As national debate rages on about the guilt of a certain famous man, its important to remember what it means to live through, experience, and survive sexual violence. It matters how we talk about sexual violence, for the survivors and for the perpetrators.

Some Thoughts on Rape Culture

There was a recent case in Montana of a young man, a college football player, being acquitted of rape. The jury felt the evidence wasn’t there, the young woman who accused the young man of rape wasn’t deemed a believable enough rape victim. The young man maintained his innocence all along; he didn’t believe that he had committed rape.

The return of the verdict troubled many people because of how difficult it is for rapists to be convicted and punished for their crimes. I can’t speak on the defendant’s guilt or innocence in absolute terms but I found myself able to believe that it was possible that a rapist could not know he committed rape.

Is this the story of all rapists? Definitely not. Does a man’s lack of understanding of the fact that he committed rape change the experience for the woman forced to suffer as a result? Not at all. Does it change the fact that rape took place? No. It only changes the type of conversation that our society has to have.

We have to recognize that we have created a rape culture that is having damaging impacts on both men and women. It changes how we need to approach rape prevention. Clearly years of trying to target women to change their behavior, practice and clothing have, very unsurprisingly, failed. After all, how could targeting only the victim of a crime prevent the crime?

That’s why Zerlina Maxwell went on the news show Hannity and explained that she believed men needed to be involved in the conversation on sexual violence. That men needed to be taught how to prevent rape. For her honest assessment based on her own experience as a survivor of rape, Maxwell has been subjected to ridicule, derision and even rape threats.

As shocking as some of these responses can be, I find myself unsurprised. Rape culture promotes exactly this type of thinking as a response.

The men, and likely some women, who had trouble with Maxwell’s assertion, first and foremost object to it on the basis that they believe it paints all men as rapists. I find this a bizarre reaction considering the fact that these same individuals seem to have no problem with campaigns targeted at women, encouraging them to protect themselves from rapists (i.e. men). Campaigns, which seem to say that men cannot control themselves around women because of the way they dress, when they are in certain situations and certain neighborhoods. Rather they take umbrage with the idea that men are influenced by the pervasive culture around them but they have agency and the ability to change ingrained and subtle patterns of thought and behavior.

These men also want to bring up the fact that women are not the only victims of rape. That is very true. Men also suffer rape, verbal abuse and violence, at times at the hand of women. Talking about how incredibly common violence against women is does not negate that terrible reality, yet bringing up instances of violence against men during discussions of violence against women is indicative of an attempt to minimize the horror of that reality.

Furthermore, these men explain that rape is not something one learns, no one is taught to rape but rather it’s an act committed by bad people.  These assertions are simply not supported by fact. The prevalence of gender-based violence indicates that too many men are involved for us to simply be able to brush this off as an act of a few evil individuals who are aberrations of society. Also, the cycle of violence that sees the eventual blurring of the lines of victims and offenders when you consider that many perpetrators of violence against women witnessed violence in their own homes or were victims of it themselves, is a testament to the fact that this is a learned behavior. We should really be asking ourselves, where is the source of this learning?

It is impossible to overlook the home environment, as explained above. Yet how many parents are shocked by the acts of violence committed by their children, insisting they did not learn that behavior at home?

Society has a clear and damning role to play in the perpetuation of gender based violence.

From a young age men are taught negative messages about their identity and the identity of women around them. The creation of a rape culture is one of the outcomes of this. Rape culture is not so obvious as to be a message that says, “oh hey, rape is great!” Rather the message is much more subvert, insidious and unrelenting. It’s small messages like women want to chased, that they are looking for men to be proactive during romantic pursuits. We can see this idea in commercials, movies, books, television shows, music – anywhere you see a depiction of romance – often there is a male pursuer and if he just persists long enough, he’ll get the girl. This has caused men to think women will eventually “come around”, it impacts understandings of consent, and whether men understand that no really means no.

We also see women regularly portrayed as objects to be acquired. Female bodies are regularly marketed to sell cars, alcohol, vacation destinations, and food. The dehumanization of women in this manner inevitably shapes the way men view women as well as the way women view themselves. In this line, women become simply the playthings of men.

Masculinity is often measured in how many women a man can be with. In how quickly you can move on to the next relationship or hook up. Women are viewed as conquests.

