Anti-feminist myths

Talking points

Feminists all over the world often encounter these myths and misconceptions. Here are some arguments to debunk them.

Illustration: Authors of Editorial

1. Feminism isn’t part of our culture”

This myth claims that cultures are static and do not change and develop over time. Yet all societies and their cultures are subject to change and strongly influence each other. They are also, always, heterogeneous and contradictory. The idea that there exists a self-contained culture, known as cultural essentialism, cannot be empirically proven. The degree of heterogeneity varies between groups within a society and between countries as a whole.

In this era of globalisation, it should be self-evident that the work and intellectual thought of feminists worldwide can enrich each other, especially since not only products but also ideas travel around the globe faster than ever before. Nevertheless, cultural essentialism is often employed by demagogues and autocrats to vilify and criminalise advocacy for queerness, sexual self-determination, and gender equality, with the aim of inculcating people with nationalist or even ethnonationalist sentiments.1 It is a central pillar of anti-feminism.

2. “Feminism was invented by the West”

Feminism is a revolt against a patriarchal order that considers the heterosexual man as the norm and authority and that resorts to physical and structural violence to subordinate women and all other genders. This is usually justified with reference to the “natural order of the sexes”, to the “traditional family” or to the “sacred institution of marriage”. Urvashi Butalia writes:

“The truth is, there can never be a copyright on ideas, or indeed on the battle against discrimination and injustice. (…) What is important, though, is to see how this movement (…) has transformed, adapted and enriched itself as multiple feminisms have sprouted across the world. Western feminism for example, which saw itself as global, remained for long a form of feminism that was propagated by white feminists who came largely from middle class privilege. Even the early feminists, the Suffragettes who fought for the vote in the UK (…) were largely supportive of what they saw as the ‘civilising mission’ of imperialism.”

This makes it all the more important to listen to feminist experts around the globe and to learn from them how they defend themselves against sexism and anti-feminism. Decolonialism and feminism often go hand in hand.

3. “Women need help deciding whether to keep a pregnancy”

Control over women’s reproductive capacities is the foundation of patriarchal rule. Serawit Debele states:

“Women’s bodies became a site of struggle even more after women started saying ‘No’ to that ideology and public attitude. It was normal to simply be in the service of the patriarchy, in the service of the state, in the service of men. There was no ‘No’. It was when women began to challenge their assigned role and the expectation that they be willing vessels for producing labour in the service of capitalism or sustaining the nation as mothers, as daughters that the debate about what constitutes womanhood and the body started.”

Only through the work of countless activists was it possible in some countries to interpret laws related to reproductive rights in such a way as to allow women (though with some restrictions) to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion or not. Here the pioneer has been Canada, which, after completely decriminalising abortion back in 1988, now treats it like any other medical procedure. Canada has the lowest maternal mortality rate from abortion in the world. And its abortion rate is no higher than that in countries with restrictive laws – quite the contrary. Compared to the United States, Canada has fewer abortions. The example of Canada makes it possible to debunk the myth that criminalisation is the only way to reduce the number of abortions.

There are many reasons for having an abortion. For some women, the motivation is the desire to lead a life without biological children. But more often, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is related to the social situation of the individual woman: wrong age (too young or too old), financial difficulties, family pressure, unreadiness for another child, the partner doesn’t want a child, the employer discriminates against women with young children, or the societal living conditions for persons with disabilities are too poor to be compensated for individually. So when it comes to the decision to continue a pregnancy, increasing social justice and reducing the pressure on pregnant women are key levers. The concept of reproductive justice developed by Black feminists provides many starting points in this respect.

It is also interesting to look at the link between the fight to legalise abortion and the environmental protest movements. In her book Revolution for Life, philosopher Eva von Redecker argues that what unites them is how they focus on the realities of life rather than forcing ideologies upon people. In a similar vein, Mayra Rodríguez Castro sees the exploitative extraction of coal in Colombia by large European corporations as a feminist issue, namely as a violation of the planet’s right to renew and regenerate itself – i.e. its reproductive rights –the consequences of which affect women particularly harshly. She encourages feminist struggles for reproductive justice to think big.

4. “Feminists are always pacifists”

Feminist-oriented foreign policy recognises, as Annalena Baerbock put it, that “if women are not safe, then no one is safe”. It aims to bring about peace and democracy for which the pursuit of social justice is a prerequisite. Studies show that the larger the gender gap in a country, the more likely it is to be involved in inter and intra-state conflict and to use violence as a first response in a conflict setting. Today’s Russia is a prime example of this, but only one of many. Feminism is therefore fundamentally committed to demilitarisation. At the same time, countries have the right to defend themselves militarily when they are attacked. In this respect, dogmatically equating feminism with pacifism falls short of the mark. There may also be situations where arms deliveries determine whether a country can continue along the path of democratisation. This is currently the case in Ukraine. In this instance, feminists have no choice but to support such armament, despite the fact that that militarisation clearly goes hand in hand with sexualised and domestic violence.

