SHEEM SANDOOYEA

We are born as baby girls who grow up to be children, then young girls and to become women later. From the moment that the gender of the foetus is known, we are subject to bias and expectations. In some cultures, parents do whatever they can to get rid of it whilst in others, they already prepare themselves for the burden that a daughter represents – financially, emotionally or even legally. Where does the inequality start? In the wombs of our mothers. Where is it further enhanced? When we enter this world, kicking and crying. Where is it accentuated? At schools and universities. Where is it normalised? In public space or at work. Where is it consolidated? Within the walls of our own homes.

It is an indisputable fact that men and women are physically different. However, it is also a well-established fact that they both experience varying degrees of inequality throughout their lives. Feminism is a movement that fights for equal rights for both genders globally. Goal 5 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is about achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. UN Women explains how equality does not imply that men and women will become the same but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities will no longer depend on their gender.

Female genital mutilation in 30 countries

However, at a time where there is unprecedented progress in so many fields, we need facts to believe that girls and women still face inequality in 2020. (1) At least 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries. (2) One in five women and girls, including 19 per cent of women and girls aged 15 to 49, have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner within the last 12 months. Yet, 49 countries have no laws that specifically protect women from such violence. (3) Globally, nearly 1 in 4 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are neither employed nor in education or training – compared to 1 in 10 boys. (4) Around 1 in 20 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 (around 13 million worldwide) have experienced forced sex in their lifetimes. (5) Husbands can legally prevent their wives from working in 18 countries. (6) Representation of women at national parliaments stands at 23.7 per cent. (7) Globally, women are just 13 per cent of agricultural landholders. These are few facts taken from the United Nations.

The following are extracts from « Women, Business and the Law » by the World Bank. (8) A study across 24 countries found that 40% of women experiencing gender-based violence disclosed it to someone, but only 7% reported to a formal source (Palermo et al. 2014). (9) In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that 35% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Ortiz-Ospina and Roser (2018; 2019) demonstrated the following in “Economic inequality by gender”: (10) All over the world, men tend to earn more than women. (11) Women are often underrepresented in senior positions within firms. (12) Women are often overrepresented in low-paying jobs. (13) Women often have limited influence over household decisions, including how their own personal earned income is spent.

Patriarchy dates back to the agrarian era, approximately 10,000 years ago. According to sociologist Rae Blumberg, “women were insignificant as main producers in only one type of agrarian society for less than 3 per cent of the history of Homo sapiens”. Agricultural practices led to cultivation of plants and animals, growth of human civilization, colonisation of natural resources, ownership of property and power. Mass production and surplus resulted in division of labour and hierarchical structures by defining roles for both males and females. Later, men have used instruments such as politics and religion to create a patriarchal society so that power remained in the hands of a few. Originating from ancient Greek, patriarchy means « rule of the father ». It needs to be clear that the fight is not against men themselves but rather a social construct which grants privileges to the male gender to the detriment of female and creates a power imbalance such that men can dominate and/or control women. We do not want the word « patriarchy » to oversimplify the different forms of oppression, exploitation and inequality that women face. Instead, we seek to unite in a common fight for equal rights.

We educate, we voice out, we march and we are crying out for justice because we suffer from having been born to the female gender despite our age, the colour of our skin, our religious beliefs, our level of education, and so on. Just ask any woman in your life – your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your girlfriend, your cousin, your daughter, your niece, ask her whether she has suffered because she is a female. It may be difficult for her to talk about it because our society does not encourage sharing these experiences. By suppressing them, she may unknowingly accept patriarchy and eventually become a facilitator of what oppressed her. How many times have lines been crossed but when women report these, they are diminished and excuses are found to « justify » these complaints? We need the world to stop affirming that women are overwhelmed with feelings or stop treating us as extremists when we fight for our rights.

The scary part is that often we do not even know that we are being harassed or abused. We have been told to make ourselves small and that « boys will be boys » or « men will be men ». We remember as far as we can – back to the time when we were kids, too young and innocent to even understand right from wrong. Then, as adults today, we realise that we were wronged but there is nothing we can do now. We do not suffer from one « bad experience » or « misfortune ». No, it happens again and again in various forms throughout our lives. Our pain, distress and hardship have been normalised. Some of us are scarred for life while others pass away but their courage lives on through us. Centuries of surviving through these torments have taught us, women, one thing – to fight back. Perhaps it is deeply embedded into our genes because we are now fighting back harder than ever.

A form of toxic masculinity

Instead of raising awareness on the deeply hidden problems unveiled by the #MeToo movement and collectively thinking on ways to solve them, there is an increasing number of men who now find women threatening. What we are fighting for does not diminish the fight of men who are victims. They may feel pressured to remain quiet for fear of being considered as « weak » or not being taken seriously or looked down upon or mocked or a number of other reasons – a form of toxic masculinity which is also a consequence of patriarchy. There are countless prejudices and stereotypes against men designed to prevent them from expressing their feelings or enforcing brutalization such that it leads to a dehumanisation of males.

Patriarchy has not only established barriers for women but for men also. Our fight for gender equality should not take the light away from men’s fight but rather shine a brighter one on everything that is wrong with a society shaped by patriarchy. Thankfully, we are not fighting this battle alone – there are men out there who understand that it is not a fight against them but against a system. These men recognise that they enjoy a level of privilege based on their gender – simple things taken for granted by them, but for which women have to work twice as hard. Being married or financial dependence should not give the male gender any power over us to abuse as they see fit. Perhaps, the time has come for both men and women to rewrite the rules together and smash down the system that has caused untold pain to both genders for far too long.

So much has been written about feminism, trying to explain why it is important in an era where gender inequality should not even have existed. There is so much more to write and talk about – centuries of physical and psychological pain undergone by women…untold stories, unshed tears, unheard cries for help and blood lost. For all of you, men and women out there who are victims of patriarchy, you are not alone and thank you for your courage. For all of you, men and women who dominate, abuse, harass, bully and attack as a means of perpetuating an outdated system – your time will come, we are coming. Unlike you, we do not use fear to reach our goal of achieving equality, instead we shine a light in the darkness and make sure that it illuminates the path for others around us as well.