Rape is also about power so there is no overlooking how negative portrayals of women will see men internalizing hatred towards women. Women are needy, they are pushy, they think they are better than men, they are judgmental, they are uppity, they are emotional and they need to be put in their place.

The most frustrating aspect of the objections to Maxwell’s comments is that they represent incredibly simplistic understandings of human reality. They are lowering the discourse surrounding violence against women. Mankind has reached a stage in which it has the potential to tackle difficult issues with the nuance and complexity these situations deserve. Human beings have the potential to read their reality and move beyond cultural and social influences. However, we have to diagnose the true cause of social ills and all participate in its healing. We should no longer be content with simple solutions or simple explanations of these problems, we have to dig deeper and push ourselves outside our comfort zones in developing lasting, just solutions to society’s continued disintegration.

Women Be Hating

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I just saw the recent cover of Time magazine. “Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful”, it’s admonishing us, in relation to Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, out with a new book encouraging women to “lean in” to our work lives.

I found this cover more than a little disappointing. Its just another popular play on the false idea of women hating women. You could argue that the title of the cover is calling out men as well, after all a large chunk, perhaps even a majority, of readers of the magazine are male but there is something about the perpetuation of women hating successful women that is showing up in the zeitgeist more and more lately. With Sheryl Sandberg publishing a new book and Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, rescinding the option of working a home and Anne Hathaway being alive, there seems to be much to criticize about these prominent women. And apparently the biggest haters are women themselves.

So why am I so sure that the Time magazine cover is talking to women? Because rarely do articles call out men’s attitudes towards women as hatred. They use the terms sexism and misogyny, which does mean hatred but is rarely used that way, however, men who harbor anti-women sentiment are not usually called out for hating women. Additionally, the trope of men hating successful women is not so widespread in the media (although of course it exists). Much more frequently, women are projected as hating other women for being prettier than them, more successful, more well liked. For an example of how popular this belief is, check out a comment section of any article where a woman is criticizing another woman.

We’re seeing this title because, sure, men hate women but nobody hates women more than other women. Or at least that’s the underlying assumption of these articles. That while misogyny and sexism run rampant around the world, we can always rely on women’s hatred of other women to sell magazines and generate clicks on articles.

Obviously women are critical of the actions being undertaken by the women mentioned above. There are discussions on whether Sandberg really captures the plight of women in the work place, whether Mayer’s decision impacts women more disproportionately as they are more likely to need to work from home, and articles needlessly criticizing Anne Hathaway (I have to confess I do not understand the Hathaway hate and it irks me to no end so I’m not going to link to any articles or try to explain it, so while it is an example of people assuming women simply hate other women, I just can’t dignify the discussion).

The problem, however, is not women criticizing other women, it’s the fact that popular perception of this critique is being enveloped in an understanding that “women be hating”. So any time a women says she disagrees with the actions of another women, she is just jealous, she’s a hater, she’s catty, she’s a bitch.

It reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld, where Elaine is having a disagreement with a woman in her life and anytime she brings it up all the men around her start calling it a cat fight, get excited and beginning meowing at her.

I’m not buying this trope, though. I will say that when misogyny is perpetuated in our societies, inculcated into our cultures, its none too surprising that some women pick up on this and become extra harsh towards other women, after all its so popular, but there is no genetic predisposition for women to dislike other women. That’s false. But the media thrives on that assumption about our human nature. They create the demand through structuring that narrative and building up those images and then slip in there to provide the supply. It’s the virtual equivalent of meowing at us. Its up to all of us to be aware of these stereotypes about human behavior and negate them through not clicking on these articles and making our objections known.

Aside

Misogyny, Not Sexism

I’m going to confess my ignorance to the fact that I only just learned that there is a difference between misogyny and sexism. I, like many people, thought these two words could be used interchangeably but it turns out there is a slight and important distinction between the two. Misogyny is defined as a hatred of women, while sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex as well as behavior, conditions or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex. A subtle difference but crucial nonetheless.

