Blog Series: Feminist Awakening

One of the aims of the Gender and Sexuality Research Network at Reading is to start a dialogue around issues of gender and sexuality. The first topic of discussion we would like to propose is: ‘Feminist Awakening’.

We would be very pleased to hear from you about when and how you first realised that feminism could mean something to you. Are there any particular texts that inspired you? Did something in the media spark your interest in feminism? If you would like to write a blog piece for us please email us (see the contact page) and we will upload your piece to the site. We also encourage men to write for us!

The following is written by Maria Tomlinson, one of the organisers of this network:

mariaFor me, feminism is as simple as believing that men and women deserve to have the same rights and to be treated equally in all aspects of life. The first time I realised that girls and boys are not always treated equally I was around six years old. Growing up with male cousins I had always enjoyed kicking a ball around with them, despite my mum not being happy when I came home covered in mud. I thought nothing of the fact that they were male and I was female. I had no clue that football was typically considered to be a male sport. In fact, when I was very young I used to think that I was a boy (why wouldn’t I? I had little involvement with other girls). It was only until I was sent to ballet that I realised I was indeed female, this being a very early example of gender stereotyping I have experienced. At school one day I saw some boys playing football and ran over to join in. I was soon approached by a dinner lady who said, ‘what are you doing? You can’t play football, it is for boys, go and play with the girls.’ Upset and angry by not being allowed to play, I walked off. I could not comprehend why the fact I was a girl meant that I was not allowed to play football. ‘Why can’t I do something that boys are allowed to do? This is not fair!’ I thought. From that point onwards, I decided that I was not going to let being a girl stop me from doing what I wanted to do. Of course, my six-year-old mind did not label this ‘feminism’, but I realised that life was not fair and something needed to be done about it.

I then moved to a private school where there were only girls and I forgot about feminism. Being surrounded by other girls who were intelligent and hard working, I naïvely believed that there would be no obstacles towards our success. It was only when I started studying contemporary women’s writing at degree level and looking at all of the injustices the women in these books faced, that I remembered feminism again. I was particularly inspired by female-authored fiction from Algeria wherein protagonists were silenced by patriarchal norms and risked their lives subverting and challenging patriarchal values. I found Leila Marouane’s Le Châtiment des Hypocrites, which is set during the Algerian civil war of the 90s, a particularly harrowing account of life as a woman in Algeria. The protagonist not only suffers the trauma of being raped by fundamentalists but is later abused by a misogynistic husband. Her trauma is repeated again and again in the numerous miscarriages she suffers during the marriage. I was quite relieved for her at the end when she brutally murders and rapes him. I thought at the time ‘Perhaps Frantz Fanon is right, the only answer to violence is more violence.’ But, then again, even though he expressed his wish that men and women would be treated equally in the postcolonial state, Fanon offered no feminist methods of resistance against patriarchy. Instead, he silenced women by portraying them as objects of desire that were tools for men in the battle for liberation. I decided that it was better to use words as a weapon in the cause of feminism, and I suppose that is why I am doing now by writing a PhD on the subject of the silence of the female body in Algerian and Mauritius.

My passion for feminism was further ignited when I was told (I can’t say by whom but he was someone rather important) that it would be far harder for me as a woman to succeed in an academic career than a man. He was right of course, as we can often see the evidence of this prejudice in the academic system in articles from papers such as the Guardian. I walked out of the room and remembered six-year-old me angry because I could not play football. Again I thought, ‘this is not fair!’ and ‘I need to do something about this.’ Hopefully one day as a successful lecturer in women’s studies (that is the dream) I can look back again to six-year-old me and think, ‘Life is not fair, but I have tried at least to do something about it.’