I am so excited by the chance to write this article. The issue of the twenty-first century Feminist movement as well as both the trials and successes faced by its champions is important to me. I understand the importance of not wanting our identities to be exclusively allocated to one cause, one movement or notion—but I think announcing our commitment to being Feminists is necessary today. Feminism to me encompasses so much: things such as allowing women equal opportunity in the workplace; ensuring every female feels safe and respected because of her femininity and not defenceless against the patriarchy because of it. In the same breath, I believe it also encompasses such things as allowing men to have equal paternity-leave as their wives without questioning their masculinity and teaching young boys that loving art, loving dance and loving peaceful things does not equate effeminateness.
The media and popular culture began to more widely draw attention to the changing dynamics of Feminism after Beyoncé’s proclamation during her 2014 VMA performance. Later on, humanitarian Emma Watson’s United Nations speech echoed an idea I am going to repeat on this blog today. The definition of a feminist shared by these two women reflected here, is as follows: “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes – the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”
I had the opportunity to attend an incredible presentation hosted at University College London about Discrimination and Bigotry. What I learned there, echoed in my mind as I began this article. It frightens me that when I begin to enter: “why feminism…” on the search engine Google the first hits that come up are: ‘is bad’ and ‘is bullshit.’ Society makes it so simple to create standards or norms, which when consistently encouraged, become restrictive. We perpetuate societal stereotypes in the blink of an eye. We as a species become so inclined to follow the pack where it often is simplest to follow the most commonly accepted denominator. This can give way to biased stereotypes, which, coupled with: hatred, anger and an unwillingness to change, create a cycle of oppression. Derived social subtleties are used to create a consistent force of discrimination.
This interesting phenomenon dictates that there is a difference between males and females. When considering the concept of gender equality it is important to acknowledge the difference between being in a minority and marginalizing individuals. Marginalized amongst other things, is a synonym for: ostracized, side-lined, and demoted. There are countless stories being shared of the girl-child demeaned, forgotten and destroyed. Places such as China, which implemented a one-child policy that often had parents who bore a daughter abandoning her—or worse. Places such as Ghana, where childless or widowed women are supressed by patriarchal gender norms—ostracised and labelled as witches. Places such as India, where a young woman was savagely raped and died – just one case of an unreported plethora—for travelling unaccompanied in the evening.
I am so adamant that a change can be achieved though.
The brutal rape and death of medical student Jyoti Singh in 2012 in the Indian capital of New Delhi sparked a media flurry. The subsequent mass media attention that came from her case is indicative of a major change. During a summer programme in 2013 I argued with a classmate about the “point” of gender equality: I mentioned this case. It had shocked me. It had hurt me. But most of all it had moved me. Its severity and its impact are and should forever be undeniable. The BBC Documentary India’s Daughter, brought to the forefront one of the most prolific cases of gender inequality in the 21st century; it became a much needed plea for action to those who have lightly tread around the issue for decades. In March 2015 lawmakers in India banned the documentary. Last year on International Women’s Day, Huffington Post writer Arti Patel aptly summed up the relevance of the film: “yes, it will make you bitter, and yes it will make you upset. If there’s one thing you can do on International Women’s Day this Sunday, it’s to educate yourself on why these problems in India continue to exist.” Although as far as I understand the ban has still not been lifted several months later, the documentary
has become an international phenomenon. Her name was Jyoti Singh and she has lit a light in India and across the world. What will come from this light is for us to decide.
Evidently, sexual and reproductive health of females is an area often negatively affected by gender imbalance. A clinic in Uganda is taking initiative to change this. The Mukono Health Centre rewards couples that attend pre-natal appointments together. The aim of this grassroots-level program is to create a lasting difference in the gender norms perpetuated in the East African country. Men in the region have historically abandoned their spouses during pregnancy, even when one or both are suffering from HIV. Consequently, the mother is left to care for a child who is HIV-positive, with no external support. This clinic in Uganda is hoping to target gender stereotypes, by encouraging more men to be involved in the pregnancy process with their spouses—thus enforcing the concept of a ‘new normal’ in gender relations and eventually paving the way for successful health outcomes.
With this in mind, I do not want to point to issues in gender-equality as being solely a developing world issue. The 2014 World Economic Forum ranks Iceland, Finland and Norway as the top three countries, respectively, in regards to their gender equality index. Interestingly, the Top 10 list, of this same index also included Nicaragua (6), Rwanda (7), the Philippines (9). These countries as noted by Fortune Magazine’s late-October 2014 issue scored well ahead of universally-regarded ‘developed’ nations-such as the United Kingdom, which scored 28! This got me thinking about some of the issues of gender equality that can be found a little closer to home.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, implores in her award-winning book Lean In, it is vital that we improve gender diversity within the workplace. Just because a workplace hires some women, or even for the sake of argument is comprised of 50% female employees, it does not mean that those women are being given equal opportunity within the workplace to showcase their talent. I think my interpretation, if not too much of a generalisation, encapsulates what Sandberg is pointing to within North American society. We want to be able to make both women and men, feel liberated against the bounds of so-called societal norms. An interesting idea I am currently exploring is that of “normalcies”-it’s such an interesting question, of what dictates and defines a social norm. It is hardly fair to consider a standard a norm, when it is used as a method for confining people. Let us examine the concept of women being permitted to take maternity leave only under the knowledge that doing so will jeopardize the trajectory of their career in future years. Sandberg refers to this when she notes: “guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers.” To my mind this quotation is indicative of the reality faced by women in the workplace who are also mothers—they face a catch-22—misunderstood by fellow professionals about pausing their careers to stay home with their children and simultaneously rejected by full time parents in their community for leaving their toddlers in day-cares, to return to their careers.
