The Modest Feminist

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This past week I’ve been following an intense discussion about Harvey Weinstein, sexual assault and victim blaming. 

Mayim Bialik – an “aspiring modern Orthodox Jewish Woman” – wrote a controversial and highly maligned piece for The NY Times in which she seemed to connect her own beliefs about modesty with assault. I’m not going to spend a ton of time going over that piece, but briefly she made some very problematic correlations between her own escape from sexual assault and the fact that she is what she refers to as not a perfect 10, someone who focuses on developing her brain not her body, and someone who dresses and behaves modestly. I think people very rightfully called this piece out for all the problematic ways it tied victimization to dress and behavior, and how it very erroneously labeled itself as a feminist view.

But the entire debacle got me thinking about the topic of modesty in general. One comment I saw in response to Mayim’s piece was that one cannot hold an ethos of modesty and also be a feminist: that the two views are fundamentally incompatible. And I suppose, based on the most common notion of modesty, that statement is true.

In general, most public discussions of modesty are focused on women more heavily than men. Dress codes are predominately concerned with ensuring that women don’t show too much of their bodies so as to become a distraction. Whether that’s spaghetti straps, low cut tops, high cut bottoms, things that are considered too tight… the message is always that women’s bodies are both inherently sexual and inherently problematic, and that men need women to cover themselves up in order to be able to control themselves. We see this all over our culture, from school and workplace dress codes, to public campaigns aimed at protecting yourself from unwanted attention, to television series like “Counting On” – a continuation of “19 Kids and Counting” highlighting the growing Duggar clan and their Uber patriarchal worldview embedded in their conservative Christian beliefs. This representation of modesty is absolutely counter to any sort of feminist worldview, and in my opinion absolutely harmful in the ideas it continues to perpetuate both about women’s bodies and about men’s apparently animalistic sexual instincts. It contributes to rape culture. It sets up women to be responsible for the actions of men. It’s not ok.

Before I continue, I need to admit something. I believe in modesty. 

I grew up in a church that taught me about the type of modesty discussed above. It was almost always presented to me as about honouring the holiness of my body, but with the added need to protect myself and to not “tempt your brothers or sisters” (the brothers and sisters are in Christ – not biological, for those of you not familiar with church speak). You can imagine that this concept of modesty did not sit well with me long before I considered myself a feminist, and certainly after. In my late teens I had pretty much stopped going to church, and while I held on to some fundamental belief in God, I disposed of everything else. I was certainly anything but modest. For me personally, my times of greatest immodesty coincided directly with my times of least self respect. THIS DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING ABOUT WHY OTHER WOMEN CHOOSE OR REJECT MODESTY – I can’t speak to their realities. I am only telling my own story here. 

As I started to return back to my faith, but this time cautiously trying to think through it all, I kept coming back to modesty. Because it had always been tied to harmful patriarchal ideas, I really had no idea how to navigate my feelings. On the one hand I felt it was a fundamental part of embodying my faith. Not in a turtleneck and long skirts kind of way, but more a maybe I don’t want my boobs to be covered by a 1/4 inch of fabric because it makes me feel like I’m disrespecting myself kind of way. And even in that, I felt uneasy, wondering if feeling like I was disrespecting myself was somehow the product of being told I needed to hide my body FROM MEN. 

I wasn’t sure what to think about modesty. I spent nearly a decade trying to figure it out. Why did I still feel compelled by the idea of modesty, and how could I reconcile that with my understanding of how harmful traditional conceptions of modesty were? Was it even possible to believe in modesty and feminism?

Modesty isn’t anti-feminist. Modesty, at least the kind focused on sacredness instead of sexuality, has nothing to do with controlling someone else’s behavior, or with making you more worthy. 

Modesty as it was intended is about honoring that which is sacred. That being the human body. Each human body, male and female. It’s about recognizing that the same sacred nature of God that required men to hide their faces and cover their heads, to stay behind the curtain because the sacred was so overwhelming – that same sacred nature is embedded in our very flesh. Many of the rules imposed over centuries are most assuredly patriarchal. But holy modesty is not about the rules – it’s about recognizing and honoring the sacred God who lives in us, not just spiritually but physically. 

The relationship between God and our physical bodies has largely been lost in modern Christianity. It’s one of the many things I so appreciate about my Orthodox Christian faith: the recognition that my flesh is as much a part of my story of redemption as my spirit is. And modesty as I now understand it is about accounting for this reality and honouring that which is sacred. Because encountering that which is sacred should not be something casual. It requires attentiveness, thoughtfulness, trust, respect, and holiness. 

There is nothing shameful about my body, and my worth is not increased or decreased based on my modesty. It’s my recognition of the sacredness of my body that increases (or decreases), and my requirement that I honour that which is sacred as a response of thanks, humility, awe and respect to the God who lives within me. 

Glory to God. 