With the popularity of the video of Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard publicly admonishing her leader of opposition regarding his “misogyny” (I use the quotation marks only because several people have pointed out that her speech was really more about sexism), The Guardian reports that the Macquarie Dictionary is going to change the definition of misogyny to imply an entrenched prejudice against women instead of a pathological hatred . Anyone whose been a victim of prejudice or discrimination will likely tell you that it felt pretty hate filled, and far be it from me to tell them any differently. With that being said, I don’t think the conflation of the two definitions is in women’s best interest. Really, in the best interest of anyone who believes in and works for the promotion of the equality of women and men.

Misogyny runs rampant in our society. And when I use the word misogyny, I mean misogyny, the pathological hatred of women. There’s been a story going around the Internet lately, in which a reporter from Gawker magazine outed a well known Reddit contributor and sub-editor responsible for some of the most abhorrent sections of Reddit that thrive off anti-woman sentiment. This isn’t just sexism, there is a deep and underlying hatred of women and young girls that is thriving because of the belief that the targeted women and girls are “dirty whores who get what’s coming to them.” This article from Salon discusses this further.

But this type of thinking isn’t just represented by a section of creeps that gather together in the shadows of the Internet, hatred of women is so entrenched in our society that it’s seeped its way into our social institutions. A rape survivor recounts her reasons why, given the chance again, she would never prosecute her rapist. When she went to go meet with the Assistant District Attorney he told her that she stood no chance of winning her case, this despite clear physical evidence, because her rapist’s attorney was going to use the “slut defense”. A lawyer at the District Attorney’s office, turned to a victim of a violent crime and told her that she was going to lose because his lawyers were going to defend their client by having the jury believe that she was a slut. An occurrence so popular, the man chose to use that specific terminology rather than explain that her sexual history was going to be on trial (bad enough without using the term). Scrolling down into the comments section of that article opens up many more stories of similar occurrences – defense lawyers specifically choosing male jurors to gain support for their client and drawing attention to the type of underwear the woman was wearing on the night of her rape in order to draw attention to the fact that in essence, she was asking for it.

These are just two examples that I’ve come across in the past two days. If I had been collecting stories for the past week, the past month, I could go on and on and on. The depth of the vitriol faced by women and girls today moves beyond a prejudice or behavior based on stereotypes of social roles. This is a learned hatred, that has become so deeply entrenched in society that we also learn to accept it. No longer are we so shocked to hear that the number one cause of death among women around the world is gender based violence, or that 1 in 3 women will be beaten, coerced in sex or otherwise abused in their lifetime*, or that around 300,000 women die every year during childbirth due to entirely preventable causes. These are not just symptoms of discrimination, the fact that these conditions are allowed to continue and worsen is the result of hatred. We need to begin to identify what allows for this type of hatred to become engendered and flourish within individuals, institutions and communities. And if we are ever going to be able to cure the disease, we need to be able to diagnose the cause not just treat the symptom.

 

 

 

* statistics from this pdf from CARE

It’s the Patriarchy, Y’all

I’ve been thinking about the idea of patriarchy a lot lately. In fact I’ve been wanting to write a post about it for a while but a series of events have prevented me from doing so.

The first time I felt moved to do it was several months ago when Ashley Judd wrote a response to the media about their continued coverage over her “puffy” appearance. I felt that her definition of patriarchy was so well explained that it needed to be shared as much as possible. Judd explains, “Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.”

Several things that she said stuck out to me. The idea of patriarchy being a system that people participate in and it being subtle and insidious, first and foremost. I find this to be refreshingly simple and yet utterly profound. It might not be an understanding that people are unfamiliar with but explaining it as she did began to frame the way I looked at issues around me.

This brings me to the second time I wanted to write this post. When I read a blogpost from a young woman who was visiting Egypt in which she recounted the sexual assault she had faced in that country. The blogpost went viral which inevitably means the young woman was inundated with comments from people questioning the truth of her story, her character and why she would’ve been in Tahrir Square in the first place. The honesty of the post, the bravery with which this young woman shared her frightening experience, was being publicly questioned and ridiculed. The young woman followed up that post with another, addressing some of the concerns of the internet trolls. She took a minute to address the comments of those who questioned why she would’ve be there, saying that they were right, she probably shouldn’t have been there knowing it was an unsafe space. This woman, who was walking down the street with a friend when she was suddenly pulled down and assaulted by a group of men, beaten, stripped naked, pulled and touched, was now being forced to accept that she was in the wrong. Arguments that the girl should have never been there in the first place are a way of blaming the victim without exactly saying, you deserved what you got. Although, fear not, those comments were there also.  But it wasn’t those comments that I found so crushing, sadly that has become almost par for the course, it was rather that the young woman felt forced to entertain their ideas and inevitably agree with their arguments. That’s patriarchy. When this girl has to begin to look at her actions and think maybe there was something that she did that contributed to her own sexual assault. That belief, that victims of rape and sexual assault have somehow done something to bring about or deserve these acts of violence, is proof that patriarchy is alive and well. And for it to go unchecked is prove of it thriving.

