Aysha Panter – “We have to call it feminism and not humanism because it directly relates to how society views femininity with less respect than masculinity”

How do you self-define?

I consider myself a woman, but i do reject many of the stereotypes associated with femininity.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism has a really big place in my life, but its meaning is quite complex and it’s quite hard to explain coherently and concisely, so that’s why I wanted to run this campaign with Nicky. It’s about equality in the sense that this current wave of feminism addresses the socialisation of masculinity and femininity. Men and women who are feminine are not as respected socially as men and women who are masculine, so men are frowned open for doing anything stereotypically feminine and women have it hard because they have to be a perfect balance of both. Feminism points out that men’s interests are suitable for everyone. Women have fought and continue to fight to excel in male dominated fields, and we are still working on having women’s work suitable to men too. Mostly the feminist movement functions through having conversations about the root of double standards and how to break them down. We have to call it feminism and not humanism because it directly relates to how society views femininity with less respect than masculinity.

What do the words “woman” and “man” mean to you?

I’m reading a book at the moment, Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. She’s an acclaimed psychologist who basically presents neurological research proving that there are no biological differences between male and female brains. We are socialised to internalise these stereotypes and live by them. Of course, if you see a woman in every single laundry advert you’re going to think about household chores as a woman’s job. So when I was born, I had a vagina so I was given pink clothes, barbie dolls and so on. Society taught me that I was allowed to be more emotionally sensitive. I’m told I have to be a mother, and I have to love children, even if that might not make me happy. I’m supposed to less interested in sex than men, and find a career that suits my supposedly natural ability to nurture people. Men are socialised as the opposite: they are meant to be strong, emotionless, power-hungry, sex-hungry, and so on. But to me, being a woman and being a man can mean anything you want it to mean. In other words, I define femininity because I am a woman.

When did you become aware of your gender?

I don’t think I properly understood how sex was different from gender until I came to university, but I think I became aware of how being a woman was different from being a man as a young teenager. At the age of 13 I was separated from my male friends and put into an all girls high school. Where I’m from in Gibraltar, it’s a very small place, so there are only two high schools which are separated by binary gender. Apart from the generic subjects that everyone had to do, there were some subjects and sports that were specifically gendered. The boys couldn’t do cooking for example, and I couldn’t do design technology. There were other instances where I noticed I was treated differently from boys. I think I was definitely considered more vulnerable than my brother, so I was always told that I shouldn’t walk home alone, and that I shouldn’t be pressured into sex, and so on. The sad thing is, is that most advice young women get from their parents is legitimate advice. We’ve all been preyed upon at a night club when we are clearly uncomfortable, and we’ve all been cat-called. It’s really not a compliment.

Do you ever feel unsafe due to your gender?

As I said, women experience verbal harassment quite often, whether it’s being called a slut or having derogatory, superficial comments thrown at you. Apart from that, I think we often fear that those comments will turn into a physical attack. I’ve only lived in relatively small and safe places, Gibraltar and Keele, but even at the Student’s Union last week a guy touched my body without my permission. I can’t even count how many times that has happened here and I think that’s worrying considering that the Union is a nightclub for students.  Luckily the Welfare Officer Natalie has done a lot to campaign for consent, but the difficult part is changing attitudes with regards to the way women’s bodies have been sexualised and commodified, especially when the media is doing that all the time.

Do you feel treated different by men and women? 

It depends. Some of my closest friends are men. But I mean, I’m more sexualised by men. By that I mean that I’ll have a chat with a random male stranger on a night out and often feel like they’re expecting something from me. As for women, I think we’re socialised to be in competition with each other, which can make it difficult to pursue any real friendships without resentment. At least that was very much the case for me when I was a teenager. But that’s one of many things feminism taught me, the idea of sisterhood and being encouraging towards other women, rather than putting them down.

Photo Credit: Patrick Pamatmat

What do you think are the positive ways that the world views women?

Women might be seen as caring, loving, empathetic etc. but I do think these positive stereotypes can also be harmful because they are deep-rooted in patriarchy and linked to masculine opposites. I don’t think these stereotypes should just apply to women or necessarily apply to them, they can apply to anyone.

Did you encounter any obstacles on your path to womanhood?