5. “Women are better people”

People have always inhabited different roles and identities at once: they are mother and daughter; brother and landowner; black, rich, and gay; businesswoman and AfD member; and so on and so forth. Right-wing and fascist movements have long since appropriated the myth of the “better half”, running women at the top of the ticket in order create a friendlier face. Marie Le Pen, Giorgia Meloni, and India’s Hindu nationalist women leaders are just a few examples. It is short-sighted to reduce societies to differences between women and men, as patriarchal thinking does and which is unfortunately also the case with so-called difference feminism. However, power and powerlessness are distributed according to a more complicated mechanism. Academic circles therefore speak of “constructions” of femininity and masculinity, distinguishing between biological and cultural explanations of gender. All the same, surveys show that sexualised violence is almost always instigated by men and that it is directed towards women in the majority of cases. No one is as at greater risk than trans people, and care workers are predominantly women and notoriously underpaid the world over.

This makes it all the more important to look at the interaction between different forms of discrimination: A Black woman in Germany faces different problems than a Black woman in El Salvador. A person can also be both privileged and discriminated against at the same time. After all, rape takes place in all classes. Likewise, experiencing violence does not preclude one from discriminating against others. The concept of intersectionality, coined by Kimberley Crenshaw, takes this reality into account. So it is not, as is often claimed, an out-of-touch concept from the ivory tower, but an effort to describe a reality characterised by contradictions and to highlight true-to-life feminist strategies.

6. “The West is leading the way on feminism”

Critiques of “white feminism” are crucial if we are to progress with transnational dialogue. After all, nobody is actually white; people who are considered “white” usually have a more beige or pinkish skin. White is a political category that was originally coined within a colonial context to make it easier for Europeans to designate subjugated peoples as less civilised, even less human. That view of things paved the way for exploitation, slavery, war, mass murder, and genocide. Rafia Zakaria’s book Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption shows to what extent Western feminism is dominated by the priorities of white women. “One night after dinner, sitting on the edge of my bed in mid-nineties Karachi, I agreed to an arranged marriage,” she writes. She opted for that way out because she wanted to study. “My life until then had been constrained in all sorts of ways, hardly extending beyond the walls that surrounded our home. I had never experienced freedom, so I gladly signed it away.”

A decolonial and intersectional perspective is required for feminist action around the world to be properly recognised. When that is finally taken on board, the myth of general Western superiority will fizzle out of its own accord. And then it will be possible for feminists to work together on an equal footing.

7. “We feel bad for the women in Iran and Afghanistan but there’s nothing we can do to help them”

Without the backing of at least some parts of the international community, oppressive regimes cannot remain in place. All countries should therefore check to what extent their foreign policy supports or hampers gender justice in other countries. Women and queer people from such regimes are helped directly when protection schemes are expanded, visas for safe countries become more easily obtainable, and communities of exiles in neighbouring countries are offered cultural and financial support. Many of the world’s richer countries have plenty of room for improvement in this regard.

At the same time, feminists abroad can play a problematic role. Frequently, they give activists still living in repressive countries the impression that they can rely on international support – yet when things get serious, nothing or very little happens. Afghanistan is one example of such a place. Batool Haidari draws a bleak picture:

“The international community has simply sat back and observed events, failing to develop a vision for the country’s future. Why are other countries so hesitant to address the problems in Afghanistan? The answer seems simple: the Taliban no longer represent a threat to the international community. Their return to Afghanistan has had no immediate impact on the United States or the rest of the world. So why bother putting any pressure on the Taliban?”

And yet feminist struggles are often also dependent on support from outside. That is another reason why it is so important to learn from intersectional and decolonial perspectives, to take feminist diasporas seriously, and to sharply criticise fair-weather feminism.

8. “In Germany women have equal rights”

True is that Germany has clear structural deficits when it comes to equality. It ranks eleventh in the EU on the Gender Equality Index. Abortions are regulated in the criminal code and pregnant women are obliged to carry out their pregnancy, even if exceptions are permitted. On average, one woman is killed by her partner or ex-partner every three days in Germany. And yet the concept of femicide – the killing of females because of their gender – is still not officially recognised. Consequently, there is insufficient data to shed light on cases of femicide that occur outside of a relationship. Although Germany is a rich country, it offers very little protection for women affected by violence. The Council of Europe has criticised the German government’s failure to meet the requirements of the Istanbul Convention. Domestic violence skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic and has been steadily increasing ever since. The question of why men commit acts of violence against women is asked far too infrequently and receives little systematic attention. As a result, inadequate assistance is provided for victims of such violence.

Prosecution of gender-based violence is patchy around the world, and that is certainly true of Germany. One of the country’s most prominent female lawyers, Christina Clemm, criticises what she has experienced as standard practice in German courtrooms. Again and again, she says, judges of both sexes question of the credibility of women who press rape charges because everyone in Germany “is equal now”.


1 A good example is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (former Iranian president), who liked to claim that there were no homosexuals in Iran.

Translated into English by Tedd Brown.
This article is part of the dossier Feminist Voices Connected.