feminism, feminist identity, feminist

Why Do We Need a Feminist Identity?

November 19, 2018
6 mins read
The article delves into the nuances of feminist identity in the socio-political landscape of Azerbaijan, highlighting both the challenges and the pivotal importance of embracing this identity. Through personal anecdotes, historical contexts, and sociological insights, the piece underscores the pressing need for a transition from passive egalitarianism to active feminism, especially amid evolving socio-political dynamics.
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At a comprehensive summer school centered on civic education, jointly organized by various European and American universities, a guest trainer—whom I immediately perceived as a feminist (a characterization he later confirmed)—remarked, “Feminism in Europe has undergone a significant transformation. These values have now been integrated into our everyday norms and lifestyles. Frankly, I’m uncertain whether we still need to assert our feminist identity.” I found myself at odds with this viewpoint. Setting aside the debatable notion that feminism has become a standard of living in Europe, I contended the criticality of preserving the feminist identity.

This article delves into the tepid embrace of feminist identity within the socio-political landscape of Azerbaijan, particularly among activists and those engaged in public education initiatives. I aim to explore the challenges and reluctance in embracing this identity and underscore its pivotal role and relevance for our society.

Question of Feminist Identity

Women’s rights are routinely violated in manifold ways, becoming an unfortunate norm in our daily lives. Women are confronted with discrimination, violence, and sexist attitudes and behaviors, whether at home, in workplaces, on public transportation, at public venues, or within political, personal, and public spheres. Daily headlines carry stories of women who “were beaten by a boyfriend, husband, or family member,” “were forced into marriage,” “were abducted,” or “were raped.” Such incidents are so pervasive, and the patriarchal mindset so profoundly embedded that many no longer view them as societal issues but instead dismiss them as mere characteristics of our culture. This overwhelming prevalence, sadly, has desensitized many to such profound injustices.

Yet, when such instances seep into our socio-political discourse, they evoke disbelief, prompting introspective questions regarding the prevalent sexism in rhetoric and action, particularly from politicians and public figures. How can those who champion democracy and human rights casually resort to sexist language and further, instead of rectifying their behaviour upon criticism, audaciously defend their actions? How can those who blatantly condone violence in the name of tradition still maintain a footing in socio-political arenas? Why do socio-political organizations and political parties, which ardently advocate for human rights and democratic principles, struggle to eradicate archaic, paternalistic perspectives on women and cultivate feminist values within their ranks? Why is it uncommon for public figures, political entities, or socio-political organizations to unabashedly bear the title and declare, “I am a feminist”?

Why is it uncommon for public figures, political entities, or socio-political organizations to unabashedly bear the title and declare, “I am a feminist”?

Feminists, Anti-Feminists, and Advocates of Equality

In identity research, an individual is classified as a feminist based on two straightforward criteria: a) their internalization of feminist values, and b) their self-identification as a feminist.

For this discussion, we will bypass the multifaceted and occasionally intricate distinctions of various feminist waves. At its most elemental level, feminism embodies cultural values rooted in advocating equal rights for women and upholding the tenet of gender equality. Many studies gauge an individual’s stance on gender equality across multiple spheres, such as familial, socio-political, professional, and public domains, to discern their endorsement of feminist values. If individuals affirm the tenets of equality and the feminist identity, they qualify as a feminist. (This article does not define the essence of “true feminism”).

Within this established context, those who embrace both feminist values and identity are labelled as feminists. Conversely, those who disregard both are termed anti-feminists. There is also a segment of individuals who align with feminist values but shirk the feminist label, often qualifying their stance with “I am not a feminist, but…”. Such individuals are recognized as advocates of egalitarian equality in feminist scholarship.

feminism, feminist identity, feminist
Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash

Why is the Feminist Identity Rejected?

The hesitancy to adopt a feminist identity isn’t unique to Azerbaijan but is echoed in numerous societies worldwide. Historically, as feminism ascended into prominence, it simultaneously faced a torrent of criticism. This early opposition, intensified by media portrayals, ingrained a somewhat tarnished image of feminism. Common misperceptions associate feminism with “male antagonism,” “impropriety,” “immorality,” “radicalism,” and even “lesbianism”—especially amongst those with biases against the LGBT community.

However, attributing these stereotypes solely to historical bias oversimplifies the matter. Many misconceptions about feminism prevail, and a significant portion of society either misunderstands or outright rejects the values it upholds, leading to critiques or even derisive comments.

In our cultural context, feminism is often conflated with notions like “free love” and “indecency.” Consider the paradigm shift when authority over a woman’s body is transferred from patriarchal constraints to the woman herself, encompassing aspects like female virginity and freedom of movement. Such a shift can be deeply unsettling to conservative individuals who view women as male possessions. In this mindset, any woman espousing feminist views becomes a perceived radical. It’s unsurprising that confrontational queries such as, “Isn’t there someone to rein you in?” are commonly directed at them.