Inevitably, instances of me wanting to connect things to the patriarchy began to continue to creep up. An older gentleman sitting next to at Disney World, feeling that after having a two minute conversation with me he could invite me back to his hotel room, not once but twice within 30 seconds (because apparently no doesn’t really mean no) — Patriarchy. A magazine article interviewing a well known actor, accompanied by a photograph of him fully clothed with a topless, nameless woman draped on top of him — Patriarchy.  Conversations at the government level regarding reproductive health that include zero women, followed up a segment on the news discussing how terrible it was that there were no women involved while interviewing an all male panel — Patriarchy (and hilarious farce). Articles on a website promoting “women’s issues” while regularly criticizing women’s physical appearance — Patriarchy. Patriarchy, patriarchy, patriarchy. Privileging men over women, boys over girls, insidious, subtle (although sometimes not even) and no more dangerous when women deny that they are participating.

Yet somehow there is something comforting to me about the way Judd defined patriarchy. It is a system that we all participate in, so it exists outside of our actions as individuals. And yet just as we have given it life, we can bring it down to its knees. I don’t fear broken systems. I fear understandings of reality wherein people believe patterns of behavior or systems put in place are inevitable and completely unchangeable. Or rather I don’t fear them, I fear the people who believe that they exist. So for Judd to define the patriarchy as a system, something that thrives and requires our participation for its existence, was empowering for me. Patriarchy is like a parasite, it cannot survive on its own. That means that we, conscious of its existence, should be able to put a stop to it. While it exists outside of us an individuals, it requires our actions, thoughts and conversations to thrive. Therefore a thoughtfulness, and true desire to want to move beyond this oppressive system, can shift momentum away.

That might sound truly naive but honestly, I think believing issues that live on the basis of human thought and action exist outside of human behavior and choice is naive. Change requires a maturity, a patience, a move beyond simple solutions and actions but its not impossible. I think it all likelihood it might require things to get worse before they get better, since we might be ignorant to the fact that things can even get worse, but once people’s consciousness to the reality of the world around them is raised, when people begin to see themselves as protagonists who are acting in situations rather than individuals who are being acted upon, then systems of belief and practice that have long been seen as inevitable facets of human behavior can begin to be questioned, addressed and resolved.

May I put a vote in for patriarchy to be the first to go?

The Upside of Ugly

Has too much time passed since my last blog post for me to just share something without an explanation of where I’ve been? Likely, yes. The short answer is I started this blog for a very specific purpose and I felt the blog fulfilled its purpose. So I stepped away. Yet I found myself very much missing the space the blog provided, an opportunity to share and learn from others as we all participate in this process of engendering equality. So I plan on coming back here more often and sharing and learning with you guys once more.

I came across the article from Jessica Valenti that I thought was really interested. In it, Valenti talks about the practice of trying to raise the self-esteem of those young girls who are often criticized for their appearance. Valenti doesn’t believe this to be a worthwhile practice; she thinks this gives too much validity to the idea that trying to achieve beauty is a worthwhile exercise. Valenti explains, “the problem isn’t that girls don’t know their worth—it’s that they absolutely do know their value in society. Young women know exactly how ugly the culture believes them to be. So when we teach girls to simply “love themselves”, we’re implicitly telling them to accept the world as it is. We’re saying that being beautiful is something worth having when we should be telling them a culture that demands as much is toxic.”

Valenti is making the case, as I understand it, that in a culture obsessed with looks and attaching value to them, to simply try and tell women that they are beautiful just as they are is to tell them to buy into the system that puts their physical appearance at the forefront. I found this to be a refreshing viewpoint, one that I don’t see enough in the media. Enough of the focus on self-esteem and attributing beauty with physical attractiveness. Those are such simple solutions to much more complicated problems. Telling women they are beautiful just as they are isn’t going to stop the focus on the physical. Helping women, and men, recognize that our society is set up to value the physical above all else, to the detriment of everyone, is more valuable. And thinking of methods in which to move beyond this is much more worthwhile.

