It seems to be expected that the formation of one’s attitudes and outlook should derive from grand and dramatic life events. Maybe I’m an overly cautious being, but in general I believe my strongest beliefs have been formed slowly, from long periods of observation, experience and reflection. I’ve had the average share of teenage angst, intense and dramatic friendships, poorly founded and poorly executed flings, and probably above the average share of travelling solo and exposure to great art. And while all of these things have of course contributed to the person I am, I can safely say that they have offered no extraordinary flashes of insight, no moments of epiphany. If I go to bed and wake up feeling like a radically different person than the day before, I probably have a hangover.
However, twice in my life I have had experiences that immediately, drastically and irrevocably changed the way I viewed and engaged with the world. Neither occurred while hiking solo up a mountain Mongolia, nor whilst gazing adoringly upon the sleeping visage of some transient Adonis. Nothing so Hollywood.
The one that ended up determining my current career path/life obsession occurred when I was about 18. I had just discovered I could sing, and my singing teacher prescribed a listening list for my further education. I listened to a recording of Joan Sutherland singing Verdi’s Caro nome, and for an indeterminate length of time afterwards, I could neither move nor speak. I had no idea that the human voice was capable of creating such extraordinary sounds. It was as if at the beginning of that aria I lost contact with the world, and over the course of seven minutes, whilst I floated enthralled by the magic of Sutherland’s voice, the earth twisted and contorted itself into a new shape, and I returned, acutely aware of everything that had changed and the new direction my life would take.
The other occurred much earlier, when I was at most 10, and was if possible, even more definitive and more lasting. It was when I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles for the first time. I emerged from the world of Tess, Alec and Angel Clare completely outraged at the double standard to which Tess was subject. While I was not old enough to fully understand the reality of Tess’s rape, in other ways it was the perfect age to for a precocious child like me to read such a novel. For as a child, I had not yet been exposed to that social conditioning that teaches us to accept, however reluctantly, the binary of unmarried women as either virgins or whores. Nor was I reading the story with a historical view, seeing it as a product of a different time, reflecting different attitudes. I read it with that single-minded intensity so characteristic of children, so for me it was reality. And the inconsistencies determined purely by gender were glaringly apparent and totally unacceptable.
That women should be judged differently to men or held accountable to different standards is something I have rejected from that day. So I suppose I was a feminist long before I was a woman.
The double standards and victim blaming that is so pervasive throughout society in Hardy’s book is still prevalent today. That what a woman was wearing, whether she was out partying late at night, her sexual history or even her sexual orientation could be considered relevant factors in determining whether a sexual encounter was consensual or not is beyond comprehension. And the idea that a woman is somehow responsible for being raped doesn’t even belong in the dark ages, for surely such a stupid notion has no place in any society from any time. Of course it is sensible to take the responsibility to minimise risks, but surely it is more the responsibility of men to ensure they don’t rape and abuse women? And surely it is also the responsibility of society as a whole, particularly law enforcement and legal systems to make it perfectly clear that under no circumstances is sexual assault or harassment justified or condoned?
My feminist standards for social engagement have been somewhat tested of late. It is particular challenge of multicultural societies to allow a plurality of cultures and perspectives whilst upholding certain rights as universal and inviolable. And I truly believe that an international traveller or, in my case immigrant, must be open and willing to examine and revise their own expectations and beliefs when engaging with a different culture and society. If you demand everything to be the same as in the country you come from, why leave home in the first place?
So when making accidental eye contact on the street was taken as an invitation for a guy to turn around, fall in step with me and attempt to strike up conversation, I took into account the opinion expressed by my 70-year-old British fairy godmother that Australian culture is somewhat prudish and repressed. When confronted with extremely blatant comments, whistles, cat calls and gestures on a daily basis when out pursuing normal activities, I endeavoured to resist the knee-jerk judgement and labelling of Dutch society as misogynistic. Most of these events occur near my home, which is in an area that’s demographic is largely made up of immigrants and awfully close to both red light districts here in The Hague, so it’s hardly fair to label these actions as representative of Dutch society as a whole.
The most bizarre and in some ways disturbing event though occurred on a Sunday afternoon in the public library as I worked on a post for all you lovely people. A guy a fair few years younger than I sat opposite me, pulled out his iPhone, turned the volume right up and started playing porn whilst staring at me to gauge my reaction. I raised my eyebrows and laughed. What was he hoping to achieve, an invitation to replicate the video? I am amused by these sorts of incidents far more often than I am offended, and when an unsolicited compliment is delivered with respect, on occasion I am flattered. But as this article so brilliantly illustrates, the attitude that drives the desire to flatter or pass comment is often much more insidious exertion of power than is generally acknowledged.
Problematic attitudes towards women are easily apparent when they take this sort of form. But when it comes in the form that girls are taught is polite, gentlemanly and respectful, it’s harder to spot. Being told that you’re like a Botticelli painting is a lot nicer than someone shouting “Show us your tits”, so when the someone spent a while the other day comparing me to a painting of moonlight, I couldn’t instantly identify why the sudden outpouring of artistic temperament left my teeth slightly on edge.
On reflection, I realised that it was because it left me with nothing to contribute. And as the resident expert on myself, being relegated from participant in the conversation to the topic of conversation while still present was somewhat galling. While there is doubtlessly a vast difference in motive and intended effect between comparing women to meat and Renaissance masterpieces, the outcome is unfortunately the similar. The woman is reduced to the status of an object whose worth is determined by the value ascribed from external judges. Objectification strips women of their voice. An object cannot express an opinion. And whether the object is placed on a pedestal or underneath somebody’s foot, it is powerless to change the situation.
I am not an object, I am a human being. I do not exist for the sole purpose of sexual or aesthetic gratification. I am not an ornament to society, I am an intrinsic part of society. And while everyone is entitled to have their opinion about me, I refuse to accept that those opinions define my worth.