Gender (in)equality: what does feminism mean?
Catalan News speaks to a number of women who share their thoughts on sexism in Catalonia and beyond
While not all roads lead to feminism, many of them sure do, and the woman’s rights movement has seen adherents from all walks of life join its fluidly defined ranks. In the past two years alone, Barcelona and other cities around Catalonia and the world have seen thousands upon thousands of women take to the streets on March 8 for International Women’s Day, and this year rally organizers aspire to mobilize just as many or more despite it falling on a Sunday.
Aside from fighting for rights on par with those enjoyed by men, however, feminism often means different things for different women. But from white women to women of color, rich women to poor, heterosexual to queer, cis to trans, abled to disabled and more, there is a recurring theme among those who define as feminists: the pressing sense that their identity does not conform to what society expects of them - that the world is not made for them.
Supposed to be versus want to be
Carmen Lawrence, who is now in her late 60s, says she must have been "about 19" when she had her aha moment and realized she was a feminist. "I remember suddenly thinking that I am going to have to circumvent the normal situation because obviously I'm supposed to be different than I was," she explains, adding that she "didn't want to be married."
Although nowadays women in many parts of the world may be less likely to be encouraged to marry young, family and society can still exert undue influence on them, which is what Vibha Daryanani, a film producer from Barcelona’s Sants neighborhood describes.
Daryanani, who is in her early 30s, believes she first became aware of the different treatment she received as a female when playing videogames with her male cousins when she was younger: "My grandmother made me get up from the sofa and go to the kitchen and help her while my cousins were still playing."
When she confronted her family about it, they didn’t understand why she didn’t want to help. "I'm like, 'Yeah, I agree with [helping my grandmother], but why just me and not my cousins, my male cousins?'" Daryanani recalls.
For others, the way they approached the women’s rights movement was more gradual. "Violence against women in Uruguay is pretty normalized, more so than here in Catalonia," argues Melania Geymonat, a Uruguayan doctor who lives in Barcelona at the moment, "and that makes it so you don’t realize things right away."
Some women describe instinctively fighting for equality before intellectually knowing they were feminists, as is the case of Kadijatu Dem Njie, a psychologist in her 20s from Pineda de Mar, an hour north of Barcelona, who now works for the Catalan government’s gender-based violence prevention program.
"I would say that I have been a feminist in some ways my whole life but there was a specific moment in which I was able to label it as feminism," says Dem Njie, referring to her second or third year of university.
Sexism: a world of frustration and missed opportunities
Lawrence, who originally hails from the United States but has lived in Catalonia for the past few years, has stories aplenty that would shock the younger generations. A translator by trade, she has spent a significant part of her life in Europe, including various parts of Spain. It is in this southern European country where, in her early thirties, she bought a house with her then-husband but couldn’t legally own it alongside him.
"I was not allowed to put it in my name, nor was my name on the deed, but it was on the mortgage. So when we separated, he got the house. And in Spain, the law was that a woman could not own a house if she had a husband," Lawrence explains.
Much progress has been made in the decades since dictator Francisco Franco’s death, and today it would be unthinkable for a woman to pay for a house and not be able to own it, but sexism still finds other, perhaps at times more subtle, ways of rearing its ugly head.
Geymonat, who "usually dates women," says it took her a while to fully realize the discrimination she suffers as a woman, but now sees the personal toll it has taken on her.
"Sexism has affected me greatly in terms of suppression and not seeing my true identity," she contends, alluding not only to her sexual preferences but also to her other interests and behaviors that aren’t typically "feminine" by society’s standards.
Daryanani, on a similar note, attributes her allegedly "unwomanly" side - "I don't wear makeup, I don't like to wear heels, I do a lot of 'male' sports, but what are male sports?" - as having set her up for failure in terms of achieving certain things she aspired to professionally.
Forms of sexist violence including intimate partner violence or other kinds of harassment, which many women will experience at some point, are further reminders of gender inequality. According to the Catalan interior ministry, one in four women in Catalonia will be the victims of a particularly serious assault in their lifetime.
While Geymonat was the victim of a particularly cruel homophobic attack in London last May, the other women Catalan News spoke to also had their own - thankfully less frightful - stories.
"Things have been told to me or guys have groped me or whatever," says Daryanani, practically normalizing the reprehensible yet widespread conduct of street harassment that routinely occurs in Catalonia and other parts of the world.
Feminism for a fairer future
Given the frequent and varied kinds of sexist discrimination, women often turn to feminism in search of personal empowerment and because they view the movement as a harbinger of positive societal change to come.
According to Lawrence, whose opinion is rooted in the hard work she has likely had to put in to get by on her own, feminism is the undeniable way forward: "Women obviously have to have at least an equal chance, and since we usually do twice as much at least we should get credit for half as much."
Geymonat, on the other hand, speaks of the need for a change in pervasive mores. "I think it’s important to incorporate feminist values into our daily lives, like flexibility, greater empathy, more generosity, more love for others. It’s helped me accept myself more and express my real identity better beyond stereotypes," she claims.
Similarly, Daryanani argues for a complete overhaul of the dominating culture to do away with the sexism she and countless other women have experienced at home, at work, and in public. "We need to change the education, we need to change it from the homes, from what we watch on TV,” the film producer maintains, “we need to change the way we talk, as well."
Dem Njie, however, describes the need for feminism in more stark terms, perhaps due to the nature of her profession working to counter the sexist violence that 51.3% of women in Catalonia will experience in their lives: "We are still living in a patriarchal society."