Watered Down Feminism.. About Believing in Women, but With “Conditions”

Marginalization and persecution have always been the title of our lives as women, especially in the Arab region, where social norms and religious concepts prevail that entrenched patriarchy, and men’s supremacy over women.

The goal is to keep women in the shadows, to exclude them from the public sphere, and from any power that gives them the ability to change the status quo.

When women rebelled against this unfair social engineering, and feminist movements emerged demanding women’s rights, patriarchal societies fought them by various means.

With ridicule, defamation, repression and threats, and even imprisonment and detention.

But the most dangerous weapon that the patriarchy has used to oppress us as women is watered-down feminism.

So what is watered-down feminism? And why does it pose a great danger to our endeavors towards equality and freedom?


On Watered-Down Feminism and the Language of Power

The past century has seen a boom in women’s rights.

We have taken, by force, our right to education, work, election, and access to the public sphere, after long and bloody struggles.

This historic feminist movement was able to achieve gains that seemed imaginary to women in the past.

But, many could not break out of that past, and their basic idea of women remained that they were “subordinate to men” and “should wait for his permission at any step in their lives.”

So, watered-down feminism was born.

In her book “Dear Hajar, or a Feminist Manifesto of 15 Propositions,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie theorized the term watered-down feminism. The masculine weapon, which was able to exploit feminism itself to marginalize women.

This feminism is a conditional idea of gender equality that aims to “cultivate the power and talents of women,” by placing them within a framework that men allow or society sanctioned first, before they can exercise that power.

Examples of watered-down feminism include phrases such as: “He is the king, but you are the one who runs his kingdom,” or “He is the thinking head, but you are the neck that supports the head.”

These statements reinforce the idea that men are “absolutely superior to women,” but must “compromise” and treat them well.

Other examples of this type of feminism: “A woman is free to do whatever she wants, as long as her husband allows her to!”

The word “allow” establishes a language that has unacceptable power and entitlement, meaning that men have the right to prevent it if they want.

This contradicts the right of every woman to live her life however she wants, without guardianship from anyone.

And if we want to understand how insulting and unacceptable this language is, we have to reverse the phrase: “The man is free to do such and such if his wife allows him.”

Do these sound acceptable words under any circumstances? of course not. The same goes for women.

Contradictions with Feminist Endeavors 

The watered-down feminists are establishing  a version of women that is quiet and restrained, because they give some man (father/brother/partner/husband) power over them.

Whether he approves of her freedom to make a decision, or if he does not, making her decision up for discussion, regardless of her basic opinion.

So, it contradicts the endeavors of feminists of different orientations, as feminism establishes complete freedom for women.

It calls for treating them as beings with full rights and capacity, and they alone have the right to determine their lives and make their decisions.

But, on the other hand, watered-down feminists view women as “subordinates waiting for some man to give them the green light to live.”

Supporters of this kind of feminism may think that they are “supporting women” with their way of thinking, or that they are making compromises between entrenched patriarchy and what appears to be, as they call it, extremism from feminists.” But, they are hurting women as much as misogynists do, and perhaps more.


Watered-down Feminism in our Lives as Arab Women

Watered-down feminism manifests itself in our lives as Arab women, in many forms.

How many times have we read news about a successful woman, and under it a comment that says: “She should thank her husband for allowing her to work until she became successful”?

How many times have we celebrated a man for “helping his wife around the house,” or for not bothering her because she is a working woman?

These examples are among the most prominent manifestations of watered-down feminism in our Arab world.

It puts the man in the position of making the decision to “allow” his partner to do any activity.

So, all her labors and endeavors are of less importance, because he could have denied her work in the first place.

That is, every successful woman would have been denied the opportunity if her partner refused. But, “luckily for her, he was a gentleman who allowed her to succeed!”

According to the previous idea, every woman must make sure that her partner approves of all her dreams, in order to start pursuing them.

But if it happens that the husband doesn’t allow her to do a job or practice a hobby, then she should not complain too much, for “it is natural that he has the right to refuse and deprive her of what she wants.”

It is also reflected in the idea: “You can make him agree to anything if you are smart,” because it also gives men absolute control, and entrenches the idea that women have to adapt to it, and beg for their rights with trick and caution, so as not to incur wrath, and have their men turn against them!

If we rely on the previous idea, then it is “natural” for women to exert a superhuman effort to “run” the man’s kingdom, in exchange for being allowed to “do what she wants.”

We see the reflection of this masculine idea in Egyptian society, many of whose members believe that a woman’s ability to work is a virtue from her husband, which he can deprive her of at any time.

In exchange for her enjoyment of work, she must do all the housework and take care of the children without complaint, without any “failure,” in order to “deserve the privilege she enjoys.”

Many also see that women’s time and lives belong to their husbands.