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A feminist critique of hyper-feminism

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Feminism

noun fem·i·nism \ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm\

: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities

– Merriam Webster Dictionary

 

I have been contemplating this post for a long time now. Many months and many conversations have gone into forming the thoughts I’m about to share. I spent a long time coming up with reasons not to post this, reasons often voiced by those in conversation with and around me: I don’t want to stir the pot on this hot topic, I don’t want to keep spreading the myth that feminism is about hating men, enough people are trying to cut feminism down – the least I can do is speak to its merits as opposed to getting caught in the seemingly endless assault on its perceived flaws. For a long time these reasons were enough to keep me from speaking up.

But something happened recently, something I’ve often witnessed at an arms length but never previously experienced so close up. Someone out there in the ether, someone with an education and a platform, someone held up by many as the ideal feminist warrior – this someone and a few of her biggest supporters launched a vicious, personal and ongoing cyber attack against my husband after he made a sarcastic joke in an effort to show his solidarity with her on a particular issue. Now, people take offense often and I have no problem with someone taking offense to Tory’s particular sense of humour. It’s remarkable it doesn’t happen more often! But this wasn’t someone taking offense. This was an explosive and vitriolic reaction to a simple attempt to communicate, followed by shaming, berating and full on cyber-bullying of the worst kind, spewing hatred not just at him for daring to be a man, but at me for daring to voice disagreement with their accounts and at our children for daring to be born.

The nice thing about such an intensely unpleasant experience is that it removed any inhibitions I had about raising my voice. I stopped being worried about how some of our friends might react and started to be far more concerned with the damage people like these are doing not just to the reputation of feminism but to real individuals who are being publicly flogged for the sin of holding a different view of the world.

In this post, I will be referring to something I have decided to call “hyper-feminism”. It should be noted that when I speak to this particular brand of “feminism”, I am not referring to what was described in the definition provided at the top of this post. I am not referring to the millions of people engaged in meaningful discussions and meaningful work focused on gender equality and on allowing women to have the same access to opportunity as men. I am not denying that the world we currently live in is an uneven playing field, and that because of that women have more ground to cover in order for equal opportunity to be realized. I am not denying the reality that to this day there are undertones in our society that work against women and for men, and that these undertones still have a huge impact on how we choose to live our lives. I do not believe feminism is unnecessary, I do not believe it is outdated and I do not believe there is a simple fix to the huge array of issues that feminism works so hard to unearth and address.

“So then why call it feminism at all?” I will still use feminism to label this worldview (at least in part) because 1. There is a large – though not majority – faction of people who loudly proclaim themselves to be part of the feminist movement who hold this worldview and 2. Because we don’t get anywhere by trying to minimize real issues. Pretending this isn’t a hijacked and twisted version of feminism but simply some other entity altogether diminishes the dangerous crossover this movement shares with feminism in its true form, and the reality that this movement is rooted in and uses to its advantage the basic premises of feminism before perverting them so completely to serve their own purposes. Evil perpetuated in the name of a worldview needs to be called out for what it is so that it can be extracted from the worldview it purports to support. If we as feminists refuse to acknowledge what is being done in our name, it will continue to infect the entirety of the movement.

Maybe you think I’m being a little dramatic. Maybe you think this isn’t a real issue, this is just first world problems. Who cares about what a stranger on the internet says. My response is this: First world problems often have a trickle down effect on the rest of the world, and in order for feminism to continue to be the incredibly positive and powerful force it is in EVERY world, the ever-louder voices destroying it from the inside out need to be answered and called out for what they really are. Hatred can destroy even the strongest of things. And I care about strangers on the internet when so much of our world today is lived out in social media, and social media happens to offer just the right amount of distance to allow people to say the most horrible thing under the illusion of immunity, words that don’t just hurt feelings but can cost lives and destroy decades of good work.

Hyper-feminism has been growing ever louder over the past half a decade or so, at least that I’ve noticed. It’s gone from being a small faction barely recognized by those either inside or outside of feminism, to finding a voice in the development of feminist literature and theory, and most of all within the media. In the last few years I’ve not taken a single course that involved feminist theory that didn’t in some small way touch on some of the ideas held by hyper-feminism. The media has exploded with the content of the hyper-feminist movement – essays abound on the subjects near and dear to their hearts and newspapers and magazines seem afraid to speak out too loudly against these opinions, probably because they know they will immediately be branded as misogynistic and morally backwards. The only voices that loudly oppose hyper-feminism are those on the right – but unfortunately they are so far right they provide nothing constructive to counteract the arguments, instead reinforcing patriarchal norms. So the world sees two sides to choose from and while being bashed by the right for your views just reinforces for moderates and liberals that they are on the right track, because of the speed and severity of the condemnation of the hyper-feminists, speaking out against them runs the risk of political and social suicide. So, cowering in the fear of the potential consequences, the majority decide to keep their heads low while the hyper-feminists grow ever louder.