Recent years have seen a surge in public condemnation of sexism and gender-based violence on platforms like Facebook and other social media channels. Recognizable groups championing feminist principles have started to emerge. However, when addressed individually, only a handful confidently identify as feminists. Adopting the feminist label can invoke societal backlash, including criticism regarding one’s morality, sexuality, and even threats of violence. Transitioning from egalitarian ideals to staunchly feminist ones can pose a challenge akin to the hurdles of moving from passive support to active advocacy. Only a select few have successfully navigated this journey.

During my visits to Georgia, I’ve observed the growth of a robust feminist discourse, especially when engaging with activists. I’ve encountered individuals with layered ideological affiliations. For instance, one might identify as left-leaning politically, but when discussing gender dynamics, comfortably align with feminism. Such dual identifications – like green-feminist, leftist-feminist, or liberal-feminist -abound. Contrarily, in our context, even those deeply involved in feminist matters often sidestep the feminist label. Given the challenges above, many find solace in the more neutral “egalitarian” identifier, deeming it safer and less confrontational.

The Importance of Embracing a Feminist Identity

I recall an incident in a café in Baku where a group of us, about 7 or 8, sat together. Among those present, some resonated with feminist values, while others fully embraced the feminist identity. An acquaintance approached our table. From our interactions, he was familiar with everyone except me. He acknowledged everyone with a nod, but extended handshakes only to the men, myself included.

As he prepared to leave, one of the women asked, “Why didn’t you shake hands with us?” Caught off-guard, he mumbled a response, attributing his behavior to cultural norms: “I don’t know, this is Azerbaijan…” Another woman retorted, “We too live in Azerbaijan…” succinctly concluding the exchange.

A notable attribute of such gatherings is the subtle yet effective feminist recalibration. Informal feminist circles promote an egalitarian ambiance, fostering appropriate interactions and non-sexist language. This atmosphere, cultivated through gentle collective pressure, instigates change in its participants. For me, such circles were more instrumental in purging my speech of sexist undertones than any scholarly article or book.

This dynamic, unfortunately, hasn’t permeated much of our socio-political structures. Entities advocating for human rights and democracy struggle to embed tangible feminist oversight within their ranks. While the presence of women’s councils within political factions is commendable, they barely scratch the surface as feminist watchdogs capable of reshaping intra-party dynamics. More often than not, these councils inadvertently uphold conventional male-female or senior-junior dynamics. The void of feminist contingents that could monitor and influence organizational ethos is glaring, with only sporadic murmurs of discontent about this oversight.

Consequently, many who integrate into political entities remain unchanged in their attitudes or lexicon, exhibiting a glaring void in gender sensitivity. This inertia breeds a civil society saturated with activists and politicians who, wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuate various shades of discrimination and prejudice.

Research on feminist identity underscores a pivotal observation: unlike egalitarians, those who espouse a feminist identity actively counter instances of sexism, discrimination, or violence. They’re more inclined to engage, educate, and discuss feminist issues in routine conversations. It’s worth noting that such correlations between identity and proactive behavior are mirrored across numerous other identity constructs. Hence, these individuals consciously or inadvertently foster a feminist milieu. Pure egalitarianism, in isolation, fails to birth feminist oversight and advocacy. There’s a pressing need for explicit feminist identity, paving the way for overt feminist activism.

Capitalizing on Socio-Political Shifts to Promote Feminist Identity

Following the surge of activism from 2011-2013, reactionary politics, coupled with the influence of public figures, seemed to thwart the democratic discourse’s momentum. While this undeniably cast shadows over civil society’s progress, it could inadvertently pave the way for enhanced ideological-social pluralism. Such a shift might channel resources – public, administrative, or financial – towards groups that, to date, have remained apolitical or have shown lesser inclination towards politicization, such as feminists, LGBT, environmentalists, and more. Over time, existing politicized pro-democracy movements might metamorphose into these non-political factions.

This changing landscape could present an opportune moment for feminist circles to reassess the climate for broader acceptance and identification with feminist ideologies. This could be that pivotal juncture for individuals who have been merely egalitarian sympathizers to fully embrace feminism. Strategic campaigns tailored to this shift can be envisioned and executed.

To truly embed a feminist ethos, foster feminist pressure groups, initiate feminist oversight within organizations, or even feminize currently existing women’s councils in our civil society, there’s a pressing need for a profound psychological and sociological transition to a clear-cut feminist identity. It’s worth emphasizing that as any identity becomes more pervasive, the societal pressures resisting its adoption often diminish. Embarking on this transformative journey is imperative to challenge and eradicate the ingrained patriarchal and sexist tenets contaminating our socio-political landscape.

there’s a pressing need for a profound psychological and sociological transition to a clear-cut feminist identity

Note: As I revisited and edited this article five years after its original publication in Open Azerbaijan, I realized the importance of a decolonial/post-colonial lens to my earlier perspectives and the text itself.

Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

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I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

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