Whether they happen in the comments section of a Facebook post or in a heated classroom discussion, debates about equality (and specifically feminism) seem to be becoming more commonplace.
Feminism is conventionally understood as a social justice movement that works to secure equal rights for women, although many academics agree that the definition can be multi-faceted and varied.
As with any debated issue, there are advocates and opponents, but according to those who engage in feminist study and education, the debate surrounding feminism in particular seems to be a continuously polarizing one.
The widespread use of social media and the platform it has offered those who were previously silenced has certainly had a hand in this polarization, allowing the expression and circulation of hotly-argued stances at a far faster rate than ever before.
This polarization became visible once more after a controversial ban that came out of the French city of Cannes in August of this year. The mayor of the city banned swimwear known as the burkini, citing potential links to Islamic extremism, according to the BBC.
The burkini is a full-body cover that was created to allow Muslim women who wear hijabs or similar religious coverings to be able to swim and visit beaches while also adhering to religious rules concerning clothing.
In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, British MP Naz Shah wrote that the burkini ban was not simply an issue of religious freedom but one of bodily autonomy, therefore making it a feminist issue as well.
“We must accept that for decades women have asserted their rights both through stripping off and burning bra’s (sic) to covering themselves up in clothing,” Naz wrote. “Covered and dressed does not always equate to being oppressed, just as being naked doesn’t always mean being liberated.”
Meanwhile, French prime minister Manuel Valls defended the ban, saying it furthered the fight against radical Islam.
The strong opposition of these reactions can’t be explained with any single reason, but MacEwan sociology professor Alissa Overend believes a conventional view of feminism has had an undeniable impact.
“As society becomes generally more liberalized, a small percentage of people become more and more threatened, and then they speak out in relation to that,” Overend said.
Overend added that there is a false belief that as feminist pursuits restore rights for certain groups, others will inevitably be treated worse, which discourages participation in the movement and results in a strong negative reaction.
“I think that at its root, feminism is about equality, and feminism has changed its pursuits and its aims based on this sort of changing historical realms,” Overend said. “People sort of feel that you’re either in or you’re out.”
“Part of what feminism does is (call) into question people’s privilege. I think for a lot of people, by virtue of the word ‘privilege,’ people don’t know they have it.”
She said facing the truth about privilege can be an uncomfortable process for many, and this discomfort can sometimes manifest itself as extreme opposition to feminism.
However, the accessibility of social media has allowed for rebuttals to this rejection of feminism. “ The fact that you have individuals who can write blogs as opposed to just getting mainstream media is a huge opening,” Overend said.
“The fact that we can hear about these experiences from a wider range of people tells us that it’s not just something that academic women talk about, or something that happens in the ivory tower, or something that happened in the past (and) is currently not an issue.”
Peter Lougheed Leadership College’s director of instruction Cristina Stasia said she is optimistic about the impact of social media on the public’s perception of feminism. Stasia previously taught gender studies at the University of Alberta, and completed her doctoral studies on feminism in film.
“My favourite part of social media is all the girls making their (content), and that’s a new voice added, which is girls making their own culture instead of just being fed culture, so that’s really exciting,” she said. “I think it gives a platform for more people to participate.”
According to Stasia, feminism has sometimes been branded as a movement for white, straight, middle-class women. is is because oftentimes the credit for the work done by those who do not fit into these labels has been given to people who do.
She said this has been particularly problematic because it has fed into the assumption that feminism is for a select few. “These voices have always existed — we just haven’t done a good job of listening to them,” she said.
While she is optimistic, Stasia acknowledged that the polarizing effect of feminism has resulted in negative (and sometimes violent) acts against those who do identify as feminists and are vocal about it.
“(Feminism) is not always popular because it makes others have to think and examine their own choices, and that’s not always a comfortable place for people to be,” she said.
Despite the negative reactions, both Overend and Stasia maintain that the mix of social media has done a significant amount of good for increasing awareness about feminist issues.
“Part of my optimism stems from some of the role models that young people would look up to,” Overend said, citing the support for feminism from celebrities like Beyoncé, Emma Watson, and Alicia Keys, among many others.
For Stasia, it’s particularly exciting to know that while discontentment with movements like feminism exists, those who support it are now more able than ever to champion the cause.
“The more people who speak out, the harder it is to drown out our voices,” she said.
“I think it’s a very positive thing.”
Cover illustration by Robert Copithorne.
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