So, he has the right to seize her salary, if he allows her to work, because this is an investment that belongs to him and not to her.

The patriarchy can quickly be defeated in an intellectual confrontation that appeals to humanity and the ethics of equality.

But watered-down feminism is more devious and insidious, because it does not ban women directly, but rather uses the language of “allowance” to tame them.

It sets a ceiling for them that they must not go over. Whatever they rebel against, they must not go over it.

This feminism also relies on the idea of compromising “femininity.” And that women should be “nice, gentle, feminine,” to be accepted.

And not to show their strength, because it will immediately put them in the position of rivals and  as going head-to-head with men, which makes them vulnerable to more troubles and difficulties.


How is this Feminism Another Facet of the Patriarchy?

Every strong and independent woman in our society always arouses suspicion and repulsion before any other feeling.

She is described with phrases such as “a tomboy, audacious , has reach, out of control, her parents didn’t raise her well.”

It is the opposite of how strong, independent men are treated, who are seen as “mature, self-reliant, needing no one, raised by a man.”

This means that the problem for society is not with the principle of strength itself, but rather with its owner.

Other examples of watered-down feminism also appear in statements such as: “I believe in women’s right to such and such, on the condition….”, or “I believe in women’s rights and everything, but I do not agree that….”, or “We support women as long as….” , etc.

All of these ideas place conditions on women’s rights and independence. It makes their support conditional on a particular situation or behavior.

This contradicts the endeavors of feminism, which aims to empower women in their lives, their freedom, and their decisions, without any conditions, except that they are fully qualified.

Watered-down feminism is another facet of patriarchy, because in essence it fights the idea of strong women, requiring them to exercise their power and rights behind the scenes and on the sidelines.

The reason for this, Chimamanda also said in her book, “is that we live in a world that does not like strong women, who treat everyone as strong. The strength of a woman is forgiven if she is under the banner of some man, who allows her to do so. Her strength as an independent human being provokes even some watered-down feminists.”


How do we Escape the trap of Watered-down Feminism?

Feminist movements established a new “reality.” Women are no longer completely subjugated, as they were in past centuries.

And now they have a loud voice to shout and express themselves and their grievances, and through it they change the laws for a more just world.

But, this was not enough to deter the patriarchy, which tried to contain the feminist discourse, and circumvent it with a polite version that seeks the man’s forgiveness first, and this is the danger of watered-down feminism.

Despite the clarity of the idea of this feminism, it often disguises itself in the form of “wisdom”, “unwillingness to stir up trouble”, or “concern for women so that they do not get into trouble”, or “If it was possible we would have done it”, and that “ We have to accept the little gains and keep silent, because this is more than what our grandmothers dreamed of.”

Going back to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, we find that she notes that “feminism is like being pregnant. Either you are pregnant or you are not. That is why we cannot accept statements such as women are free, but under conditions. Because there are no conditions. Period”.

In many cases, it is difficult for us to discern watered-down feminism. It comes to us wrapped in the words “caring for us and being kind to us,” but even if the intention was good, this does not negate the harm, nor does it make us hesitate to fight its ideas.

We can distinguish the watered-down feminism, and the patriarchal ideas that seep into it, if we reflect the discourse: “I am with women’s rights on such and such condition.”

Here we can ask ourselves: If men were exposed to the same situation, would we say the sentence “We are with his right as a human being on such and such conditions”?

If the answer is different for men than for women, there is a problem.

The reversal of roles can show us the real scale of discrimination against us as women.

Phrases such as “his wife allowed him to succeed,” or “you have to do all the housework, in return for allowing you to work,” or “you are free within such and such limits.”

All of them reveal the extent of the injustice we suffer in our daily lives, and provide an important approach to our real situation in our country.

It also shows us the small amount of freedom society “gives” us.

I am free within the limits set by my husband, but what if I am not married?

Then I shall be as free as my father, or brother, or son, or any male who is ‘in charge’ of me, will permit me to be.

And if these do not exist, then any passing man in the community has the right to evaluate and correct me.

But I will not be as free as men. And if I happen to live without any man to look after me, then I shall be in a position of suspicion, more so than I really am.

Feminist discourse has taken us to far horizons, far beyond the dreams of our grandmothers. We have to reach unimaginable heights for the sake of our daughters and granddaughters.

So, it is our responsibility to distinguish the patriarchal discourse, and to stop the discourse of watered-down feminism, which reproduces patriarchy in a disguised way.

It exploits the feminist discourse to assassinate the aspirations of women, and to establish their status as subordinates forever.

It also establishes the acceptance of the new reality. But the truth is that we do not have to accept it.

And we can escape this trap with strength and firmness, because the new reality is that women have taken some of their rights by force, and they will continue to take more, until we reach a world in which we are all treated as equal human beings.

Written by: Aya Abdel Rahman


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