As of lately I notice how “It’s their choice” is often used to wrap up a debate. Like, we don’t need to discuss this because it’s people’s own choice. Or, this problematic behaviour is okay as long as people do it out of free will and are not forced to do so. I think that’s not right and is brushing off the discussion way too flippantly. A choice is made in a context.
I noticed this when I read someone on Twitter talking about a teenage girl who decided she couldn’t kiss a cute guy she met on holiday, because back home she was on friendly terms with another guy. Like, not in a relationship, not having sex, just being on friendly terms. And she really liked the cute holiday-dude but figured she couldn’t kiss him because it was ‘not done’. The author of the tweet argued that the girl was being too harsh on herself and committing to quickly to a guy just because they were talking. Someone else argued that it was her choice, so we shouldn’t judge. It was her decision not to kiss vacation boy so why make it a thing?
The problem with this concept is that we fail to see the difference between HAVING a choice and MAKING a choice. Of course, the young woman in the previously described scenario has a choice. She lives in a modern, free society and she can chose whom to sleep with or kiss and not fear the repercussions by law. The choice is hers to make and we shouldn’t judge her for either. However, it does not stop us from analyzing and talking about it and how and why she decided to make this decision.
A similar discussion exist in feminist theory about adhering to patriarchal norms. When a woman wears heels or puts on makeup, is she being oppressed and cajoled into following men’s expectations? Or is she being free by having a choice to not wear makeup or high heels and making a conscious decision to do so? The dominant opinion, although feminist theorists do not all agree on this, is that there is more to it than just having a choice. A woman can have the freedom to choose but if she decides to wear high heels to have a better shot a job interview, or better odds for a successful blind date, even though she hates wearing heels; then there’s still a strong element of oppression involved. More subtly, but still undeniably there.
The other way round, there’s the case of Kaley Cuoco, the actress famous from The Big Bang Theory. Kaley argued in an interview that she’s not a feminist, because she likes to cook for her husband. It resulted in a storm of sharp worded critique from feminist opinion makers. Enjoying to cook for your husband is not making you not a feminist; it’s feminism that made you able to do so because you like it. Kaley has the option to pick up a certain task in her relationship with her husband; she decides to do it because she enjoys it, not because she has to. Or at least, that’s what we have to assume here. Is she actually enjoying cooking or does she (subconsciously or not) feel that she has to do, as a wife? It’s choice that’s not ours to make; it’s for her and many other women to find out. And to make that decision properly it’s essential that it’s being talked about. Same can be said about the previous example I described regarding makeup and clothing. Does a woman wear something because it’s genuinely making her feel good and she wants it for herself? Or is there a level of internalised misogyny that makes her believe she has to?
Deciding that for her would be highly patronising, and especially for me as a man, an extreme case of missing the point. But I support the idea of having the discussion, take it out there to analyse this. Also for men there’s an important role here. Think about what we expect from women. It’s easy to say that we are free spirited and let others around us do as they please. But mind that sexism is not fixed the moment you are not being violent and physically aggressive to your partner. Are there subtly expectations or soft demands you make from your wife or girlfriend? Are you okay with choices she made because they work out for you and would you still support her freedom of choice the moment she decides to change? If her lifestyle is largely unconventional and anti-traditional, do you support her for MAKING these specific choices or do you support her for HAVING a choice in general?
Men and Expectations
Last weekend the internet was ablaze about a man who gushed about his wife being curvy. But if you read between the lines he was really just very pleased with himself about being so nice and broad minded to love her the way she is. Was this young man being progressive and supporting his wife for not adhering to societal norms about body image? Or is he loving the fact that she is not to show how much of a progressive guy he is? Would he still love her so much if she decided to make a radical change and get slim? Not to succumb to peer pressure or demands of society but because she enjoys working out and likes being skinny? That’s the question he needs to ask himself. Do I support the freedom of women to have their own choices or do I only support the choice my wife made?
This is a phenomenon we also see in gender roles and for example gendered products. Feminism, I think, has to target harmful stereotypes like pink colours, pop music and cute things for women and sports, violent movies and beer for men. At the same time, I believe it also has to firmly defend a woman’s right to enjoy aesthetics and media that is stereotypically associated with her. Women in hoodies, listening to gangster rap and biting their nails are not necessarily ‘better at feminism’ than women who like skirts, lipstick and Broadway tunes. The central issue is the freedom of the societal context this happens in.
Politics and Religion
This is a discussion that also pops up in debates about politics and religion. A few years ago the SGP, a conservative Christian party in the Netherlands, was prosecuted for not allowing women to join. The SGP is now prohibited to forbid them; however out of free will, women still don’t apply. Asking female supporters of the party; they angrily argued that they didn’t need to have the ban lifted: they didn’t want to join by their own volition. They believed in the party’s interpretation of the bible that women weren’t supposed to be part of politics. This is of course a matter of making a choice to follow a patriarchal doctrine, but made in a context of having a choice not to. I find it oppressive and violent to create a community in which women are made to believe they matter less; but it’s important to let them have a choice, not to make it for them. Same goes for wearing hijabs or other head covering garment in Muslim communities. It’s not up to others to decide if women can wear them or not, but we can work together towards a society where they have the choice.
Yet, also here rises the question: if a woman decides to wear a headscarf, is it a choice or not? It’s VERY important to let the discussion take place in this space. Instead of talking about allowing or not allowing something, it’s way more productive to talk about WHY we do something in the first place. Because if we understand better why we do something, we can also make a better choice IF we want to do it. In the discussion about hijabs it’s also important to remark that in the society of today, the struggle of Muslim women is often appropriated and weaponised by anti-Islam reactionaries to divert attention from their intolerant Islam hating and fake it into a discussion about women’s rights. Even though it’s important to recognise the problematic nature of women’s rights in Islam, it’s essential to see this a part of general struggle of women’s liberation that transcends specific religions or cultures. Women that are victim of domestic violence are suffering from sexist issues ranging from ‘appropriate’ clothing, gender roles in the household, power structures and trivial things like football (in England the reports of domestic violence quadruples when the national team loses).
To understand choice, we have to understand power structures and societal norms and constructs. We have to analyse expectations and roles that gender and families have in society and who is benefiting from it. To dismantle inequality and combat bigotry, we have to investigate our own role and our own mentality in everyday life. Without removing existing structures and harmful, internalised mentalities that are harmful to people of any gender, we cannot change things for the better.