One of the most important aspects of Sandberg’s memoir that comes to mind, is her belief in providing men the opportunity (free from societal constraints and commentary) to contribute actively to their family as they can to their careers. Sandberg notes the difficulties many men face in this regard; especially in the consumer-capitalist society we have in North America.
While we hear about pregnant employees being fired in many parts of the world, or father’s not being afforded the luxury of paternity leave, we can alternatively turn our attention to Scandinavia where there is a systematic effort to change gender dynamics and parental roles. Sweden is an example—paid paternity leave is available. According to Swedish legislation a minimum of 60 days of leave must be taken by fathers, and up to 480 days of parental leave is available after the birth of a child for parents. Interestingly, Swedes are becoming more aligned to the system: one father (Goran Sevelin) interviewed for Johan Bavan’s documentary on the legislation said: “I think it’s important to share the responsibility of staying at home with your children, even if you lose out financially. We have less money because I stay at home, but at the same time I will have more time to bond with my daughter and that is what is most important for our future together.” Iceland has similar legislation as well. More importantly, both private and public sector organizations in the region encourage parents to take parental leave, ‘topping up’ the parental allowance from the national governments so parents generally earn 90% of their salaries while on maternity or paternity leave.
Yet, an even deeper gender bias is engrained in our society. Emma Watson said beautifully in her HeforShe campaign: “We don’t acknowledge how much pressure we put on men to conform to a certain perception of masculinity.” Watson raises an incredible point that the media often perpetuates a negative stereotype upon men as well— assigning emotions by gender. The blog ‘Everyday Feminism’ reflects multiple ideas about the unfortunate consequences of emotional policing. The blog notes a phenomenon Sandberg wrote about in Lean In; one, which was also reflected in the “Ban Bossy, I am a Boss” campaign. For females who act with confidence they are labelled as “bitchy”, whereas a man is labelled a leader. We do not allow women to take on leadership roles without a negative identification—forcing them to search for what Sandberg called ‘guilt management’. Alternatively, by dictating that men are supposed to behave in a controlling manner to be accepted as a leader or influential, society limits male opportunity to present more sensitive emotions. Being told to “man up” is unfair, because the phrase dictates that being a man relies on only certain physical identifiers— particular ways of behaving and responding to situations. The patriarchy is thus further perpetuated. There is an unquestionable implication of shame within the following phrase, one which we unfortunately here too often: “it was embarrassing that he cried, he behaved like a little girl/bitch.” Replacing the last word with woman can present the following conclusion: women become equated to negative/inferior beings and thus, men shouldn’t act like women. When women are emotional (and if women are bad), then men should not be emotional, because being emotional is bad. When written out this form of thinking doesn’t make a lot of sense, which makes me question the media’s motives for encouraging society to perpetuate such norms?
An avid Buzzfeed reader, I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes at the Facebook comments found below, but also at the articles I have clicked into. Take for instance; an article mocking actor Kit Harington’s displeasure at being was labelled a “hunk”. What I believe Buzzfeed missed was his displeasure with being solely associated, labelled or known for his physical attractiveness. Buzzfeed mocked him for facing ‘so many challenges of being extraordinarily attractive’, but again I think they missed the essence. It is the subtleties in conversation and nuanced language that often convey deeper
objectification. By not appreciating individuals for their multidimensional characters— talents, flaws and abilities, we as a society manage to reduce their identities. Additionally, overt sexualisation of both males and females when done in a degrading way leads to objectification. No individual should be solely defined by their physicality—especially when they have worked to be recognized for their hard work and passion in something else. It isn’t fair and acceptable when a female is objectified as less of a person and more as a figment of a man’s ideal. Similarly, it cannot be equitable to do the same to men. As said in Everyday Feminism: “…when we are free to express and talk about emotions without having to fear compromising our identities, we create space for individuals and communities to be healthier and safer.”
Oftentimes I veer away from writing articles such as this one because they can take a downtrodden tone. I never want anyone who is guilty of any marginalization, to feel as if I am “calling them out”. For two reasons, firstly I have absolutely no authority to do so. Secondly, my mum always taught me that those in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones. I wish I could say that every moment of the day I am honourable to the Feminist movement: that I don’t get caught up in gender stereotypes or frustrated by the patriarchy. Instead of “calling each other out” I suggest we call people in. Let us join together and encourage more people to join the Feminist movement. I believe that by recognizing gender equality as a multi-dimensional concept affecting lives across the world, will best prepare us to achieve important change.
Vancouver Island blogger Janne Robinson: “tries to make a habit of saying the word feminist as often as possible.” So here it is. My name is Firoza Dodhi and I am a feminist. I hope you will try it with me.