looking for the most flimsy of excuses.

A marginally less ridiculous argument concerns women’s rights. It is argued that we ought to ban such clothing because it represents the submission of women to a male-controlled religious establishment. This is a little more plausible, but there are still two enormous holes in the argument:

  1. What about Muslim women who want to wear religious clothing, due to a genuine, freely-held belief that it’s the right thing to do? Any claim to be defending their rights through a ban on such clothing is completely nonsensical. If you’re not actually being oppressed, then the fact that some people see your clothing as a symbol of oppression is utterly irrelevant.
  2. Even in cases where religious clothing does indicate female subjugation and/or religious oppression, it’s only a symptom of the problem. A likely outcome of any ban might be to effectively prevent women in such an unfortunate position from going out in public at all. After all, it’s they who will be targeted under any ban, not their oppressors. They will face a three-way choice – violate the law, violate religious commandments, or stay at home. The law might be written to ban men from forcing women to wear religious clothing, but how do you enforce that? You can’t legislate to force people behave as if they aren’t at the wrong end of a power relationship, or as if their beliefs don’t matter. It’s the women in question who will miss out on attending university, getting a job, etc., and this lack of exposure to society would only entrench the problem. If there really is a problem, what on Earth could possess you to think that punishing the victims will solve it?

I worry that this argument has ensnared a number of feminists, which is disheartening because it’s largely anti-feminist. It appeals to one’s sense that one group ought not to impose standards on another, but the proposed solution is to hypocritically impose just such a standard while ignoring whatever religious/gender power relationship might be at the root of the problem – if indeed there is a problem. The argument probably arises out of the ancient reactionary instinct that “bad things” can simply be banned. It’s not always that simple. Whatever you think of the idea of covering yourself up in public, or even of forcing others to do so, surely it’s better that devout Muslim women feel they can at least be in public places.

The final fall-back argument is high-minded secularism. France, for instance, bans all “conspicuous” religious symbols from state schools. This thinking also annoys me. (The protagonists talk about values, which is never a good sign in political debates.)

I’m a great fan of secularism. I think it is, almost by definition, the only way that different religious groups can coexist peacefully. When I’m wearing my atheist hat, of course, I argue that religion and religious beliefs are unnecessary, that morality derives from human nature (far from being in conflict with it), the universe is inherently naturalistic, etc. I see those arguments as being largely of intellectual value, while the political arena presents an entirely different set of problems.

Secularism is essentially the separation of church and state. It is not anti-religious; it permits any type of belief system that does not infringe the rights of others. The state is supposed to be, as much as possible, agnostic.

So what, then, is the state doing making judgments of what constitutes religious clothing or symbolism? In theory, the state shouldn’t even be aware of the concept of religious clothing or symbolism, because such awareness in itself breaches state-church separation. The state should merely ensure that the rights of its citizens are being upheld.

To impose a ban on religious clothing or symbolism (except perhaps for those people who symbolise the state itself – but that’s a side issue) is not a secular idea, but an anti-religious one. I have no love of religion, but government intervention isn’t how atheism wins. It is far more important that everyone in society be able to get along. Militant secularism is not secularism at all.