Last night I had the privilege of meeting a female Saudi activist named Nasima, who is fighting for women’s rights in one of the most patriarchal societies existing today. Everyday she risks her life (literally) by doing simple things like driving a car (see here) and travelling outside of Saudi Arabia to attend conferences etc. She tells me though, that her husband and children are very proud of her and support her 100%. I was left feeling completely moved by her courage and her determination to stand up for what she believes is right, against a powerfully hegemonic government. She says that as much as 80% of people living in Saudi Arabia feel the same as her and hope for gender equality. EIGHTY PERCENT! That just shows you the degree of oppression that exists.
Coming from South Africa, a country that has its own history of oppression, I am saddened that our world is filled with these kinds of injustices. To this day, South Africa is a country marred by inequality against subjugated social groupings: blacks, women, and homosexuals. But it is with particular reference to gender inequality that I write this post today. This is for three reasons, all of which are circumstantial and personal.
- Out of the three chosen groups (and of course there are more), I can only classify myself as one: a woman. Therefore this issue directly affects my life.
- I have recently been the target of a particularly sexist and misogynistic personal attack
- Having met Nasima, I am inspired to write about gender inequality because I am tired of Westerners feeling like this is “not their problem”
So, what about that third point? I am very aware of how structural racism, sexism, and hetro-normative ideologies are like insidious drops of poison in the water system that is our society and therefore our norms, conventions and social practices. Most people do not even realise that they adopt these practices because it is so normal and taken-for-granted. Partly, those in the dominant groups (whites, men, heterosexuals) are able to maintain their delusion of normality by distancing themselves from those on the extreme fringes such as radical left-wing activists and right-wing fundamentalists.
For example, Mrs Smith might have some very strong opinions about the appalling state of Saudi Arabia where women aren’t allowed to drive while at the same time continuing to accept abuse from her husband. She might also find herself agreeing with that same husband, who while reading the Sunday paper, makes a comment about how ridiculous it is that a group of students took off their bras to protest against gender inequality at their local university. It is so much easier to accept and perpetuate these injustices when we are pumped up full of self-righteous other-ing that sets us ideologically apart from either extreme.
But we cannot completely divorce ourselves from the reality. Each and every one of us needs to accept the existence of and our participation in these oppressive ideological (and very real) systems in our society. In South Africa, we just have to look at the rape stats and HIV infection rate to see that patriarchy and its effects are alive and well in our society. And it’s not solely the government’s responsibility to resolve this just like it is not solely the government’s fault it continues to exist.
So whose fault is it and who is responsible for resolving these inequalities? It is so easy to throw around words like “society” and “discourse” – words that help to distance us, making it feel like these problems exist “somewhere out there” – but in fact WE ALL have to look no further than ourselves, our relationships, our cultures, to discover these inequalities are very much present and more than not totally accepted or ignored.
So next time you hear about a rape stat in SA – something like the fact that over 3000 women are raped in our country every day (see stats here) – be careful to shrug it off as something tragic that happens to other people. Ask yourself this rather. Have you ever had unprotected sex because the guy told you he likes it better that way or threatened you? Or if you are a guy, have you ever coerced someone into not wearing a condom? Have you ever engaged in sexual activity in order to feel accepted by a man? Or if you are a man, have you ever expressed distaste at a woman who didn’t “put out”? Have you ever judged a girl whose skirt is too short or breasts too exposed as someone who is looking for trouble from the opposite sex? Have you ever heard from an elder that you must listen to your husband/father/brother because he is the man in your house and speaking your mind will be regarded as disrespect?
If you said yes to any of these questions, then you are just like most of us: complicit in gender inequality. But before you get all defensive and try and tell yourself that you aren’t sexist, just remember the insidiousness that is normative ideology. You are not meant to feel wrong, you are meant to feel okay, normal, acceptable. That is the power of ideology – once it is accepted by the majority, it becomes invisible (See here). And of course, these things all exist on a continuum. Just because you might like a Robin Thicke music video, doesn’t mean you are going to rape someone. It’s about shades and hues.
So all that I ask of you is that you take this opportunity to really examine yourself, your behaviours and your thoughts. We are human and our brains love to classify and organise things into neat boxes and therefore groups that consist of us and them. But just like racism, these tendencies are only going to be shifted when we become aware of them in ourselves, our cultures, and our society at large. Let Nasima inspire you too and stand up for things you believe in! Don’t let people harm you or mistreat you because “that’s what they do”. If you hear of someone you know who is mistreated because of their gender, their race or sexual orientation SAY SOMETHING AGAINST IT. Your words might not change the perpetrator but they have the potential to shift the tone of your conversations and thus the discourses in our society.