Today’s personal account of trying to engender equality comes from Laura W.
My particular interest when it comes to promoting gender equality is education and parenting.
It seems to me that there is a natural, though regrettable, human tendency to seek a sense of superiority over others; shockingly, most societies encourage and foster this weakness of the ego. We praise our children for being more than others—more beautiful, cleverer, richer, whiter, skinnier. We teach them to gain a sense of self-worth from out-performing others, rather than to focus on the intrinsic joy of achievement individually and collaboratively. Our schools grade “on the curve”: the grade of “A” means not simply high personal accomplishment, but in fact that one student is, in absolute terms, better than the others. This is the feature of the “Tiger Mom” parenting philosophy, so recently dominating the news, which I found most objectionable: the idea that we should teach our children that their goal is to be “better than everybody else.” When an individual becomes dependent on the relative lowness of others to make him or herself feel higher—whether it be a boy who has been taught that he is better than his sister or a white child who has been taught that she is better than a child of color—it leads to equal dysfunction in the world outside the family.
The Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote a message on the dynamics of achieving peace in the world that touches on the relationship between sexism and peace. Entitled “The Promise of World Peace,” the document states,
The emancipation of women, the achievement of full equality between the sexes, is one of the most important, though less acknowledged prerequisites of peace. The denial of such equality perpetrates an injustice against one half of the world’s population and promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the workplace, to political life, and ultimately to international relations.
This last is a process I’ve seen at play over and over again—the same men who treat the women and children in their lives in the worst ways also behave badly in larger society. It is as though this ingrained idea of their own superiority, learned in childhood and never successfully challenged or uprooted in their character, engenders a sort of irrational belief in their right to treat all other humans as chattel. Ordinary men run corrupt businesses, wage endless lawsuits, abuse their children and underlings or break the law. Tyrants and despots take it to another level. That sense of personal superiority, of a sort of god-like status, brings with it an imaginary golden passport to all kinds of exploitation of other people—the satisfaction of personal lusts, impulsive and/or calculated violence without any consequences, thievery, international aggression, and boundless self-aggrandizement. (It’s no coincidence that despotic regimes always feature the image of the dictator prominently in every public space and even require its adoration in people’s homes.)
So, what can we do differently? Somehow, individually and collectively, we need to change our tune, start teaching ourselves and our children that what matters is not how you compare to the guy next to you, but how you compare to your own potential. Our self-worth must arise from service and virtue, not the spiritual illness of imagined superiority over others. Even believing this so strongly, I’ve found it a struggle to remember NOT to laud my daughter for being smart or doing something easily and quickly, but instead to praise and reward her for working hard, doing her best, collaborating, caring about others and trying to do good things in the world. We can demand these standards in our schools; if we are scholars we can conduct the research needed to convince others that here’s how we can improve education; if we are teaching in religious schools we can recognize that this is integral to the development of a spiritual identity.
At the end of the day, gender equality is linked to all other equalities and the way we educate our kids is key.
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