I think the process of becoming a woman as a teenager was quite a confusing one. Society in general tells young women to abstain from sex, that virginity is something precious that a man will take from you. It’s a very scary time because there are so many conflicting emotions. You feel pressure and shame, but at the same time you want to be desired. In terms of how I viewed my body, I wanted to be as attractive like the models that we are bombarded with at every media outlet, but I also just wanted to be myself. I really genuinely hated aspects of my body. Like it took a longer time for me to develop breasts compared to my friends, and this was something I was extremely self conscious about. My friends didn’t really help either because it always felt like a stupid competition for male attention. I really wouldn’t want to go back on that time, and I’m so glad I overcame all that. It’s really difficult being a teenager.

What do you think about casual sex?

As long as there is proper consent, I don’t see any problem with it. I think communication is key though. Often people get into these ‘friends with benefits’ situations and realise weeks or months later, that they’re not actually on the same page. Like I’ve always had some sort of appreciation for the person behind the body. It’s never been just purely physical, and I think I’d find it hard to have sex with someone that I didn’t remotely like.

Are you pro-life or pro-choice, and why? 

100% pro-choice. I really admire young women who go through with pregnancy, but abortion is a terrifying choice too and it’s very much up to the individual; lots of factors need to be taken into account. Raising someone is probably one of the most difficult things a person or couple can do, and i think it should be done with a lot of support and thought. How a child is raised really makes a difference to the future of society and the planet.

What are your feelings on contraception?

I’m conflicted. Obviously it should be used if you’re sexually active, but I’ve had a few problems with the pill so my feelings towards it aren’t particularly good. I’m also worried about long-term consequences. In terms of cost and availability though, I think all types should be free so that young women can pursue education and become economically independent. It’s interesting, because the role of women has changed so much over the last 50 years or so due to contraception. Most women now have children much later in order to pursue careers, and some don’t have children at all. I think it’s revolutionised the family structure entirely in ways that are quite incredible. At the same time, the burden of contraception is nearly always put on the woman. That really says a lot about our society, because it’s clear that the responsibility of caring for a child still falls solely on her. I’d really like to see a safe male pill developed so that the responsibility can be shared, but as I said I’m not convinced contraception for females is safe at the moment.

What are your thoughts on marriage and monogamy?

My relationship with the idea of marriage has been a love-hate one in the past, and now I’m just not thinking about it until I’m ready to consider it. I used to love the Disney princess idea of getting married and but in reality it’s not like that. When I realised that as a woman I’d probably be expected to do most of the housework and childcare, and that the possibility of divorce is quite real, it really freaked me out. Now I realise that marriage doesn’t have to be that way, and if i’m not comfortable I never have to do it. As for monogamy, I don’t really know either. I think there’s a lot of pressure to be emotionally and physically available for one person my entire life. Marriage was more of an economic transaction between families in the past, but now it’s about love too. You’ve got to keep financially stable whilst loving each other, bringing up children and having great sex for your entire lives. I’m not sure that’s realistically achievable for everybody.

Photo Credit: Nicky Moffat

What are your thoughts on parenthood?

I’m sure it can be a very beautiful and magical experience, but no doubt it comes with a lot of hard work. I love babies, I really do, but I think there are so many kids out there who are abandoned and in need of parents and a home; so if i did consider being a parent, adoption would probably be the first option for me. At the moment the entire thing doesn’t really appeal and it’s difficult to say anything for my future self because I’m so fluid. I think I’ll have a better idea of what I want in a few years, but I do fear the negativity and disappointment my family and friends will express if I don’t want to have kids. There is so much pressure to do that as a woman. I wish people would stop treating motherhood as if it’s the only thing that can possibly fulfill me.

Do you think your sexual education was sufficient?

No. It was pretty much non-existent. I think I only had one lesson about it, which involved putting a condom on a banana. I think it’s inadvertently harmful that we aren’t taught about alternative LGBT+ sex, consent, emotional intelligence, the anatomy of pleasure etc. I remember our religion teacher showing us an abortion video, which was a good way of scaring us into abstinence without educating us on safe sex. There is so much missing from the curriculum it drives me mad just thinking about it.

Do you feel comfortable communicating your sexual needs to a partner?

As I’ve gotten a bit older I’ve become more comfortable with the idea, but when I first lost my virginity I didn’t even know that sex was about my needs too. No one ever told me that I’m just as important. The way I saw myself was literally just as a tool for someone’s pleasure, where I had to perform to my best ability so I could get love and romantic appreciation in return. What absolute rubbish that was.

Has your sexuality ever been used against you?

I get accused of leading people on and friend-zoning them, when I was just being friendly and having a chat. I really hate it when people assume my feelings, expect sex based on these assumptions and then blame me for it. I’ve been slut-shamed before, as well as called a prude. There’s this strange sexual dichotomy when you’re a woman; you can never seem to do anything right. Why is it that a woman in particular is vilified for her body and the expression of her sexuality?

