Who's Afraid of Equality?

| 7/26/2013 2:47:39 PM


Students in England bring feminism out of the history books and into the here and now.     

Do you remember having a serious conversation about feminism in high school? Neither do I. There were history lessons on the suffrage movement, sure, and English reading lists included the occasional Ibsen play. But if we did talk feminism or gender equality, the message was clear—feminism was something you study. It was something that mattered to other (mostly dead) people. Not something that had much to do with our lives now.

It’s that silence that students at Altrincham Grammar School outside Manchester, England, wanted to break. Witnessing and experiencing sexist harassment and abuse on a daily basis, the students decided their school could use a dose of equality.

So, back in March, they kicked off a campaign called We Need Feminism in which female students photographed themselves holding homemade signs, each beginning with “I need feminism because…” Inspired by a campaign begun last year at Duke University, the messages range from biting social critiques (“…because people still ask what the victim was wearing”) to deeply personal statements (“…because my cousin shouldn’t be ‘on the shelf’ at 24”). Taken together, they evoke a deeply chauvinistic social and institutional world that millions of young women face on a daily basis.

The campaign was only latest for Altrincham’s Feminist Society (FemSoc), a student group cofounded by 17-year-old Jinan Younis after experiencing particularly hurtful harassment on a school trip last year. “After returning from this school trip I started to notice how much the girls at my school suffer because of the pressures associated with our gender,” she writes in the Guardian. “Many of the girls have eating disorders, some have had peers heavily pressure them into sexual acts, others suffer in emotionally abusive relationships where they are constantly told they are worthless.”

FemSoc suffered abuse from peers and reluctance from school administrators from the very beginning, but the opposition reached fever pitch after the group’s “We Need Feminism” posts appeared on Facebook this past March. Almost immediately, Younis’ male peers unleashed a torrent of sexist and racist abuse, much of it on Twitter. “I was called a ‘feminist bitch,’ accused of ‘feeding [girls] bullshit,’” Younis recounts. “The more girls started to voice their opinions about gender issues, the more vitriolic the boys' abuse became.”

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