Modern feminism has made it loud and clear that the decisions women autonomously make about their lives, bodies, relationships, and careers advance gender equality; they firmly position us as subjects and are conducive to us leading flourishing lives. From heated debates on abortion rights to how much skin we (un)cover in public, women’s free choice seems to be the anchor point around which gender equality discussions congeal. But how do we measure a free choice? And what happens when “free choice” is forced upon us?
Growing up in Armenia, where I felt the preponderant influence sexism had on my and my peers’ daily lives, I have been engrossed in feminist struggles since my early teens. “I don’t like going home after 9 pm because my brother doesn’t like it”, “My dad doesn’t want me to wear revealing clothes not to attract men’s attention,” and expressions of this ilk were casually circulating in teenage as well as adult groups of women. And while a lot of women around me shared my exasperation with having to conform to archaic gender norms, many embraced this oppression as a free choice. And when asked about resisting the blatantly sexist conditions forced upon them, I kept hearing the same answer: it is my own choice.
Free choice assumes deciding one’s life freely. When social exclusion, manipulation, and abuse wait on the other side of not wearing a mini-skirt, the concept of authentic choice starts to fade away quickly. While women’s choice can be seen as an uncontested measure of emancipation in many Western countries, evaluating women’s oppression through the same framework can prove problematic in societies with more rigid gender norms. Assuming a woman’s choice equals absolute liberty in determining her life however she wants is oblivious to the intricacies of patriarchal cultural values. For a woman’s free choice is not the mere absence of overt violence and coercion but the autonomy to shape her life without the fear of risking her dignity, social role, or access to social resources. In many cultures, unfortunately, this is far from reality.
Women’s choice, especially in countries with a high level of sexism, is multi-faceted and heavily influenced by internalized misogyny. We learn to be complicit in perpetuating the repressive sexist conditions from a very young age. I often asked women in Armenia what made them engage in choices that tamed their individuality. Usually, the response lay in taking the order of things — the order that we are born into — as indisputable truth. Challenging our social role is discouraged and a step we are told not to dare take. Therefore, the western understanding of free choice can usually fall short of recognizing the concealed antagonisms within different cultures.
Women are, of course, not deprived of agency and can make choices that do not immediately match the mainstream idea of a liberated woman. We can be stay-at-home moms, cover our bodies, wear make-up and still lead meaningful lives. However, radical emancipation assumes making these choices freely — when opting for the alternative would not jeopardise the security and respect we enjoy in society. It’s easy to bring a dichotomy into our choice discussions: you either chose it yourself or were forced into it. It oversimplifies our conversations, makes them easier to grasp, and acts as a solid guide for our moral judgments. However, doing so disregards the very core of sexism, which is slowly creeping into our minds until the sexist reality becomes the dominant and the only way of understanding ourselves.
Our unfreedom is internalized from a young age; in some cultures, more than the others. Simone de Beauvoir argued that “we are both in a situation and are a situation,” and the way we view ourselves and our capabilities can be determining for our emancipation. Although woman’s choice is and should stay in the vanguard of the feminist movement, acknowledging the sexist roots that shape these choices and the subtle unfree modes of existence that have long been imposed on us can open a window to a more solidary and genuine liberation.