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Hanes: Feminist Montreal author Monique Polak reclaims the F-word | Living

She hears it from her students. She hears it from some of her friends.

“They say, ‘Oh, I don’t need feminism. I can vote. I have a job’,” said Montreal author, journalist and teacher Monique Polak during a recent break from marking end-of-term papers at Marianopolis College, where she teaches English, humanities and creative writing.

Others may be susceptible to the vilification of the term, fearing it makes them seem aggressive or unfeminine.

But, said Polak with exasperation, these same people who believe in equal rights don’t think about women elsewhere in the world and don’t see how some of the hard-fought gains of feminism are being eroded.

Polak believes people need a reality check; she has written a book called “I am a Feminist: Claiming the F-word in Turbulent Times.” The launch is May 16 at the Women’s Y.

It’s part history tome, part memoir, part profiles of feminists past and present. Concordia University professor Homa Hoodfar, who was released after a stint in an Iranian prison for the crime of “dabbling in feminism,” is featured, as is Montreal Indigenous rights activist Nakuset .

The book discusses different waves of feminism, offers an overview of varying feminist perspectives like intersectionality, and explores contemporary issues, from body image to racism to rape culture. In essence, it’s a handbook — a primer for an era when debates connected to feminism rage stronger than ever, but historical achievements have been forgotten or taken for granted.

“As a young woman, I would have liked to know a lot of this stuff sooner,” Polak said.

Certainly in tone and content, her book is aimed at a young audience. “I’m talking to young women, pretty much age 11 right up to university,” she said.

Young women on the cusp of adulthood have undergone an awakening in the last few years and have a host of new role models to look up to from their own generation, notes Polak. In her book, she profiles Malala, the girls’ education activist and honorary Canadian. And in conversation she mentions Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen whose solitary strike against climate change became a global phenomenon, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a recently elected U.S. Congresswoman.

“I would say with #MeToo there’s been a change,” Polak said. “There are still young women who don’t want to identify with feminism, but it’s less than before. Less than even five years ago.”

She said the prospects are even brighter for children who are growing up with society finally celebrating girl power and women’s accomplishments, with resources like the Mighty Girl website or the Rebel Girl book series.

“What I worry about now are the boys,” Polak said. She said many boys are being raised with feminist values, but those who aren’t seem lost in a world where there is increasing demand to share power and privilege.

“I want my dad to read it,” Polak said. “Men and older men need to learn this stuff, too. We need allies.”

Polak, 58, mentions her father, a retired court judge, on several occasions in her book. She describes him as a traditional breadwinner while her mother tended to the home front.

“He had the life, he had the career and my mom was there doing everything for him,” she said. “ He’s been a personal project of mine. I’m working on educating him about feminism.”

Polak manages to convey the adage that “the personal is political.”

“I have talked about feminism a lot in my classroom and I have always identified as a feminist … but I never took any women’s studies myself,” she said. “Life made me a feminist.”

In the chapter on women and body image, she describes her struggle with having curly hair in a time when straight locks were in fashion. She also discusses how offhand comments from her parents about her appearance still plague her with self-doubt — as they do many women.

She touches on her experience as a survivor of domestic violence many years ago, an ordeal that she confesses she never saw through a feminist lens until very recently.

“It’s a big part of my history. But until I worked on this book, I never really saw the connection to feminism,” she said. “That’s what I like most about the writing. … For me, every single one of my books taught me something.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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