What does a feminist look like?

When we spot a wolf dressed as a lamb, we need to be brave enough to point the finger.

Scottish feminists attend a rally for protecting women's sex-based rights
Scottish feminists attend a rally for protecting women's sex-based rights in Glasgow, Scotland on 05 February 2023 (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

What currently passes for feminism in universities and other elite settings is anything but. Look at all the men prancing around in campuses, offices and city streets in their “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts who have at best never lifted a finger in support of the women’s movement and at worst actively caused it harm. It seems anyone can now pass as the real deal simply by wearing an item of merchandise.

And it’s not just men who are attempting to rebrand feminism as anything they want it to be: there is also a new wave of conservative-aligned women who call themselves “feminists” even as they propagate a regressive 1950s-type role for women both at home and in the workplace.

Mary Harrington, a writer I know and very much respect, is a case in point. In her new book, Feminism against Progress, she is, rightly, critical of the way in which liberal “feminism” promotes the commercialisation of women’s bodies through prostitution and surrogacy. She also claims that contemporary feminism undermines motherhood as an alternative to independence.

Yet the potential solutions Harrington offers in her book are not feminist in the slightest: she suggests that the continued dehumanisation of women could be countered via monogamous marriage to a nice man. Harrington is critical of the contraceptive pill because it gives men permission to demand casual sex, whereas I believe that is a job done by patriarchy and a sexist legal system. And while she stops short of being anti-abortion, she is obviously troubled by it.

Among all these new types of “feminism” there is also the notion that women who are subject to misogyny should automatically be bestowed with the honour of being labelled a kick-ass feminist. Take Madonna for example, and the nasty, ugly remarks about her use of Botox and cosmetic surgery. Do we condemn the beauty industry (which risks emboldening virulent woman-haters)? Or do we defend Madonna and her choices, and brand those choices “feminist” (thereby validating cosmetic surgery as a tool of liberation)?

We do neither, because we can’t go along with the idea that Madonna is exercising an empowered, feminist choice here.

I am not advocating for a feminism that judges and excludes women, because my type of movement forges a commitment to end the oppression of all women, whether we like them or not, and whether we agree with them or not. Women’s oppression under patriarchy takes many forms, and only collectively can we resist and overcome such atrocities as male violence.

Feminism is a mass movement – not an individual viewpoint. It is a fight for liberation. Fighting for women’s “rights” is not the same as fighting for women’s liberation. Over the decades, I have witnessed attempts to undermine, dilute and discredit this definition – by both men and women. These have always been motivated by a desire to prop up the status quo, avoid rocking the boat, keep men happy, and keep women in their place.

The goal of women’s liberation seems to have been replaced by one of equality, measured by glass ceilings smashed – while women at the bottom of the ladder have been ignored.

Why is it deemed acceptable to define feminism in ways that completely subvert its broad foundational aims and objectives? No other political movement has been subverted (by those hostile to its original aims and objectives) to mean the very opposite.

Whether it takes the form of “progressive” men heading up “feminist” societies at universities, telling women that porn is liberating, or conservative women suggesting women can avoid sexual violence by getting back to traditional marriage and childrearing, it’s all being rebranded as feminism, when it is anything but.

The past decade has seen a shift towards what I call “feminism for men” or “fun feminism”. Prostitution and pornography have been rebranded as “choice” and “empowerment” while harmful, degrading sexual practices are now called “kink” and deemed liberating for women.

Sexist and misogynistic men are not the only ones who hate feminism – so do those challenged by women who critique their sense of entitlement or use of pornography. The backlash against feminism is fierce and constant. Women are prosecuted for false allegations of rape yet rape conviction rates in the UK stand at just one per cent of those reported to police. Some family courts fail to recognise that rape in marriage has been a crime in England and Wales since 1992. And every three days, a woman is killed by a man because she is a woman, more often than not, by a violent male partner.

Thanks to feminists, we now hear about the men who commit acts of domestic and sexual violence towards women and girls. Every time I hear someone say, “A woman was raped” I want to hear, “A man raped a woman”. We cannot reach our potential while living in fear. Young women need to be offered hope that in their lifetime, both the streets and the home will be safe for them. The goal of feminism must be to end male violence. And yet there are people who claim to be “feminist to [the] fingertips” but seem willing to put women at risk for the sake of brownie points.

Scotland’s former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pushed through a bill that would enable any man, including convicted rapists and child abusers, to self-identify as women and thus access women’s single-sex spaces in prisons, refuges and rape crisis centres. How can a so-called feminist put the needs and “feelings” of men over the safety of women and girls?

Younger feminists have to deal with hostility and bullying, primarily from the so-called progressives of their generation. They are left scratching their heads in dismay and bewilderment in the face of the promotion of prostitution (rebranded “sex work”), the violation of women’s hard-earned sex-based rights under the guise of “promoting transgender rights”, and dangerous sexual practices being presented as “feminist causes”. They have seen how porn is used as a form of sexual harassment and to justify sexual assault. Many of these young women are reverting to pre-internet campaigning methods and recognising the need to engage with real women and each other, to be physically present and to become more vocal, campaigning outside of online forums (many of which have become misogynistic spaces). These women give me hope.

For feminism to succeed, we need to be vigilant to those that wish to do the movement harm while claiming the title for themselves. And when we spot a wolf dressed as a lamb, we need to be brave enough to point the finger.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.