Feminism is a divisive word to say the least. It’s been bandied about and misunderstood for so long now that many people have lost sight of what it’s really about: women and men being equal, in every sense of the word. #MeToo and reporting on the gender pay gap have shed a welcome light on the injustice women face on a day-to-day basis, which I personally wish I’d realised would come to shape my university experience, and wish I’d better known that it needn’t continue to be that way.

If you’d like a prime example of misogyny among students, you simply have to be, or ask, a female student in a male-dominated project group (more common on some courses than on others). I have sat in project meetings needing to almost shout to make myself heard by my all-male peers, and committing exhausting amounts of brain power because I’ve felt like I needed to justify my even being there. A meeting with one group, and a lecturer, saw my point interrupted by no less than three different men who thought they could better explain the point they hadn’t given me time to make (all three times they were, unsurprisingly, wrong) – to the end that the lecturer had to tell them to let me speak. Speaking to female peers, this is not an uncommon experience by any means, which highlights to me that even as students, women’s contributions are not seen as relevant. I wish I’d known then that my contributions WERE relevant; that they were valid, and that I should have demanded to take up equal space in that conversation.

It doesn’t end there, though. We are all, of course, familiar with the vile behaviour women encounter on most nights out: being groped by strangers in the crowd or plied with drinks by guys who can’t take no for an answer is considered par for the course if you’re female. It truly saddens me that as women we have come to expect such degrading and intrusive behaviour because our bodies are not respected as our own. I wish I’d known that I had the right to stand up for myself: to make a scene and show intrusive men the same level of disrespect they showed me.

For me, social instances of sexist attitudes and misogyny were also frequent from day one. I distinctly remember a group of male flatmates observing in Freshers’ Week that a woman studying Business Management was “basically just how to suck d*ck to get promoted”, much to the amusement of another male flatmate, also studying BM. I remember feeling disgusted, undermined and furious – but at a loss to protest. I’m supposed to be making friends, after all. And this demonstrates the heart of the problem: women need to be unafraid to defend themselves. Often the excuse presented in these cases is “we didn’t know it would upset you” – so let them know! We need to recognise where we are being put or kept down because of our gender and tell the world on no uncertain terms we won’t have it.  Which leads me nicely on to what I consider the most misogynistic thing I experienced whilst at university: women perpetuating so-called ‘lad culture’.

Lad culture exists solely to excuse the disgusting behaviour of men towards women: from sexual jokes and harmless ‘banter’, to openly and threateningly joking about physical and sexual violence, all dismissed as “boys will be boys”. Intelligent, capable, genuinely funny women have said to me that they participate in such ‘jokes’, and sit idly by while they are objectified, belittled and treated as less-than, all to be seen as attractive by the exact men who treat them this way. My message to that end is this: if a man makes you feel as though you need to dissociate yourself from your own gender, and reject your very real need for equal rights, to be attractive, he is protecting his own privilege and needs educating more than anyone. Women do not exist solely to be attractive to men! We are all brilliant and capable, and until we embrace feminism and demand to be treated as equals, we will continue to be treated as objects and nothing more.

It’s crucial to remember that the issues which affect us as individuals aren’t the same as those which affect others. This means that even if the experiences I’ve spoken about haven’t been similar to yours, they are very real and they are happening right now. Equality will be achieved when women realise the value of supporting and including each other, and calling attention to damaging patriarchal behaviour. So please remember, during university and life beyond, that your voice is your power and you can make change, simply by declaring “I am a feminist”.

Text by Siân Cahill

Picture research by Anna Irina; featured image from artreport.com.