My little sister recently asked me what it means to be a Feminist. I proceeded to describe the most significant waves in Feminism. Explained the basis of various Feminist theories using Mary Wollstonecraft, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and bell hooks as sources. I closed with an explanation as to why I choose to publicly self-identify as a feminist and why I hoped one day she would too. My sister sat silently, listening intently.
Ten minutes later, she asked me two questions that took me aback -- “What does a Feminist do now?” and “ What do you do?”
She wasn’t being facetious. Her questions came from a pure place. I’d given a teenager grand concepts, when all she wanted was concrete examples that would make her feel like she could get involved in something I was passionate about. My sister’s questions got me thinking. What does my Feminism require of me?
As I pondered on the question, it became apparent that my brand of Feminism doesn’t require me to do very much. And if I do anything, it doesn’t take me out of my comfort zone.
I assumed that simply declaring “I’m a Feminist” was a sufficient form of activism. As subversive and antagonistic as that statement is in some places, it certainly doesn’t suffice. Words are powerful, but their purpose isn’t to supplant action, but to support it. Feminism (or any ideology) without action becomes inert.
I'm usually aware of issues that impact women beyond my immediate environment, but thus far that knowledge hadn’t provoked me to do anything effective in the long-term. Of course I’ll soapbox online if something happens that I believe is a violation of women everywhere. I’ve signed countless petitions. I’ve joined the chorus of cries of outrage when there was a case that pricked the collective Feminist consciousness. I've donated to causes during months when I’m feeling sane and financially solvent.
But my responses were mechanical, driven by a sense of ideological duty rather than passion and purpose. I’d become numb and desensitized, because my Western privilege means I’m insulated from the life-altering horrors other women have to endure daily.
As I contemplated my sister's questions, I began to think about how I could change from being fake active to really active. And that's when I had a serendipitous encounter with an incredible woman who’s a great example of how Feminism is less about what you claim to believe, and more about what you actually do.
The woman’s name is Leila Segal and we met randomly at a restaurant. Because I’m a magnet for controversial conversations, in our very first meeting we spoke about racial politics. Later Leila would reveal that she was preparing for a speech she was due to give at the Amnesty building in London.
Leila’s a woman’s advocate and one of the founders of “Voice of Freedom,” a participatory photography project that works with a group of formerly trafficked women and empowers them by helping them bring their voices and stories to the world. For the women who’ve been gang raped and tortured, their photography becomes a channel for healing, moving forward and ultimately, agency.
As I type, there are scores of mostly Eritrean women being held hostage in the Sinai desert. They're being raped, tortured, held for ransom, chained, killed, and used as slaves. The story isn’t getting enough traction in the press, because African women being held as slaves doesn’t make a compelling story for the mainstream media. It's tragic. These women get kidnapped in the Sinai while heading toward Israel in hope of a better life, and not enough people care they’re trapped.
After speaking to Leila about her work, I decided to read more about trafficking. The UN estimates that nearly 4,000,000 individuals are trafficked each year, with a disproportionate number of children and women being forced into the sex trade. Essentially it’s the modern day slave trade.
Because I’m an artist, there have been times when I’ve erroneously connected creating, and doing things, to “feeling” like doing them. I’ve told myself my best work comes together when I “feel” like it. Which is a wonderful procrastination facilitator and excuse for not doing anything cumbersome. Women like Leila who have to deal with heavy topics like trafficking on a daily basis, demonstrate it's not about doing the things that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but pushing through your discomfort in order to make a difference.
The fact I can sit around and philosophize about women’s issues without fear of reproach, violence or intimidation means I have an immense level of privilege.
“What does a Feminist do now?" and "What do you do?”
What precisely am I doing with the responsibility and power that comes with such privilege? The answer is, not much as a much as I should, and it’s time I started acting bigger.
I don’t believe in hierarchizing women’s issues and I’m not diminishing the power of the little things. It all matters. Everything counts. However it’s incumbent on women like us, who can do something, to try. We’re all connected. We have the power. We have the resources. Quiet and effective always outstrips loud and ineffective. For too long I’ve been the latter. It’s time to change.