Is there anyone you would undermine your principles for?

I think I have a problem with my lack of assertiveness, in that I’ve gone along with things in the past that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with, mainly because I didn’t want to disappoint or upset anyone. So standing by my principles is definitely something I’m working on at the moment.

In which situations do you feel safe to speak your mind or stand up for yourself?

Usually with my friends or in university seminars, and there have been a few occasions where I’ve stood up for myself when some random guy shouted something derogatory at me or touched me without my permission, but I only do that if I don’t detect a physical threat.

Do you feel satisfied with the way women are depicted in film, TV, and advertising?

Definitely not. I remember my first year at university when my tutor urged us to use the bechdel test on all the films we’ve seen recently. In other words, we had to see whether there were two or more women having a conversation that was independent of men. It was striking to realise how few films actually passed the test. Advertising is truly the worst, because capitalism makes vast amounts of profit from women’s insecurities by presenting us with impossible ideals. Also the lack of black and LGBT+ women in TV and advertising is appalling. Apart from that, I think pornography sucks for heterosexual women. It’s quite clearly aimed at a heterosexual male-viewer. Any porn site will ask you if you want to bang this Asian woman or watch this dirty slut give head. The language that is used in video descriptions is problematic, because it makes it seem like sex is all about men’s pleasure. You’ll also see the woman’s body from a man’s perspective, so you won’t see much of the man’s body. Then there’s always this tiny tab in the corner for female viewers, and they’ve got these romantic story-lines which are really cringe. If you’re watching porn as a woman, you don’t go on there to see some bad acting. Pornography in itself is not wrong, I just think it needs to change massively.

How do you feel about products marketed to women?

Capitalist corporations market products to women in ways that I find grotesque and incredibly harmful to the mental health of teens in particular. People think it’s natural that women and men do and buy different things, but the ways women and men consume products continually changes as notions of gender in society change. As I said before, products are often marketed to women based on insecurities that media advertising perpetuates for profit. They target every aspect of our lives, encouraging us to buy padded bras, body hair removal products, make-up, the newest clothing trends, dieting foods, and so on. I think it’s absolutely disgusting. It just makes me so sad that so many young girls go through the same self-deprecation that I went through. I also have a major problem with the way companies are now marketing feminism to women. It’s all about lifestyle and the individual woman; they’re depoliticizing and simplifying it and pulling women apart. Companies like H&M and Topshop which blatantly exploit women in the third world are selling their “I need feminism” t-shirts and so many people buy into that. Socialist feminism is dying and that makes me so sad.

What are your biggest fears?

I fear the destruction of the planet for lack of human care, I fear the inevitable death of my intimate family, including my dog, and my closest friends.

What are your greatest accomplishments? 

My perseverance in overcoming much of my past self-consciousness, my grades, and my friendships to date.

What image do you think you project on a day to day basis?

Hmm, that’s a difficult one. It depends on who I’m around. Sometimes I’ll be an instant chatterbox and other times I’ll be really shy. Generally though, I think I’m seen as serious about the things I care about, quite giggly and empathetic.

What image would you like to project in an ideal world, absolving societal expectations?

I’d like to be seen as strong, mindful, warm, and confident in my own skin.

What are your most positive relationships?

I love my brother to bits, we get along so well. There’s also my childhood friend, Kian. We are just so in tune with each other. Of course there’s my parents and step-parents, my munchkins from home, my Baha’i family and my friends at uni. Things aren’t always perfect but I’m truly blessed to have so many beautiful people in my life. Even if I live far away from many of them, and even if we don’t maintain friendships online, whenever I return into their presence again it’s as if time collapsed and nothing changed.

What do you deeply love about yourself? 

I love that I can laugh so often, and that I like change. I’m a bit of a kid sometimes and I like getting out of my comfort zone, even if I can feel my heart beating in my throat. I think I’m quite open-minded and I can make changes to my lifestyle, especially if I think it’ll have a positive impact on the world. I like that I actively try not to judge people and that I always try to appreciate the beauty in every individual. Quite a few people I barely know have opened up to me, which is really nice when I think about it, because they must sense some empathy or understanding in me. That makes me proud of myself, and really thankful to my parents who raised me.

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Photo Credit: Joe Bradywood

Interested in our campaign? Want to get involved?                                                                       Contact: su.genderequality@keele.ac.uk

 

 

 

 

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