You, Me and the Choices We Make

#HeforShe, #FreeTheNipple, #EverydaySexism. The latest wave of feminism is on social media, but not without setbacks. Media outlets and naysayers in the comment’s section misinterpret or simply minimize efforts. Often, backlash against feminism can be virulent with threats of rape and murder.  Beyond virtual activism, it is even more caustic as feminists try to negotiate their legitimacy in society face to face. Maria Ahlin is a young Norwegian feminist and created Freethem to combat gender inequality. I went to attend one of her lectures to see how another feminist would present on these issues. During her lecture at Malmö University this autumn, I found her optimism incongruous with the amount of criticisms against feminism, notwithstanding the frequency of gender-based violence. I wondered how her positivity endured. In a world of pessimism, she divulged, “I’m somewhat of an incurable optimist, but let’s say after speaking at an event and the discussions get heated – this never bothers nor frightens me. Instead, it always encourages me.”

Portrait of Maria Ahlin, by Mae Daughtrey (2015)
Portrait of Maria Ahlin, by Mae Daughtrey (2015)

On its face, a grenade may look like a pebble, but it is explosive. Feminism is etymologically simple, and, by virtue of its simplicity, yields to a wide range of interpretations. When the term is wielded, it is chaotic and complex. Feminism is concisely defined as “action of/for/about women,” but it has many offshoots, such as radical feminism, socialist feminism, intersectional feminism, and its polar opposite, which is anti-feminism.  Feminists are diverse and, for many, it has become necessary to divide what should be unifying.

Whether it is on Facebook or in lecture halls, conversations about gender and feminism are contentious. Ahlin’s movement tries to be an antidote to this issue. As I was a member of her audience, she tried to include everyone in an open dialogue about the issues confronting women. She sees everyone with an equal part to play within the feminist movement. She strives to educate and reform the way people view themselves within society and how they might be complicit in the perpetuation of sexism.
Though Ahlin risks losing her audience when unearthing gritty truths about gender inequality and violence, she feels that truths are worth iterating since they are the proof of inequality. As she notes, believing that there is inequality is the impetus for change. She says it is key to “provide accurate information, while still leaving it up to the receiver to decide for themselves whether or not they’re gonna act on it.”

Ahlin speaking at an event (Right).

Ahlin is savvy to create a safe space for debate and conversation. If the environment is open and optimistic, there is more of an inclination to listen and learn. As she relays, “when entering a room believing you are there for a reason and what you have to say is important” and having “love be [the] main force that drives our engagement.” This approach allows for collaboration.

Emphasizing women– even trans-women, women of color, women with disabilities, or, in essence, every woman– at the heart of inequality is to underline that women are the ones who are lacking the better opportunities and quality of life that men posses. Instead of merely ousting men or only describing the plight of certain women, Ahlin reprimands the normalisation of inequality that all of us are guilty of upholding even if it hurts humanity as whole. If society cannot engage in open conversation about how sexism is ubiquitous, then everything from micro-aggressions to gender-based violence can go largely unchecked.

Gender inequality is so normalised that it is blasé. It is injustice that persists. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that, if global trends continue, women will not see equal pay until 2059. Even graver, violence is just as common and persistent. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally, 4.5 million (22%) of whom are forced into sexual exploitation. Women and girls account for 75% of all trafficking victims. The third largest international crime industry, behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking, is human trafficking. It generates $32 billion in revenue every year, and of that number, $15.5 billion is accrued in industrialized countries.

Last January, Emma Watson and the United Nations’s HeforShe campaign released the Impact 10X10X10 Initiative “to galvanise momentum in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment” through the recruitment of ten heads of state, ten presidents or chancellors of leading universities, and ten prominent CEOs. However, critics wondered how it was different than the 1993 UN General Assembly on the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. It is argued that the Declaration has done a poor job of eliminating violence. Though, the United Nations acknowledges that, “up to 7 in 10 women around the world experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.”

