The term “lifestyle feminism” became a buzzword in the second wave of feminism during the 1960’s and 70’s (in the Western-centric view of “waves” of feminism). The term, as defined by influential writer Bell Hooks in Feminism is For Everybody, is “the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women”. While Hooks framed the concept in her introduction to non-exclusive feminist politics as apolitical and inclusive of a variety of lifestyles, the hegemony of the second wave (rejection of marriage, demands for equal wages and abortion rights) prevailed as the preeminent mode of thought that came to characterize the era.
For those who aren’t steeped in Women and Gender studies language, the above translates to this: while many view feminism, particularly the women’s liberation movement of the 60’s and 70’s, as a singular movement centered around the politics of the era, there are many, many different ways to go about being a feminist. While the “face” of the second and third waves too often are white women like Gloria Steinem or Jessica Valenti, many other women–famous, and not–who don’t fall into the white, middle-class, able-bodied and cisgender categories most often associated with feminism helped build and shape the feminist movement as we know it today.
It is the recognition–or rather, the lack thereof–of the fact that there is as much plurality within feminism as there are feminists that’s been troubling me recently. Many feminists of all flavors (queer, fat, etc.) seem to be engaged in policing who can and can’t identify as a feminist based on their preferences and lifestyle choices. While this sort of internal division and conflict is nothing new (like when Black feminism and womanism split from mainstream feminism, or the feminist sex/porn wars of the 80’s and 90’s), it has reached a peculiar pinnacle when it comes to specific lifestyle choices such as the decision to engage in sex work (defined broadly as anything from webcam porn to stripping to escorting), the decision to be a Muslim and wear a hijab, and the decision to celebrate marriage to a man.
When discussing these three specific forms of policing, and the numerous other ways that people who identify as feminists denounce and judge people for their beliefs and their lives, I often give three very simple examples: the continuous shaming and judging of sex workers within and without the feminist community (think of how often you hear people, even people who identify as feminists, use the term “hooker” or “prostitute” or “stripper” derogatorily); FEMEN’s “topless jihad” in which the “radical feminist” group made the very incorrect assumption that Muslim women are oppressed because they wear headscarves; and the serious backlash from feminists (almost all white) regarding whether or not Beyonce is a feminist and whether or not her decision to name her tour “Mrs. Carter” makes her a bad role model.
There are a lot of reasons why these conversations are infuriating, insulting, and just plain wrong. Can sex workers be feminists? Absolutely. To claim that they aren’t is to deligitimize and shame a type of work for no reasons other than sex-negativity. Can Muslim women be feminists? The fact that this question is still being asked shows just how marginalized and demonized Islam is in the West as well as complete ignorance of the large Muslim feminist movements that have nearly paralleled feminist movements in the West. Is Beyonce a feminist, and if so, is she a bad one for naming her tour “Mrs. Carter”? 1) Beyonce can do whatever the hell she wants, 2) Beyonce identifies as a “modern-day feminist”, 3) She and Jay-Z both took the last name “Knowles-Carter” and 4) She has had a backing band comprised of all women of color for years.
My impassioned defense of these various forms of “lifestyle feminism” is not to say that every person who chooses to use the term “feminist” to describe themselves is, in fact, a feminist. Sarah Palin is not a feminist because she supports anti-woman policies. Men who label themselves feminists to attract (and victimize) women are definitely not feminists (trigger warning for sexual misconduct and harassment).
What I’m arguing here is that there are very few criteria for what actually makes a feminist–so few, in fact, that I can only think of one major “rule” for being a feminist: one must have the rights and lives of all women in mind and in action. And to criticize other women for their religions, their relationship and marital choices, their sexualities (or lack thereof) or their career choices seems decidedly un-feminist to me.
Written by Noor Al-Sibai