Valenti ends her piece by saying that we need to help women survive misogynist culture with a fist rather than a smile, and I can’t really follow her down that path. I don’t think anger is going to get us anywhere, as I’ve explained before. What we need is to use our brains, and our natural impulse to want to do better, in collaboration with others, to think of alternatives to the status quo. One that recognizes everyone’s capacities and abilities.

Just the same, Valenti’s piece is a much more interesting conversation about women and the beauty myth.

Check out Valenti’s piece here and let me know your thoughts!

“I think we need to get much angrier…”

I already referenced this article in my last post, but the title of this post is something Gloria Steinem said in an interview with The Observer when talking about women working towards flexible working hours and childcare. She was generally speaking about areas of the feminist movement that require more attention and focus.

Anger is a very interesting emotion. I feel that many social movements have been formed based on anger. And outrage. And righteous indignation. In one regard, if you take a look at the current state of the world today, how can you not become angry? Looking at the rampant injustice and inequality that characterize the institutions and processes that lie at the core of our society and the sheer number of people that suffer as a result, it’s no wonder anger begins to bubble up inside. And sadness. And a general loss of faith in the inherent nobility of human beings.

Yet at the same time I can’t help but wonder whether acting for the betterment of the world, for the equality of women and men, out of anger is really sustainable. I don’t think anyone can be in a state of anger for very long, its damaging to your mental and physical health. It sort of flairs up and then inevitably dies down. Also when you’re taking action on the basis of anger, you’re really reacting to an incident rather than actively pursuing something for its own sake. You’re angry that some injustice is being perpetrated so you are reacting to it by trying to work for change rather than being an active protagonist that works for sustainable change even without some trigger.

Also I think you would be working for the advancement of civilization from a misconception of human nature. If you’re angry it’s because you’ve been hurt, because you’re disillusioned, because you’re fed up – all manifestations of being disappointed in your fellow human beings. But how can you really work for the betterment of the world when you don’t actually trust in the capacity of individuals to be better? If you aren’t looking at others as your equal, your partner, your fellow builder of a world civilization? Because I think if you looked at people like that, then you would inevitably be looking at people with love. And this love is the place from which you would be working towards equality and justice.

I think love is often underestimated and underemphasized and deemed inappropriate for the public sphere. Its power is limited, misplaced and misrepresented.

Love is a light that guides us through darkness and what greater darkness is there than the forces of inequality and disunity that are so pervasive in our society right now? Love connects us one to another and allows us to recognize the oneness of mankind and recognize that our individual fulfillment and happiness lies in the welfare and happiness of others. And if we recognize that, the interconnection that exists between us, then we will inevitably continue on our path towards equality, undeterred and unshakable, until we reach our desired end goal.

The issue of gender equality is inherently an issue of justice and I think the following quote on justice pretty much encapsulates what I said above. “[Justice] is not obtained by righteous indignation and loud demands made from a distance on behalf of the oppressed when one is cushioned by the comforts of privileged circumstances. It is promoted, instead, by patience and long suffering, through consistent action and loving education. One endures injustice in the process of building justice.”

I should clarify that I don’t mean to say that when unjust things happen, we can’t be angry about it. But to attempt to try and create change in patterns of thought and behavior by having anger at the core of our motivation is greatly limiting. I would even say it’s debilitating. So when we work for the equality of women and men I think we need to get a lot more loving, both men and women. I think we should constantly be reflecting on our motivations for working for change. And we have to recognize that what we’re working towards, the establishment of gender equality, is a process. This by no means has to curb our intensity but it should make us more focused, less superficial and more thorough. Because on the days when you get fed up, disillusioned, tired and angry, it’s the love, for each other and for the end goal, that makes us persevere.

Sisterhood

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After the previous post I had a conversation with a friend in which she related similar situations where her female friends shared variations of the “boys are better than girls” ideology. Apparently somewhere along the way women became catty, dramatic witches and it’s just a fact that we’ve all accepted. As a sort of first step to combat all this negativity, I feel like there needs to be a greater emphasis on sisterhood, on female solidarity, on women sticking up and supporting other women and refusing to accept negative stereotypes.