Whether it is HeforShe or Freethem, one of feminism’s many caveats is that it requires a certain amount of optimism, or near naivety, to believe change can prosper. Mighty declarations or, even, informal proclamations on Twitter barely scratch the surface of the gender paradigm since there are so many individuals who are violent or sexist toward women and girls or who are profiteering off of the trafficking of women and girls, and there are barely any incentives to stop.

Although she is a self-described optimist, Ahlin digresses, “1 in 3 women still experience physical or sexual violence, particularly at the hands of an intimate partner… often in the home, where no Ban Ki-moon or Emma Watson is watching.” However, possibly remembering her good faith, she recognizes the relevance of Impact 10x10x10, noting that, ”from my understanding, the HeForShe Impact 10X10X10 Initiative is brought ’closer to the people,’ meaning it translates to every-day men and women, not only to those interested in reading declarations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, ‘HeForShe has signed up fathers who want to raise empowered daughters,’ and right there is the core to this campaign, I think. Men and women standing side by side, not as enemies, but as allies.”

A group of Freethem volunteers.

Her movement is similar. Freethem seeks allies, and Ahlin seeks potential even where there may be none. She meets people who oppose her viewpoints because she stands for open debate rather than for militant feminism, as she says, “we cannot have [an] approach thinking, ’We know best.’” Even if she cannot turn everyone into a feminist, she may learn something while trying.

She has learned to maintain a strong and unwavering mission for her movement. She wants people to recognise that the fight to free women and make them equal to men requires legislative reforms all the way down to grassroots connections. Her main focus with Freethem’s international youth movement is to dismantle human trafficking, which is the root of many prostitution rings and pornographic productions. In her opinion, human trafficking is perpetuated by consumer demand for prostitution and other sexual exploitation, which she describes as the “world’s oldest oppression.”

She cites The Nordic Model that is ”a ’normative law’, meaning it’s supposed to change people’s mindsets by preventing both entry into prostitution and the purchasing of sex [while not criminalizing the people who do sex work and, instead, persecuting those who pimp and purchase sex]…We want to bring awareness to the fact that sex-trafficking expresses itself as prostitution…what’s driving prostitution is demand…pornography is in fact fueling [this]”. She notes that “it was somewhat thanks to Swedish students that the Nordic Model passed in Sweden [in] 1999. This is fantastic evidence of what grassroots movements can accomplish. Simply put, it all comes to down to you, me and the choices we make.”

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Ahlin presenting for Freethem, photographed by Mariah Katz.

Some may call Ahlin an anti-pornography feminist. When I talked with some students after Ahlin’s lecture at Malmö University, there were varying opinions about her presentation. Some young women, who were sex-positive feminists, told me that Ahlin hyperbolized the amount of trafficked and underage persons in pornography and prostitution while also stating that she vilified sex work when it should be a woman’s right to choose whether or not they sell themselves. Obviously, there are people who would not support Ahlin’s grassroots movement. Though, she is open to seeing what type of pornography is best for the well-being of everyone: “We want good relationships, good sex and good health for all, therefore the question we need to ask ourselves is whether consuming pornography is going to provide us with this or not?”

The choice is in everyone’s hands to decide whether or not they are feminists, whether they are anti-pornography or pro-pornography, whether they are radical feminists or intersectional feminists. Though, prescribing to one version of feminism over another loses sight of feminism’s original intentions. Therein lies the challenge facing feminism: rejecting the United Nations, Ahlin, or whomever leads to division and deflects from the heart of the movement, which is to create “action of/for/about women.” I may sound like an optimist, but to be purely feminist would require me to appreciate the work of all feminists and organizations, like Freethem, while pursuing cooperation between diverse communities in real life and online. It is to stand together as allies to make society discourage the institutions and norms that disadvantage women. Of course, there will be hashtags, slow legislative reform, more questions, more stones to turn over that may be landmines, but the endeavor must be made.


By Mariah Katz

Image Credit:

Picture 1: Mae Daughtrey

Picture 2-3: Freethem, with permission from Maria Ahlin

Picture 4: Own