I hate labels, always have, and I don’t like stereotyping. For this reason, I am incredibly annoyed often at the well-intentioned but flawed rhetoric that is used by so-called feminists who try to advocate for the increased participation of women in world affairs.
A while back I read yet another worthy article that was full of women/men stereotyping. The article opens with this sentence:
“Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’ No where is this adage proven truer than when it comes to resolving conflict and making peace.”
Funny that the ‘antithesis to feminism’ as she was often referred to (although not in those words) was to be used for an article of this nature. But that aside, can you see what is wrong with that picture? I tell you what is wrong: it raises false expectations for a start, puts undue pressure on women and girls, exonerates men, it promotes unhelpful stereotypes about men and women and does nothing for advancing gender justice. That is what is wrong with that picture.
Women’s inability to enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with men stems from the fact that gender equality is an absent feature of many societies. The quest for gender equality remains one of the biggest challenges of the human rights regime, and not through lack of treaties and mechanisms. Since the end of the Second World War we have seen sustained change and a proliferation of declarations, statements, soft law instruments, criminal law decisions and other ways in which the idea of gender-based discrimination is becoming harder to justify. But on the whole, the rhetoric and discourse often misses the point and efforts to advance gender equality more often than not fall into a vicious circle in which male and female stereotypes are perpetuated.
In international affairs women are often described as the peacemakers, the nurturing ones, the ones that put other people’s interests ahead of theirs, the solution to all the world’s problems: poverty, war, you name it. The problem is not that I disagree with this. There are many women who fit that description, as there are many women who don’t. And we have a tendency to punish those women who don’t rise to the occasion for ‘failing women’ (and I seem to remember Ms Thatcher copped a fair bit of that!).
In my line of work and even in my daily life I have seen educated women in positions of power treat other women like they were worthless. A doctor treating a soon-to-be-mother almost refusing her the proper attention she needed and blaming her for vulnerable condition she was in, unable to pay for a doctor or look after herself and her baby. Everyday I witness wealthy people restricting the most basic human rights of their domestic workers (no days off, confiscating passports, mobile phones, etc.). Domestic workers using violent means and blackmail against other domestic workers competing for jobs. Racism, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, competition for jobs and resources, classism and the search for status in newly developed societies; these are some of the issues that shape people regardless of their gender.
I have equally seen plenty of men fitting into the female description of nurturing, care givers and peacemakers. If you look around you will see that there are more and more stay-at-home-dads today. And I have heard stories of men travelling with young children in search of refuge. I have also worked for many men who are more passionate about gender justice than many women I have met. I think awareness and education are the keys to shaping people’s views about gender, not your biological predisposition. I think the ‘socially constructed’ context is much more relevant than your given-sex. And the rhetoric of gender equality is flawed, because it is intrinsically linked to a need for comparison: equal to what? (men). And if you think about it, it also makes ‘difference’ sound bad.
Gender refers to the roles and responsibilities of men and women that are created in families, societies and cultures. The concept of gender also includes expectations held about the characteristics, aptitudes and likely behaviours of both women and men. Women are not gender experts just by virtue of the fact that they are women. Women can be, and are, as contaminated by stereotypes as men. Check out this recent ad that says it all, really:
The perpetuation of stereotypes – even the ones we think are good, like the ones being put forward to argue the case for women’s participation in the political or economic spheres – is problematic. This is especially the case when it is based on a rhetoric of gender equality that contributes to the protective, paternalistic approach that continues to hinder the fulfilment of gender justice and women’s empowerment. What is important is to drive home the message that women, as half of humanity, are deserving of the same rights as the other half of humanity, period. We need to also recognise that they too are capable of mistakes. We should not set such high expectations on all women just because they are women (as I feel has happened with the young student turned activist Malala Yousafzai, although she seems to be meeting them – and good on her for that).
Women and girls are, first and foremost, people. And as people, they should be entitled to the same choices and opportunities as other people. And sometimes their choices will not be ideal. But that is the whole point. And we can work on the context to shape that. On acknowledging and re-dressing the male-bias that dominates our capitalist societies. On neutralising the emphasis that society places on superficiality and body image. On exposing individuals and collectives that work to undermine and threat half of society. On ensuring portrayals of men and women in the media are humanising and empowering rather than perpetuating harmful stereotypes. On stopping the gender divide that is promoted from an early age through children’s toys. On letting people be people and thrive in a context in which education, access to opportunities and choice drive empowerment and self-improvement. And on celebrating those who have dedicated their lives and careers (women and men) to fight for a better, more just society.
Some really good examples I have seen:
I really like Jason Katz and this is a brilliant Ted Talk by him on the issue of violence against women:
And I am a fan of the way this A Mighty Girl website works to enhance and promote (and show!) women’s empowerment, really worth following. I just wish it targeted boys as well.