I am not a gender expert. What and how I learned about inequality emerged from pure existential needs. But what I clearly see is that both men and women are victims of the patriarchal society we live in. The sooner we see that the better.
This is a blog by Mahamuda Rahman, former communication officer at Cordaid.
Even enlightened people sometimes come with the most surprising answers if you ask them about gender equality. Like ‘men and women are not the same’. Or ‘they can get equity but they are not equal.’ Apart from being vague answers, they are also proof of ignorance. And show exactly why we need to expose gender inequality and patriarchism.
Men cannot cry, women must look pretty
From our childhood, we are imposed with a lot of stereotyping like these. Boys don’t cry. Girls have to look pretty. We are continuously exposed to uncountable numbers of normalized sexism. Like ‘girls run like a girl’. Meaning we cannot run.
From childhood onwards, we are all given certain burdens to carry. Boys and girls, men and women. Like the social burdens of oppression, the humiliation of being ‘poor’, or ‘fat’, or ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘colored’. I have heard a woman with perfect body shape calling herself fat. And a rather wealthy middle-class man calling himself poor. Because she did not fit into a particular dress and he could not buy the luxury car he longed for.
We live in a society where a few strong systems of oppression are at play – class, race, imperialism. Gender inequality is also one of them. People of all genders, colours, and backgrounds are victims. And definitely, some more than others.
Once upon a time
Maybe we all know this. But still, sometimes it’s good to look back. Long story short, our prehistoric, nomadic fore-parents lived in a more or less equal society. With the advent of agriculture and the idea of property, men wanted to keep track of their progenies. Therefore, women were locked inside the house. Also, having more hands to work in the field was very helpful. So, women were forced to keep childbearing. Their contribution was forced to be confined within the premises of a household for centuries. Their roles varied depending on the class and context. But the chain around their ankle was never longer than the threshold of the house.
The truth behind this propaganda is that some people just love to keep their power and they invent these convenient dichotomies. There is nothing natural about it.
If you do not use a machine for a very long time, it becomes rusty. The body and brain of women went through centuries of deprivation, repression, malnutrition. The heavy toll of childbearing every year took on their bodies, just like the cruel dictatorship of ‘beauty’ or the trinity of being soft, pale, and frail. There’s physical, but also intellectual deprivation. Just remember when women weren’t even allowed to learn how to read and write. Millions of girls are still kept away from schools. Or from pursuing their dreams and exploring their talents. Which is also social deprivation. Women were and are continuously reminded of their inferiority. Simply by ‘nature’, by being a woman.
‘It’s by nature’: an all- invasive propaganda
Throughout history, when some people wanted others to be submissive, they played the nature card. For poor people life is hard and that is natural. They accept it the way it is. For the people lowest in the caste system, this categorization and privilege enjoyed by the upper casts were also presented as something god-given and natural. At some point, a certain number of people believed people with blue eyes and blond hair were a superior race, destined to rule the world. Gender inequality works in a similar way. In patriarchal societies and systems, men have been claiming for centuries that women are inferior to them. By nature.
The truth behind this propaganda is that some people just love to keep their power and they invent these convenient dichotomies. There is nothing natural about it. This is all made-up, socially constructed, conveniently practiced, and nurtured. We are being fed with these constructs every day. Through books, movies, stories, norms, and media. We live and breathe it. And we start to believe this nonsense.
It’s not just women
It works so systematically that millions of women starve themselves to look thin and pretty. Traits like aggression, power, stubbornness, and even greed are glorified whereas empathy, care, and foresight are vilified. Men say they try to carry all the burdens on their shoulders. To be ‘manly’ and ‘strong’ and that they suffer immensely when they do not meet those social expectations.
And because of these nonsensical stereotypes, uncountable numbers of women in many countries are going through horrors. From genital mutilation, malnutrition, sexual and domestic violence, online bullying, to everyday casual sexism.
We all suffer from these oppressive systems of injustice in our own ways. But because they feed on differences and vulnerabilities, not all humans suffer equally.
Systems of oppression are hierarchical and the higher up you are on the ladder the more privilege you enjoy. A white rich European male is highest on the ladder. A coloured, poor, woman from a low-income country stands can only look at the ladder and stands on the ground.
We all suffer from these oppressive systems of injustice in our own ways. But because they feed on differences and vulnerabilities, not all humans suffer equally. These systems thrive on inequality. And in the end, sexism, racism, and structural poverty have the same root cause: organised inequality.
Equality is an attitude
Equality will never happen unless we all believe that we are equal. Everyone can be equal despite their differences – race, gender, sexuality, background, mental and physical abilities. Differences do not mean someone is better than someone else. Especially when criteria for comparisons are themselves highly biased, subjective, flawed, and purposefully manufactured.
There are still reasons for celebration
Despite centuries of oppression and deprivation, women are running fast and catching up. They are showing that they can shine in a man’s world. The thing is, they don’t need a man’s world. We don’t need a man’s world. We need a world. Where women do things their way and grab the stage. With men equal to them. A place where all suffer less. And where some – more deeply deprived and repressed than others – can heal more than others need to heal.
We are doing that. We are creating that world. High fives to the men who are lending a hand. Cheers especially for poor women of colour, the lowest of the low in today’s patriarchal and western hierarchy. Despite the violence, the brutalities, the burden of climate change, and poverty, they keep on fighting for a better world. Better for all women and men.
Header image: Masuma Jami, Herat, Afghanistan, 2020. Image: Elaha Sahel, Oxfam.