Emma Watson and Malala Yousafzai: 'The definition of feminism is equality'

Sharing a moment, Malala Yousafzai told Emma Watson that she inspired her to embrace the label 'feminist.' How did the word become so stigmatized in the first place? 

Caroline Furneaux/Fox Searchlight Pictures
This Dec. 17, 2013 photo provided by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows, Malala Yousafzai in Birmingham, England. Yousafzai is the subject of the documentary film, “He Named Me Malala."

It turns out Emma Watson and Malala Yousafzai have a lot in common – especially their view on feminism.

The Harry Potter actress and Nobel Prize laureate, respectively, sat down for an interview Tuesday at the premiere of “He Named Me Malala,” a documentary about the 18-year-old Pakistani education activist. The 23-minute video was posted on Ms. Watson’s Facebook page, and has now been viewed nearly 3 million times.

Watson, a UN ambassador for women, played the role of interviewer, and the two ended up bonding over an array of topics: their brothers, Hillary Clinton, their love for the book “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” and most importantly, the definition of feminism.

“This word ‘feminist’ has been a very tricky word,” the 18-year-old Malala says, to which Watson gasped in delight. But it gets better.

When I heard it for the first time, Malala goes on, “I hesitated in saying 'I’m a feminist.' ”

“Then after hearing your speech, when you said, ‘if not now, when? if not me, who?’,” Malala says, referring to Watson’s landmark UN speech about men participating in feminism, “I decided there’s nothing wrong with calling yourself a feminist. I am a feminist, and we all should be feminists because feminism is another word for equality.”

Of course, Watson ecstatically agrees. In the speech for her HeForShe campaign, she also questions the stigma around the punch-packing F-word.

“I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word,” she said in September 2014. “Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.”

She’s right.

Following the onslaught of conservative backlash against radical second-wave feminism, “feminism” itself became less a philosophy, an ideal, and more an odium for opinionated, outspoken women – “feminazis,” as Rush Limbaugh would call them.

But as proven by the splintering of the feminist movement in the 1970s, a misandry-based brand of feminism did certainly exist. Radicalists such as Andrea Dworkin etched a man-hating blemish onto the name of feminism, and because of this framing of it, many have refused to give feminism a second chance.

Even powerful women have distanced themselves from the word. Meryl Streep made waves this fall when she didn’t identify as a feminist. When asked if she’d call herself the apparently polemic term, the actress who once lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment answered, “I am a humanist. I am for a nice easy balance.”

Fellow actors Sarah Jessica Parker, Marion Cotillard, and Susan Sarandon have all voiced similar sentiments: that “feminism” is too divisive, and that it doesn’t quite reflect the spirit of egalitarianism.

But as gender theorists like Judith Butler have postulated, the ideals of feminism and humanism aren’t exactly at odds. Both ideologies strive for equality on some level, but feminism delineates human rights within a context of patriarchal political mechanisms.

Perhaps then, when alluding to feminism, for people like Watson and Malala, the underlying notion is that current political and social institutions are skewed to favor men, and as long as this is the case, feminist politics is necessary.

Regardless of its divisive connotations, feminism was a source of unity for the two female role models in Tuesday’s interview. For Watson and Malala, the F-word goes back to the basics: equality.

“It’s wonderful when people embrace it, because it’s synonymous with equality,” Watson says.

Malala agrees: “People have forgotten its definition.”

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