In science, there's a particle called a free radical. These are atoms, ions, or molecules that are spontaneous and highly chemically reactive, even towards themselves – not unlike that special kind of militant feminism I've come across in my generation today. Shoot to kill; that kind of vibe.
There is an arm of feminism called radical feminism that calls for a reordering of society and seeks to challenge existing patriarchal norms. Radical feminism seeks the root cause of women's struggles in society. It examines the profound effects of gender relations and gender roles. "Radicals" are feminists who call for the eradication of males in all social and economic contexts, "radical" referring not to "root", but to the scale of the change they demand.
In conversation, I have often found that these sorts of feminists are very like the free radicals I mentioned above – in that they are often reactive instead of introspective when in feminist discourse, whether the context is academic or social.
I have seen these "free radicals" criticise other women for not being feminist enough, not powerful enough, or not exerting their agency enough. The "Why doesn't she just leave?" – a statement often uttered by the allegedly more enlightened and liberated free woman in reference to the domestically abused one – is a mild example. For some feminists, women should just do better.
Of course, there is a place for the "free radicals" of feminism and for the kind of combustion they create. They play an important regulatory role in many social circumstances. If all women turned the other cheek and played "daddy beats me because he loves me" roles, I fear we might still be resorting to normalising things like physical abuse, or even rape, for that matter.
"Free radicals" help all kinds of women rage against the thinking that we should sympathise with men as they face new challenges to their power, and try to understand their pain before we criticise them for abusing women. These "radicals" think differently about things, and in many cases make space for the voices of those who are usually silent.
As women, the world we grow up in teaches us that abuse is women's fault. This victim-blaming is how many women get stuck in situations where they blame themselves.
But while their volatility is necessary, it often lacks a degree of empathy and respect when it comes to all women. Sometimes negative criticism of the position of some women without the practice of empathy can lead to those women feeling less-than, and despondent.
Feminism must be intersectional and empathetic, or it will leave women behind.
As women, the world we grow up in teaches us that abuse is women's fault. This victim-blaming is how many women get stuck in situations where they blame themselves. Accepting this norm is easier for them than trying to fight it. This notion has been portrayed and often challenged in popular culture. A good reference for me, in terms of this, has always been Celie, the lead character in "The Color Purple".
"The Color Purple"is my go-to film when I am in need of catharsis. I own it on DVD and I pop it in often. It is in the most stressful moments of my life, when I feel burdened by the challenges of being a woman, that I succumb to the comfort of watching it the most. I love to relive that story, because it makes my problems as a woman seem small, and it gives me perspective on the forgotten burdens that other women still face.
My opinion of "The Color Purple"is by no means conventional. I don't think Alice Walker wrote the book or Steven Spielberg made the movie for people like me to use as some sort of free therapy. But let me explain: the culmination of events in the life of the lead character provides a significant and important message, when it comes to women in the home who have no time to think about the politics of feminism (the waves, the movement, the meaning).
Feminism doesn't live in theory in these women's lives. It lives in practice. In the first half of the movie, it becomes clear that women like Celie cannot just abandon their situations in search of a better life. Their feminist journey is perhaps not popular in the "free radical" sense, but it is one that needs to be considered.
When I watched the film recently with my partner – who had never seen it before – she vocalised her frustration with Celie.
To be a feminist on the ground, to protest and advocate for women's rights publicly, and to fight for the equality of the sexes, is unfortunately not an option free to all.
"Why doesn't she just leave?" My partner is an outspoken feminist in public, and I understand this take on things. I was really young the first time I watched it, an angst-ridden teen, and because of what we should not put up with, I expressed the same anger toward Celie. Why was she choosing to stay? Why was she actively subjecting herself to isolation and degradation? I admit, a big part of me ignorantly thought: "If she won't do anything about it, she deserves it."
This assumption that if women will not do anything about their oppressed situations, then they deserve what they get, is a stance that some people believe to be feminist – when in fact it is profoundly anti-feminist. It is a notion that condones the abuse and disrespect of women who are not as fortunate as we are, in that they do not have the luxury of protesting the abuse that befalls them.
To be a feminist on the ground, to protest and advocate for women's rights publicly, and to fight for the equality of the sexes, is unfortunately not an option free to all. One woman's practice of feminism is not another's. Our paths to liberation can be very different. If it does not consider the importance of intersectionality, the feminist fight is driven by ignorance instead of understanding.
The second wave of feminism, which started in the early 1960s in the United States and gained traction elsewhere over the next two decades, homogenised feminism and women's experiences. There was a tendency to normalise and centre the experiences of white, middle-class, able-bodied, Western and heterosexual women, and to erase or marginalise the experiences of working-class, black, queer and differently-abled feminists.
For instance, Celie's path to feminism, and her experience of it, was very different to what a white woman's experience would have been at the time. While Celie was the slave of patriarchy, a white woman contemporary had progressed in that she had the right to vote and own property, for example. Today, we still too often ignore the intersectional layers and dynamic struggles of some women, and privilege the stories of others.
It is my belief that as women who have had the opportunity to be equipped and supported enough to paddle our way out of the rapids, it's our responsibility to throw other women a buoy. Their fight is not done, and while their cause may seem hopeless to us, not all is lost.
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Haji Mohamed Dawjee completed a postgraduate degree in journalism at Stellenbosch University. She became Africa's first social media editor in a newsroom at the Mail & Guardian, where she went on to work as deputy digital editor and a disruptor of the peace through a weekly column. A stint as the programme manager for Impact Africa (a grant-disbursing fund for African digital journalists) followed, whereafter she chose to pursue her own writing full-time. She now enrages readers of EWN and Women24 with weekly and bi-monthly columns respectively. She is also a regular contributor to Sunday Times Lifestyle and a range of other publications. Follow her on Twitter @sage_of_absurd.
* This is an extract from "Feminism Is" edited by Jen Thorpe. It is published by Kwela.