Zara Faris questions whether feminism is sexist

    Zara Faris explores whether feminism is sexist.

    In a recent interview, the feminist journalist and self-proclaimed “political lesbian”, Julie Bindel (who I debated last year), stated that, if she could, she would put all men into a “camp” with “wardens”, where their female relatives could check them out like “library books”.

    Bindel, who also writes for The Guardian newspaper, was asked during an interview, “will heterosexuality survive women’s liberation?“, to which she replied:

    It won’t, not unless men get their act together, have their power taken from them and behave themselves. I mean, I would actually put them all in some kind of camp where they can all drive around in quad bikes, or bicycles, or white vans. I would give them a choice of vehicles to drive around with, give them no porn, they wouldn’t be able to fight – we would have wardens, of course! Women who want to see their sons or male loved ones would be able to go and visit, or take them out like a library book, and then bring them back.” [1]

    Whilst her plan is not widely shared by most feminists, Bindel being from the ‘radical’ feminist community, her sentiments against men as a group is alarmingly mainstream amongst feminists, even justified.

    “It’s not sexism when women do it…”

    Many feminists have long rejected accusations that the feminist movement is heavily characterised by “man-hating”. However, other feminists attempt to defend man-hating as a moral, political weapon. Robin Morgan, another feminist activist and journalist, once explained:

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    I feel that ‘man-hating’ is an honorable and viable political act, that the oppressed have a right to class-hatred against the class that is oppressing them.” [2]

    In other words, for feminists like Morgan, women have “earned” the right to be prejudiced; men, on the other hand, have not earned the right to be outraged by it. This position was once seen to be more pronounced amongst “radical” feminists – today, the claim to class-hatred is invoked by numerous gender and race identity groups.

    In the common parlance of identity group politics, when class-hatred is exercised by a perceived “oppressed” group against the perceived dominant or “oppressor” group, this is sometimes called “reverse oppression” or, in the case of feminism, it is called “reverse sexism”.

    “… because men are not institutionally disadvantaged.”

    Feminists frequently argue that there is no such thing as “sexism” in “reverse sexism”. They claim that “sexism” does not mean prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s gender – rather, they stipulate that it refers to an entire system of prejudice or discrimination, where one group of people is disadvantaged because of their gender at institutional levels (i.e. in government, law, economics, etc). As such, these feminists claim that there is no such thing as sexism against men, as any act of prejudice or discrimination against a man would not reinforce an institutional disadvantage against him in the same way that it would against a woman.

    According, therefore, to feminists like Morgan, the following quotes would not be sexist, but would be “honourable” and “viable political acts” in feminism:

    “[T]he male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples. […] To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo.” [3]
    – Valeria Solanas (SCUM Manifesto)

    Under patriarchy, every woman’s daughter is a victim, past, present, and future. Under patriarchy every woman’s son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman.” [4]
    – Andrea Dworkin, Our Blood

    The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately 10% of the human race.” [5]
    – Sally Miller Gearhart, The Future – if there is one – is Female

    Firstly, let’s call a spade a spade. There is no such thing as “reverse sexism” – there is only “sexism”. It is as absurd as saying “reverse rape”, or “reverse terrorism”. An unjust act is an unjust act, no matter who is doing it, or who it is being done to.

    As for “sexism” only being “sexism” when it reinforces institutional disadvantage, even if we humour this definition for the sake of argument, when it comes to men and women, institutional disadvantage is not black and white. In fact, the idea that there is no institutional oppression of men is a desperately un-nuanced perversion of reality when we consider the plights of working class men and coloured men, the “disposability” of men compared with women (e.g. male military conscription, “women and children first” evacuation, etc), the institutional disadvantage of men by way of the university qualification gap, criminal sentencing gap, suicide gap, life-span gap, cancer research gap, domestic violence resources gap, death-on-the-job gap, etc (for an explanation and demonstration of all these, see more here). 

    The other issue with the idea that “sexism” is only “sexism” when it reinforces institutional disadvantage is that it requires a group to “earn” protection from discrimination by undergoing a kind of rite of passage of institutional disadvantage. In other words, feminists who argue this definition are suggesting that each individual man must undergo the ordeal of being an oppressed underclass, cruelly lorded over by an inventive, callous matriarchy, in order to merit protection from oppression. This definition ultimately proposes a system that requires an oppressor group and an oppressed group to exist in order for each individual’s rights to be protected. One can only wonder whether such feminists are interested in achieving justice or merely inflicting revenge.