“What is it that you think ‘hyper-feminism’ is and why do you disagree so strongly with their views”? Hyper-feminism has taken the fight for women’s rights, and turned it into “only women have rights” – while also saying that women should have no responsibility. Hyper-feminism has decided that because men have had and continue to have more power and advantage in the world, male experiences are not valid. Hyper-feminism has twisted the acknowledgment that women deserve equality into the proclamation that men don’t have a place in the world other than to worship and agree with anything a woman says. Except if that woman doesn’t agree with hyper-feminism in which case that women is a whore who has sold herself to patriarchy and is too ugly and stupid to have valid thoughts either. Hyper-feminism has stripped the world of intelligent, compassionate dialogue and replaced it with screaming so loud and unending that there is no room for another voice to interject. And any society that only allows one voice to speak is doomed.

The thing that bothers me most about hyper-feminism is the utter hypocrisy demonstrated each and every day by those I see yelling most loudly in support of the movement. They often claim to support the tenets of feminism, but their actions betray their true beliefs. You can see it easily of you know what to look for – a woman “stands up for herself” by cutting down a man who disagrees with her, calling him horrible and degrading names, attacking his looks, his intelligence and his value as a human being (‘neckbeards anyone?). She is heralded as a goddess by her fellow hyper-feminists and lauded for putting him in his place. But, if a man does any of these things he is the worst kind of misogynist. If a man dares to mention a woman’s career when expressing surprise that she didn’t know how to communicate better then clearly he’s a misogynist neckbeard whose children are not children but “spawn” because he and his offspring don’t even qualify as human. But wait – isn’t that what you are mad at men for? For reducing you to less than human, for attacking your fuckability as if your only worth lies in your looks, for assuming because you have an opinion that’s different from theirs you don’t have the ability to form an intelligent opinion at all?

Men are not right for doing these things. Neither are you.

Or what about this – women are encouraged to “be strong” and “be powerful” – women who kick butt and take control are immortalized in comic books and turned into children’s stories about girl power that can be read to our daughters. But if a man so much as dares to open a car door, hyper-feminists say he is undercutting and infantilizing them, and should be beaten in the streets for this unfathomable crime. If a man appears to live up to the traditional stereotypes of being macho and manly, of being strong and taking charge – then he is perpetuating patriarchy and is called a pig.

Hyper-feminisim is presumptuous, condescending, arrogant and abusive. Hyper-feminists assume their opinion is so far superior that anyone who disagrees with them is not even worthy of breathing the same air as them. Hyper-feminists assume they are mind readers, and believe they not only know every persons thoughts but also all of their underlying motivations. Hyper-feminists assume it is their God-given right by virtue of their superiority to be judge and jury for the entire world. Hyper-feminism assumes all men are misogynists and predators – only those who have submitted completely and claim no right to have an opinion are allowed to exist without condemnation. It assumes that because of their maleness all men’s motivations are pre-determined, and those motivations are to gain power and dominate women.

Hyper-feminism argues that because women suffer more greatly from inequality, nothing a man suffers ever matters. It’s like arguing that because a child in Africa is starving and lost his parents to AIDS, I don’t get to be sad when my own father dies because I’m not starving and he didn’t have AIDS. That women face more hardships doesn’t mean that the hardships of men are any less real, and acknowledging the greater position men hold in our society doesn’t mean they aren’t still subject to discrimination or hatred too. Using the logic of the hyper-feminists, when a woman in North America experiences catcalling it may never be empathized with because there are women in other parts of the world who live in countries where rape is still legal. So because a woman here doesn’t have to face that much greater trial, any trials she does face aren’t valid.

And it’s not just men that hyper-feminists are so willing to attack. Remember the speech Emma Watson gave about inviting men to the table of feminism to be part of the discussion? Do you want to know where the worst attacks on her came from? They came from within feminism – from hyper-feminists who could not believe her gall at acknowledging the value of the male voice. They destroyed her. They ripped her apart. She didn’t share their views so therefore she was a traitor, and not worth treating as a human. Hyper-feminism is so quick to dispose of the humanity of anyone they disagree with – almost as speedily as they raise as goddesses those who yell along with them the loudest.

Many people argue with me that because men have the greater power, we shouldn’t be spending time talking about their voices or concerns or needs. I disagree. Why? Because if we forget about their voices then we lose the balance that true feminism is really after in our world. True feminism is about creating a space where men and women come together as equals, with equal access to all the opportunities life has to offer. Hyper-feminism is not concerned with this equality, but with silencing men altogether. Female empowerment is important – it NEEDS to happen. But hyper-feminism seeks to simply build a mirror image of the world we’ve been fighting so hard to change.

This is not a post about men’s rights. Men DO still have more power, and they don’t need the same amount of support that women do in order to get our world to equality. But the whole point of feminism is not to build women up and cut men down, the point is to find a balance – where no one has too much or too little power in the world. And the whole point of hyper-feminism is to teach the world to hate everything they have decided men encapsulate. Men aren’t people, at least not ones that deserve equal voices. And if a woman believes in the value men offer, she’s just as worthless as men are.

Hyper-feminists, you are not goddesses – you are humans. Fallible, imperfect humans. You cannot imply intention. You cannot know without discussing. You are teaching the world to hate. Feminism gave you the platform you stand on today and I, for one, will not just stand by and let you ruin the good name of feminism.