(Published in The Huffington Post India : http://www.huffingtonpost.in/shaira-mohan/the-gender )
A friend called me the other day sounding exasperated. ‘Why is it that people have to misconstrue everything and not read it for what it is really trying to say?” She went on to explain how she was tired of reading articles on gender equality being misconstrued as being a conflict between the two genders – as a one-upmanship where the debates went off on tangents that suggested that one gender is more superior to the other. ‘What part of Gender EQUALITY are people not understanding??’
This is an issue that has been gnawing at me for a long time too and I decided to tackle this on paper and hope to be able to break it down to what Gender Equality really is all about and what it isn’t!
Not that any dictionary meaning needs to be fished out for this self -explanatory term but humor me for just a second. The Oxford Dictionary has the shortest and sweetest definition – Gender Equality is the ‘state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender.’ So essentially what is being said is – EQUAL rights and opportunities for both men and women. EQUAL pay, EQUAL voting rights, EQUAL rights to education, EQUAL rights to property, marriage, divorce regulations ….equal everything. Simple right? It should be.
Skimming through various articles, opinions on social media, the blogosphere and general chatter on the subject, what seems abundantly clear is that the confusion lies in the interpretation of the meaning of EQUALITY in this context. Experts have suggested that Gender Equality is victim to being understood in three different biases: identical treatment, differential treatment and fair treatment. To elaborate briefly, aside from the identical treatment, unbiased and unaffected-by-gender-no-matter-what which should really be the only true meaning of the term, another perspective is that some treatment can be different based on the biological construct (sex) of the individuals and if some treatment is structured around these biological differences then it is not deemed to be ‘unequal’. And lastly, the fair treatment argument proposes the treatment of people fairly or in a way that is right and reasonable. But, these views are negated by the fact that the very underlying structures that socially, legally and politically determine what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘acceptable’ are, in fact, patriarchal in nature, using the male rationality to address what gender equality should be. Which is the error itself.
These three gender biases are not only contradictory and tacitly patriarchal in nature but also the reasons for all the confusion and conflicts on the issue of what gender equality should really mean. What people seem to forget when they emphatically talk about equality is that we are not talking about Gender Superiority! We are talking about men and women or boys and girls being afforded equal rights, opportunities, and resources. EQUAL. NOT more or less. The lack of this equality is the reason why today you and I and many like us call ourselves FEMINISTS or EGALITARIANS or WOMEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVISTS. Feminism was born as a consequence of the lack of gender equality and a feminist is a person who wants to protest this lack of equality by raising her/his voice in protest against this inequality. Feminism is NOT a mutiny or a rebellious war cry by women to try and prove that they are greater or better than men. This is not a gender war where one is a winner and the other a loser. This is simply equality. And we are fighting for what should, by right, be ours just as what men by right call theirs.
I want to get paid the same figure as my male counterpart in the same position as me. And why should there be any difference in the first place? I work as much as him, I have the same meetings, talk to clients the same way, bring in business the same way – hell, I earned that bonus the same way too! So then why the economic discrimination? This is NOT equality.
I want to be able to move freely and by my own free will wherever and whenever I want. My husband doesn’t ask me when he wants to go somewhere, he informs me. So, why do I need to take his permission in some countries to step out of the house? This is NOT equality.
I want to be able to inherit land or property equally and also in marriages and divorces. I want my equal right to the highest level of education as per my choice. I want to participate in politics, law and order and governance of my country at par with my male counterparts. I want the sole right to decisions regarding my own body, sexuality and reproduction. I want to be able to decide for myself when I marry, when I want to engage in ‘consensual’ sex and when I want to have a baby.
Also, I want to be allowed into another country without being denied entry on account of being a single girl or woman travelling without a husband or father or brother or whatever.