    To argue that “the oppressed” have a right to “class-hatred” against the “class that is oppressing them” is morally wrong; it is actually tantamount to condoning and justifying any “class-hatred” that terrorists may hold against their perceived “oppressors”, because they too, after all, describe themselves as being an oppressed class.

    Furthermore, despite the term “reverse sexism” being used to criticise feminist sexism against men, it is still problematic. The term inherently suggests to the listener that the sexism in question is reactionary, done in response to an earlier perceived sexism. When people use the term “reverse sexism” instead of just “sexism”, this actually assumes that the feminist starting position (that they are aggrieved in all the ways that they claim) is correct, and that these feminists are merely responding. Using the term “sexism” instead, assumes no such backstory – it does not require a man who is discriminated against by feminists due to his gender, to submit to the narrative posed by these feminists of him being a member of the “oppressor” group.

    “…because women are not capable of the same horrors that men are.”

    As shocking as Gearhart’s above statement about reducing the male population is, she was not making a frenzied protest to kill off 90% of all men but, in an eerily sedate essay, wrote about gradually phasing out 90% of the male species, with their “wilful cooperation”, at the reproductive stage.

    Despite the calculated seriousness with which this is proposed, Gearhart tries to suggest that women are not capable of being tyrants over men, due to their “nature”, feeding the argument that women cannot oppress men, let alone be “sexist” toward them:

    “[F]emale primacy is the fact, the truth […] my belief is that the very nature of the female would preclude her use of the kind of hierarchical power displays that accompany the usual use of biology as a social weapon, both by whites who hold down people of color and by men who hold down women. […] Would the female of the species, if given the chance, repeat the violence of the patriarchy? I argue no […] If we would see how women really manage power and government, then let them demonstrate their abilities in a system that they themselves create out of their own values.” [6]

    This opportunistic invocation of “female nature” dangerously suggests that the propensity for good and evil is somehow inherent in certain involuntary characteristics such as gender (although she dismisses without explanation the same being true of race).

    For example, Gearhart “warned” her readers of the perils of male-bonding as follows:

    “[T]he danger is not individual men […] The real danger is in the phenomenon of male-bonding, that commitment of groups of men to each there whether in an army, a gang, a service club, a lodge, a monastic order, a corporation, or a competitive sport […] A large portion of any male-bonded group’s energy and spirit is expended in the exclusion of women and in the derogation of female values and qualities. Women must be the brunt of jokes; their experiences and emotions must be trivialized. Male bonding’s success depends upon that exclusion and that constant derogation.” [7]

    Unfortunately for Gearhart, many feminist women have not behaved differently from the men she accuses here. There is a feminist female-bonding phenomenon that manifests today through publicly brandishing misandric (hate of men) phrases such as “I bathe in male tears” on everyday paraphernalia (e.g. mugs, t-shirts), and hashtags like “#KillAllMen” on social media platforms. These feminists claim that they are merely being “ironic”, using these slogans as an “in-joke”, and “as a way to build solidarity” amongst feminists.  One such feminist even commented, “I enjoy that it bothers the men who don’t get it”. [8] If these are the values expressed by such feminists within the existing system, one can only dread to think what behaviour they would demonstrate “in a system that they themselves create out of their own values.

    For those who argue that women cannot be sexist like men because women are just not capable of the same “class-hatred” that men are accused of expressing (which feminists call “misogyny”), it would seem they are capable of exactly the same. The reason is that both men and women are human, and humans are capable of both good and bad, and  are capable of trying to justify either.

    The illusion that class-hatred ends injustice.

    Many feminists, by imagining women to be an “oppressed class” against an “oppressor class” of men, end up inevitably imitating their imagined “oppressors”. This concept of class-hatred (whether real or imagined) is not new, and the phenomenon of the “oppressed” becoming the “oppressor” has been observed throughout history.

    Brazilian philosopher and educator, Paulo Friere, noted:

    The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors […]  Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors.” [9]

    Ibn Khaldun, a C14th Muslim philosopher, also observed this dynamic, and suggested that this imitation actually inadvertently reinforced the idea of the superiority of the “oppressor”.

