December 19, 2020
First of all, I would like to begin with the originating point of this study. The perceptions of feminism in people’s minds have been preoccupying me for a while. Even in the academia, and I am talking about the field of social sciences, I’ve noticed that even academics whom we expect to have at least a certain level of theoretical knowledge about feminism by profession, have very different and unrelated thoughts on this subject and that they are quite confused. In various interviews I had with faculty members working in the fields of Political Science and International Relations, I’ve picked away at the situation a little bit. The questions I was curious about were what kind of perception and attitude they’ve developed towards feminism, on what basis they think that way, why and how they distinguish between the sense of equity and feminism. Almost all the people I spoke with had advocated equality between men and women in terms of social, political and economic rights, but when it came to feminism, they used sentences that started with ‘but”s. Also, they did not hesitate to claim that I was not a feminist, although I always said otherwise. While some asserted that they could sense who is a feminist or not by looking at them, they as well claimed that feminists were women who produce an ‘anti-male’ discourse, who often develop such an attitude as they do not have good relationships or as they are not admired by men and that they are aggressive and usually short-haired, overweight single women who do not quite fit into the beauty standards of the society. One of the interesting things was that people who chose to use the title ‘Ms.” when talking about women, never said “Ms.” when it came to feminists.
These opinions of the mostly male professors working in the field of social sciences have impelled me to conduct a research on the perception on feminism. In this context, I decided to study what university students think about feminism. What does the concept of gender equality mean to university students, how do they define the concept of feminism, do they define themselves as feminists and why, basically were the questions I was seeking answer for. In this context, face-to-face interviews were held between April-May 2019 with 86 university students living in Istanbul out of which 58 were female and 28 were male. 11 open-ended questions were asked to participants between the ages 18 and 26. In addition to the questions mentioned above, the concept of Muslim feminism was among the questions in the research.
One of the main findings that arose in this study was the students being quite confused about equality of women and men, gender equality and especially about feminism. Almost all of the students participated in the survey think that there is equality between men and women in terms of rights. With this in mind, many of them highlighted the physiological differences between men and women and stated that men and women are not ‘equal’ in this regard. In other words, while the participants stated that they believe in equality between men and women on a rights basis, they mentioned the physiological differences when asked about the concept of gender and explained ‘not being the same’ as ‘not being equal’. In this respect, it is seen that the concept of gender equality is perceived as an approach expressing sameness rather than equality by many participants. For this reason, while the participants defended the existence of equal rights between men and women, they would remain distant from the concept of gender equality due to their notion of not being the same.
Like gender equality, the participants are also distant to the concept of feminism. When asked what they comprehend from the concept of feminism, a notable part of the participants emphasized equality between men and women. However, among the few participants, there are those who considered feminism as advocating female supremacy. In this context, a 21-year-old male participant (Political Science and International Relations student) criticized feminism as “hammering female supremacy into our heads”. A 19-year-old male participant (Political Science and International Relations student) defined feminism as a notion that supposedly defends equality but whose main goal is to maintain the superiority of women.
Participants’ confusion about feminism became apparent in their responses to the question “Do you identify yourself as a feminist?”. The attitude of “I advocate gender equality but I am not a feminist” is seen among most of the participants. While they advocate for gender equality, they think that feminism is something beyond that. Therefore, although the majority of the participants have a positive attitude towards feminism in general, they take a distant attitude towards feminism when it comes to identifying themselves as feminists or not. Even if they advocate equality between men and women, they are afraid to call themselves as feminists. On the one hand, they comment on who can be called as feminists, on the other hand they say that they do not have enough knowledge to call themselves feminists. For example, a 22-year-old male participant (Political Science and International Relations student) defined a feminist as a believer in the equality of men and women and although she stated that she thought that women should have equal rights with men, she did not define herself as a feminist. The 23-year-old female participant (Child Development student) also stated that although she was in favor of gender equality, she was not a feminist. The 21-year-old female participant (Psychological and Counseling student) also stated that anyone who defends the equality of men and women can be a feminist, but when it comes to defining herself, she did not define herself as a feminist because she did not know about feminism much. Another participant (20-year-old male Psychology student) stated that although he inclined toward feminism, he did not classify himself in this category in terms of the culture he was raised in. A reading can also be made to this participant’s answer as follows: While he does not have a personally negative attitude towards feminism, the participant prefers to remain distant from feminism with the idea that there is a negative attitude towards feminism in his culture. A 20-year-old female participant (Pharmacy student) stated that feminism is good and necessary for society as long as it is interpreted correctly. If we do a reverse reading of the participant’s view, it can be concluded that feminism can also be misinterpreted and this situation harms the society. However, since the participant did not clarify the issue of correct and incorrect interpretation, it is not possible to understand what kind of feminism definition she has made. Similarly, a 22-year-old male participant (Medical student) also stated that people who misrepresent feminism were more self-assertive. It can also be thought that there is a false perception of feminism in the society. The same participant said that he did not have enough knowledge to define himself as a feminist. Male participants interviewed within the scope of the study define themselves less as feminists than female participants. Even if they did not make this definition, a significant number of participants also argued that there is an equality between men and women. In this respect, the statements of the 25-year-old male participant (Political Science and International Relations student) are notable. Although the participant did not define himself as a feminist, he stated that he approved of this movement, as well as supporting and respecting it.