And I want a girl to be born without the aura of doom and pity hanging like a dark cloud over our heads but instead with as much happiness and joy as is expressed over the birth of a boy.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking now. This is Deepika Padukone’s ‘My Choice’ video all over again. You know what? It is. Minus the whole controversy of glamour versus real, actual depiction. Because I appeal to you to just put the whole celebrity, airbrushed hair angle aside for a minute and focus just on the message the video is trying to send. Are you really criticizing that too? It IS My Choice. Isn’t that what egalitarians and feminists are trying to say? If I just lifted that same monologue and put it in a video that featured women from the villages who are actual victims, wouldn’t you be giving it a standing ovation? I know I would.
This is what we need to be encouraging. ALL of us. The privileged as well as the under-privileged. WOMEN collectively and more importantly, in fact, MEN who need to recognize the need for this EQUALITY. Only when us ‘privileged’ folks understand this message can we help the less fortunate ones to stand up for their rights and raise their voices that have been silenced for far too long.
The media is guilty too. By objectifying and stereotyping women by constantly airing advertisements that portray women as ‘sexual objects’, the media is wrongly using its power of influencing perceptions of the people which can also influence how women are perceived and treated in real life.
I also see many women being hired in male dominated jobs purely on the basis of their looks. Tacitly we know it’s because they may be able to ‘lure’ in the ‘big fish’ clients. Instead of hiring the other girl who may not look like a super model but is much better at the job. By objectifying women in this way the racist message being sent is degrading to women everywhere.
It is heartening to see that in the midst of all the misconstrued, deliberate deniability and efforts to suppress the cry for gender equality today, there are some men who are not letting their judgement be clouded by such biases and criticisms and are coming out openly in support of the notion of equality. Farhan Akhtar, the actor/director/producer recently came to the fore as a self-proclaimed feminist by becoming the first ever male UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia. The young and talented Emma Watson’s inspiring UN speech on Feminism fuelled the pro-feminism fire that gave a strong voice to many like her to recognize that we are not talking about ‘man-hating’ here or going AGAINST men. It is truly a “human issue” and we want to work TOGETHER with men to END gender inequality.
I read a truly inspiring news article the other day about the village of Piplantri in Rajasthan, India that has defied the stereotype typical of such remote villages and has undertaken the most wonderful tradition in eco-feminism that all of us, all of India and the world can learn a lot from. With the birth of every newborn girl in Piplantri, the village plants 111 trees in honor of the girl – thus not only encouraging and embracing the birth of every girl child but also taking steps to ensure a greener, healthier environment for the future generations. And there’s more – With every such birth, the village residents along with the parents of the newborn girl collect a substantial sum of money that is locked into a 20 year fixed deposit in the girl’s name with a signed affidavit by the parents guaranteeing a proper education and marriage only after their daughter crosses the legal age. Isn’t that just amazing?! Oh and just so you know – the idea-genius behind this most endearing tradition is the former MALE sarpanch of the village who wanted to honor the memory of his own daughter who passed away a few years ago.
The word ‘Gender’ to a lot of people immediately means ‘women’. This is not correct. There are two genders – male and female who have to coexist in harmony with each other and if one gender is oppressing, objectifying, physically and emotionally violating and degrading the other, there is bound to be outrage and outcry and a call for equality. That is what is happening today and what we are trying to address. It is not a battle of the sexes here but an attempt to find a way for the two sexes to work in equality and harmony together by respecting each other’s views, rights and opinions.
So please, let’s not hide behind a cloud of misconstrued interpretations and act on those. Let’s see the big picture for what it really is. And let’s hope that the day isn’t far when all those countries and governments that treat women ostentatiously like lesser, incapable beings begin to realize their true worth and the fact that they are an equal half that works, in fact even harder both at work and at home to ensure the smooth running of the lives of both sexes – the whole family. When the media, governments and other influential bodies begin to and continue to portray women in a positive, respectful fashion, only then is there any hope of the wife-beating, raping, condescending and suppressing man and men alike to open their eyes and minds to view women through the lens of respect and equality.
In the words of Thomas Wentworth Higginson – “…a woman needs equal rights not because she is man’s better half, but because she is his other half. She needs them, not as an angel, but as a fraction of humanity.” And the sooner this very need for equal rights is recognized, the sooner every fraction of humanity can join together as one whole unit – invincible and more powerful than ever.