    The vanquished always seek to imitate their victors in their dress, insignia, belief, and other customs and usages. This is because men are always inclined to attribute perfection to those who have defeated and subjugated them […] either because the reverence they feel for their conquerors makes them see perfection in them or because they refuse to admit that their defeat could have been brought about by ordinary causes, and hence they suppose that it is due to the perfection of the conquerors. Should this belief persist long, it will change into a profound conviction and will lead to the adoption of all the tenets of the victors and the imitation of all their characteristics. This imitation may come about either unconsciously or because of a mistaken belief that the victory of the conquerors was due not to their superior solidarity and strength but to [inferiority of] the customs and beliefs of the conquered. Hence, arises the further belief that such an imitation will remove the causes of defeat.” [10]

    The “oppressed” are not exempt from accountability.

    Some may think, then, that this argument leaves no recourse for an oppressed group to take action. Should a genuinely oppressed person or group try to rectify their situation? Of course! And in Islam, numerous methods are set out to prevent oppression and to rectify oppression in various situations. Islam deals with injustice by prohibiting each and every unjust act, regardless of who does it, or who it is done to. In this way, injustice is stamped out without any residual rancour or resentment.

    O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah and be just witnesses and let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety, and fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Well-Acquainted with what you do.” The Holy Qur’an, 5:8

    O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.” The Holy Qur’an, 4:135

    Being a member of an “oppressed” class does not give one licence to inflict injustice against, or assert superiority over, members of the “oppressor” class:

    In his last sermon, when the Prophet Muhammad (s) stated, “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab […] also a white has no superiority over a black”, in the same sentence he (s) stated the opposite, too – “nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab […] nor a black has any superiority over white”, and said the only superiority was “by piety and good action.” [11]

    Being a member of an “oppressed” class does not exempt one from their own life purpose, from one’s own duty to do what they can for justice, from one’s own accountability. Allah (swt) reveals in The Holy Qur’an the following conversation between a weak (oppressed) group and an overbearing group who have both been condemned in the hereafter:

    “[…] But if you could see when the wrongdoers are made to stand before their Lord, refuting each other’s words… Those who were held weak will say to those who were overbearing “If not for you, we would have been believers. Those who were overbearing will say to those weak, “Did we avert you from guidance after it had come to you? Rather, you were criminals (transgressors).” The Holy Qur’an, 34:31-32

    The two groups will wrangle with one another whilst standing before their Creator: with the oppressed group trying to blame the overbearing; the overbearing then turn around and remind the oppressed that, despite being oppressed, the oppressed could still have followed divine guidance in their own behaviour. The Qur’an interestingly describes both groups as “wrongdoers” (the Arabic word used is “dhalimun” which literally means “oppressors”).

    Seeking justice is not just about travelling a path with nothing but zeal; or imitating the wrong actions of oppressors. For justice, one needs a framework of guidance, objective truth, and a just method. Without this higher guidance, feminism provides no inherent concept of justice other than the vacuous claim to ‘seeking equality’. However, the problem with seeking equality with those you perceive to be oppressors, is that it makes you imitate what you imagine them to be, and the only difference left between you and them, is whose turn it is doing the injustice.

    If you fight fire with fire, you’ll never escape it.

    Zara Faris is a graduate in Arabic & Islamic Studies from SOAS University (School of Oriental and African Studies). She has lived for a year in Egypt studying the Arabic language. She is now a Researcher and International Speaker for the Muslim Debate Initiative (MDI). She is of Kurdish/Pakistani origin.

    You can follow Zara on Twitter @zarafaris



    [2] Robin Morgan, author and editor for Ms. Magazine; Going Too Far (1978), p.178

    [3] Valerie Solanas, founder of S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men), S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1967)

    [4] Andrea Dworkin, author and feminist activist; Our Blood (1976) p.20

    [5] Sally Miller Gearhart, author and former professor of women’s studies at San Francisco State University; The Future – If There Is One – Is Female, Section III (1981)

    [6] Sally Miller Gearhart, author and former professor of women’s studies at San Francisco State University; The Future – If There Is One – Is Female (1981) p.273-4

    [7] Sally Miller Gearhart, author and former professor of women’s studies at San Francisco State University; The Future – If There Is One – Is Female (1981) p.281

    [8] The Rise of the Ironic Man-Hater, Amanda Hess, See also, Do Young Feminists Really Want To Bathe In Male Tears? Katherine Speller,

    [9] Paulo Friere, PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED, New York: Continuum Books, 1993.

    [10] Chapter Two, Geography, An Arab Philosophy of History, Selections from the Prologomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406), Translated by Charles Issawi

    [11] “[A]n Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” The Last Sermon of the Prophet Muhammad (s)

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