Among the participants there are also those who do not call themselves as a feminist, partly because they advocate their own-defined feminism. For example, a 22-year-old female participant (Food Engineering student) stated that she was in favor of defending women’s rights “to a certain extent”, although she did not clearly define herself as a feminist because she did not advocate every view or every act of feminists. Similarly, the 21-year-old female participant (Turcology student) stated that she did not want to be among feminists because she thought that feminists were too harsh. It is not possible to understand what they consider negative about feminism and feminists since both participants did not clarify what they had meant.
In addition to those who are positive but distant about feminism, there are also those who are clearly negative, though few in number. It is seen that the reason why these participants have a negative attitude towards feminism is either their perception of feminism or their negative opinion about gender equality. For example, a 19-year-old male participant (Psychology student) defines feminism as advocating female supremacy and therefore disagrees with feminism. Similarly, the 24-year-old male participant (Mechanical Engineering student) commentated on feminism as women thinking themselves superior to men and stated that he did not approve of what was done on March 8. He had not had an explanation for what was not pleasant. Another male participant (a 21-year-old Computer Engineering student) made a judgment as to how women and men can have the same rights when they are not even biologically equal.
There are also a small number of participants who define themselves clearly as feminists. The 23-year-old female participant (Psychology student), who defines herself as a feminist, contributed to the discussion of sameness-equality and women’s masculine characteristics while explaining a topic she felt uncomfortable with. The participant stated that women do not have to be painless and strong during the periods of menstruation, that they can be delicate, and do not have to be like a man, as shown in the commercials. Although another participant has developed a higher awareness of feminism than most of the other participants, she is reluctant to define himself as a feminist. The 20-year-old female participant (Turkish Language and Literature student) defined feminism as a concept created against the patriarchal social order and said that she supported gender equality. The same participant stated that the concept of equality is misunderstood in the society, that women are afraid of being strong individuals, and that she considers everyone who regards men and women equal as feminists. Despite all these views, she said that she did not see herself as a feminist, and even if she liked the idea, she could not live that way. It would not be wrong to say that this participant also has a negative but unspecified perception towards feminism despite all her positive attitude.
The concept of ‘Muslim feminist’, which is quite new for many people in Turkey is also a new concept for almost all of the university students participating in the research. Few participants have heard of the term Muslim feminist. Only a few of those who have heard about the term identify themselves as a Muslim feminist. It was observed that the participants who developed a positive attitude towards feminism had a more positive attitude towards the concept of Muslim feminism than others. Participants who developed a negative attitude towards feminism, on the other hand, were uncomfortable with the concept. They did not see it possible for being Muslim that they had attributed a positive meaning and feminism which they had attributed a negative meaning to coalesce. The 21-year-old male participant (Political Science and International Relations student) stated that Islam protects women’s rights, but feminism is against many ideas of Islam. Similarly, the 19-year-old male participant (Political Science and International Relations student) also said that feminism has various opinions against Islam, that therefore the two concepts cannot coalesce. In addition to this view, some of the participants did not find the concept of Muslim feminist meaningful because the essence of Islam is already respectful to women’s rights. Among the participants there are also those who attribute a positive meaning to feminism and a negative meaning to Islam and those think that the two cannot coalesce for this reason. They opposed the Muslim feminist concept with the argument that there is no gender equality in religion. For example, a 22-year-old female participant (a student of Political Science and International Relations), who describes herself as a feminist, does not consider the concept of Muslim feminist possible because of the emphasis on male domination in religion. There are also participants who have not heard of the concept of Muslim feminism before, but have an opinion on what could it be and they have a positive attitude about it. For example, a 22-year-old male participant (Political Science and International Relations student) thought that Muslim feminism could be the liberation movement of women in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, while another male participant from the same department has a positive attitude towards the concept of Muslim feminist because feminism is not a separate religion.
Instead of conclusion…
This study which was conducted with university students and of which the first analysis were shared, shows that young people are quite confused about the concepts of feminism and gender equality. A significant part of the participants stated that they advocate equality in terms of rights between men and women, but they do not mean the sameness of men and women. The fact that they especially expressed this when explaining their opinions on the concept of gender equality suggests that there is a perception of sameness within their opinions on gender equality. In addition, it was observed that they had developed a negative attitude towards feminism that they could not clearly explain and therefore they remained quite distant to defining themselves as feminists, even though they advocate equality between men and women. The concept of Muslim feminist on the other hand is a new concept for most participants, except for a few students.
This research has drawn a picture of the perceptions and attitudes of university students for those who work on feminism and gender equality. It is thought that it will have an important place among the literature with similar studies on this subject.
The first draft of this article, with the title “Feminism(s): A Study on the Perceptions of University Students”, was presented on December 19, 2020, at the “Being an Immigrant Woman Within the Local Movement” conference organized by Havle Women’s Association. You can click here to access other texts of our Feminism Localization conference.