Experience: Feminism at University


In my opinion the word “Feminism” has become sort of overrated and overused such that it has lost its meaning in contemporary society. In developed countries like the UK, and in an elite institution like our very own Durham University, we tend to take a rather post-feminist stance in our view of the world. We assume that the state of gender equality, though not perfect, is much better than most societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, which are somehow seen as more primitive and backward. I urge us not to assume that our version of feminism is superior to those of tribal societies or those whose cultures we are strangers to, as clearly the first world has a lot of work to do on gender equality, albeit the nature of this work might not be so apparent.

In Durham for example, it is easy to assert that gender equality is gaining ground by citing statistical evidence of the proportion of female students compared to males, which clearly beats many countries where education is a luxury to girls. However, we do not pay enough attention to other aspects such as the informal interactions which make up our everyday experiences. It would do us good to move away from a focus on large statistics that strive to demonstrate how females are catching up with males in almost every way, as such numbers are only a superficial poke at the underlying social structures of sexism. In Britain, lad culture has rarely been cited as a symptom of sexist mindsets among many males. This video, easily found on YouTube by typing in “lad culture” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuLAHKKjqYI), shows how female and male students inhabit different realities which cannot be uncovered or captured by using numbers such as the fact that one in seven female students experience some form of sexual harassment during their university years. In the clip, female students narrate their experiences of how many male acquaintances are the ones who perpetrate sexual attacks rather than strangers, and the use of alcohol comes up repeatedly. They also talk about the different interpretations of sexual harassment that males and females have, and what they consider to be rape was very likely not interpreted as such by the males. It is shocking that the female reporter gets hurled sexist insults when interviewing people on the streets outside clubs, and such behaviour effectively outweighs the so-called material benefits which women have achieved. As a female student, I feel that on the one hand women may be achieving more ground in getting equal salaries and opportunities for education, but improvements have been slow at best in the issues that matter most to us, like personal and bodily security.

When talking to my female friends at Durham, I find that almost all of them have had some experience of unwanted advances, and all of them use some small tactics to ensure their own safety, which is rather detached from the male world. Of course it is dangerous to conflate males as one category, as obviously there are a good number of males who have had unpleasant experiences of discrimination, but for the most part it was my female friends who identified strategies such as using flashlights on the way home at night and avoiding back-alleys. Such things may look insignificant but they are incremental, and point to the fact that males and females probably occupy different worlds in the arena of bodily security. Females have internalised the constant possibility of being vulnerable to unwanted harassment which shows in how we live our daily lives.

Despite all of this, the word “feminism” has come to imply all sorts of things that it probably should not. It is common for people to associate feminism with not wanting male input, which is surely the wrong way to go about it because male rights are very involved in this too. Recently, Durham provided some workshops on consent and related issues, of which some male participants pledged that they were not what a rapist would look like. While their disapproval towards rape is much appreciated, by saying that rapists do not look like they do, they are neglecting the fact that attackers in fact look like any other male student at Durham. While many males who do not harbour bad intentions may feel insulted that attackers are among them and look just like them, the bodily security and safety of female students should matter more than their feelings or egos. Through such cases, we gather that the debate around feminism cannot exclude male opinions, as their mindsets are very much implicated in such matters. It is not a matter of whose mindsets are right or wrong, for there is no such thing. Students of all genders have the right to their own take on feminism, but it is important to be aware of respecting what others feel about it and to try to strike a compromise.

Illustration: Elizabeth Greenwood

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