The Problem with Labels

A few months ago, a friend was going through the pictures on my mobile phone and he saw a picture of the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saved. His first reaction was a hiss, and after I enquired why, the following conversation ensued:

“You keep Chimamanda’s picture on your phone?”

“What is wrong with that?”

“Dude, the woman is a feminist!”

“And what is wrong with being a feminist?”

*cue silence*

For the record, I am a feminist. Don’t be shocked – feminism is not the exclusive preserve of women.

My favorite definition of feminism is the one given by the actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt:

“What feminism means to me is that you don’t let your gender define who you are – you can be who you want to be whether you are a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, whatever. So yes, I’d absolutely call myself a feminist.”

I have been a feminist as far back as I can remember. However, I didn’t know it was called feminism.

All I know is that I have always felt some discomfort when I hear someone, male or female, saying things like, “Women should not be studying this course in university”, “A single woman driving a car would scare men away from marrying her”, “Women should scale down their ambitions in order to be able to take care of the home” or “How can she be joining mouth with men in arguments?”

I could go on and on with examples, but you get the gist already.

It was not until the last two or three years that I realized what I had always believed in, that women should not be made to play second fiddle in society or the home just because they were women, was referred to as feminism.

There are other behaviors too that we might know some people with, but until it was given a label, we did not have an issue with it. For example, you might likely know someone who is not an eater of meat or fish but you never thought it weird until “vegetarian” became the term for that behavior.

However, there is a disadvantage with beliefs being given labels. Considering the fact that feminism challenges the existing order of patriarchy, and one that has been entrenched almost since the beginning of time, it is bound to face opposition, like every other radical idea. In the face of that opposition, any and every negative statement made or action carried out by those who describe themselves as feminists are then taken to be the whole.

For example, if a feminist says that it is wrong for a woman to be the one always cooking for her husband and family even if it is of her own freewill, it is immediately interpreted to be that feminism means women should not be cooking for their families.

Like every movement that exists, there are bound to be people that will take it to the extreme and those who will jump on the bandwagon without understanding what the movement is – in other words, classic crowd mentality behavior.

Such generalization of minority behavior to use as a justification on why what could be a positive movement is bad is not exclusive to the opposition of feminism. I have seen many young Nigerians criticize activism because one or two self-styled activists engaged in bad behavior.

I feel this is a reason why people should not rush into giving labels to movements, ways of life or positive behaviors they are trying to instill in their society. I do not have to wear the label of feminism to fight for equal rights for men and women in my society. I describe myself as only in the rarest circumstances, and mostly as a counter who deride it as though women are damned for advocating for not being held down by their gender, and for the shock value.

Equally, I do not have to call myself an activist to draw attention to something wrong going on in my community. I simply act as an active citizen ought to.

At the same time, it will do us a great deal to try and understand what exactly is a label defining before we go all up in arms against it.

Knowledge and understanding of an issue helps us to avoid having opinions based on ignorance.



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