Because all these situations have made me wonder why is there no sense of female sisterhood, no sense of women speaking up for other women? Where is all the conflict and contention coming from? Recently, in an interview with the Observer, Gloria Steinem explained her thoughts on why people so often complain that groups of women can be catty, “do women compete for the favors of men? Yes. They’ve spent 5,000 years competing. It [competition] is true of any subordinated group. But once you get a sense of possibilities and shared experience, it becomes the most powerful community. I see a form of it when I travel. I’ll be walking through an airport, say, and my plane will be four hours late, and a woman cleaner will say: ‘Here, take these magazines I’ve collected’, or: ‘When I’m tired, I sleep in the closet over there. Would you like to use it?’ It’s the same with the flight attendants. It’s a floating community.”

So it seems that women, just as other oppressed groups, often perpetuate the same prejudicial thoughts or behavior that they’ve experienced in a way to separate themselves from the oppressed group and be accepted as part of the positive majority. Competition is formed in order to be ingratiated to those in positions of power or those seen as possessing positive characteristics. And yet, Steinem explains, when an opportunity is created for the sharing of experiences, a sense of community emerges. A sense of sisterhood, if you will.

I admit, I’ve had my own problems with the notion of sisterhood. It always seemed like this sense of camaraderie between women was based upon some opposition to men (granted that was probably a very ill conceived notion of sisterhood but it’s the one I understood). But in thinking about it now this sense of sisterhood is important in that it should lead us to a greater sense of community, which in turn leads us to a better understanding of the oneness of humanity as a whole. It might just be a first step. If women can see other women as more than just these characteristics assigned to them by culture and tradition then we can use this same outlook towards men.

And why sisterhood and not brotherhood?

Well brotherhood is probably also important but I think it goes back to the idea of an oppressed community. In instances of oppression, it’s true that both the “oppressed” as well as the “oppressor” need time and space in which to reflect on the forces that are acting on them and causing them to behave in such a manner. I think men also need space to reflect on where they are getting understandings of manhood from.

But in response to this pattern of behavior, of underestimating and insulting women, so endemic to our culture and perpetuated by both men and women, and by social structures and institutions, lets promote this idea of sisterhood (men can promote it too!). Let’s promote this idea that groups of women as well as individual women aren’t dramatic, catty, manipulative gossips. They are human beings endowed with the capacity to love, reason, understand, acquire knowledge and serve their community. Let’s move beyond stereotypical tropes that have been perpetuated and supported by years of subjugation, lets question cultural norms of thought and behavior, and let’s support each other in the process, as we move towards an understanding of the oneness of humanity.

Boys > Girls

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Confession: I’ve developed a bad habit since I started this blog. My eyes and ears are always opened to any and all issues that I think might be relevant to bring up in this forum. So basically, and I think I’ve mentioned this here in the past, no conversation or passing comment related to women and men goes unnoticed when I’m around. It may very well end up on this blog. Names and places will always be left off but you might recognize yourself – you’ve been warned.

I was at a dinner the other day and for a time much of the attention was focused around this young child, who was sweetly interacting with one of the other dinner guests. Some of the other guests were commenting to each other about how cute this young boy was, and he really was, and cooing about the way he was dressed and the way he was interacting with the other guest. Then a comment from one of the side conversations caught my attention. “I really want to have all boys, girls are just too much drama”, I overheard one of my friends say. The others around her nodded and spoke up in agreement, interjecting their own brief statements of why boys were preferable to girls. Boys were easy to dress, girls wouldn’t let their moms dress them, boys are more easy going, girls are high maintenance – basically boys > girls.

As I sat there listening to some people I consider to be pretty amazing women, who would raise terrific women themselves, I couldn’t help but wonder, where were they getting these idea from? And why was everyone so readily agreeing? Did no one think this mass generalization of boys and girls was a bit of an oversimplification of reality? Not every social situation lends itself to serious conversation about the forces that are acting upon us and causing us to accept certain beliefs as fact so I figured this was perhaps not the time in which to bring up the questions above.

This conversation actually reminded me of an article that I think has been going around from Yashar Ali, published on the Huffington Post a few days ago. In it, Ali explains how women have been constantly portrayed as emotional, hyper-sensitive and generally crazy that it impacts not only how men view and treat women but also how women view themselves. His depiction of men interacting with women under this assumption was interesting but more interesting to me was how he was describing women who bought into this idea. He describes an encounter he had with a flight attendant in which he explained that he mainly wrote about women, which caused the flight attendant to respond, “oh, about how crazy we are?”

Much like Ali, her reaction makes me rather depressed. There is very little chance of achieving gender equality, so crucial for the advancement of civilization as a whole, if women themselves hold misconceptions about women. When I was studying ISGP’s document on the equality of women and men in Uganda, one of the women we studied the document with said that before we want to talk about how we can stop men from oppressing women, we have to deal with women oppressing women. She was right. The task of overlooking stereotypes and recognizing someone’s true identity doesn’t lie just with men interacting with women but also with women interaction with women (and men interacting with men for that matter). Essentially, you teach people how to treat you and if women can’t even support other women, why would men support women? Somehow when women can make callous and careless statements about other women it makes you realize we still have a long way to go.    

I’ve asked people to contribute to this blog and write about how they try and engender equality in their own lives and a lot have said that they don’t really think they are actively contributing so they don’t have much to write about. Honestly though, if one person in that room would’ve said something, not in a confrontation way, but in a way to invite reflection, that would’ve been engendering equality. We should all take time to reflect and thus become more aware of what is influencing our understanding of gender and relationships between men and women. I think any contribution to equality between women and men requires honest reflection and the realization that our actions and our beliefs are not always perfectly synced, as well as the commitment to achieve that coherence between the two.

A Part of the Whole

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I’m always impressed by tough women and sweet men. When I come across individuals who hold those qualities they always stand out in my mind. I think it has something to do with the fact that they go against gender norms and undermine societal pressures to conform to a certain standard of behavior. That’s the type of subversion and rebellion I can really get behind.

The three ladies who won the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of last week definitely fall into that tough lady category. Firstly, there is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, current president of Liberia, first female president in all of Africa, nicknamed the “Iron Lady.” She shares the award with her compatriot, Leymah Gbowee, founder and executive director of Women Peace and Security Network-Africa, who fought to bring an end to the civil war in Liberia, which is the focus of the documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. And finally Tawakkul Kamran, the youngest of the three, currently one of the leading activists fighting to bring peace and democracy to Yemen, has been arrested several times and received numerous death threats.

In one of the articles I was reading about these Nobel Prize winners, the author was lamenting the fact that women’s issues are still considered separate issues to be highlighted and defined as its own category. It is funny that women’s issues are considered a special interest when women are actually the majority of the population. But I find myself turning to cynicism sometimes when I read the news so I don’t want to be cynical about this. At the same time though it’s a point worth mentioning because it should help us remember that women’s issues don’t exist in a vacuum. When President Sirleaf promotes mandatory primary education for all Liberians, she does it to help ensure that young girls get to receive an education but she also recognizes that promoting the interests of young girls is not a standalone issue, that she has to be a promoter of education so that these girls (and boys) can help create a better future for themselves and for their country. When Leymah Gbowee mobilized Liberian women to fight to bring about the end of the war in her country she knew that the end of war would ensure peace for of all of Liberia’s people. When Tawakkul Karman protests on the streets of Yemen she does so knowing that her rights are intrinsically tied to that of all Yemenites.

I don’t mean to downplay what these women have accomplished in the field of the advancement of women by discussing the impact their courage has had on more than just women. But the point is that working on women’s issues is working on everyone’s issues. These Nobel Prize winners know that in their push for women’s rights, they are working for the advancement of whole communities, whole countries. That’s the reason why they dedicated their wins to all their people, both men and women, of Liberia and Yemen.

Upon handing out the prize to these three women, the Nobel committee explained, “we cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.” Actually, I’d go a little further, because I don’t just think achieving the same opportunities as men is exactly the end goal these women are working towards. They aren’t working towards creating spaces alongside men in broken institutions; they’re demanding new institutions and social practices that ensure the prosperity of all. That’s why they are undercutting the status quo. And that’s what being a tough lady is all about, after all.

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