I am the youngest of three siblings. Although life in my parents’ home followed a somewhat patriarchal model, my parents had both agreed that all three daughters were good enough to send abroad for their tertiary studies, and throughout their working lives, strived towards that end with their modest salaries. Perhaps things would have been different had they been blessed with the boy many Asians tend to favour. Nonetheless, no money was saved for the dowry (although that would have been much cheaper than paying tuition fees for three), nor did they think of marrying us off straight after our A Levels. We were equally given a chance to attend university, and always given a voice at home: to speak about fashion, local politics, the weather, our future careers, to disagree, to counter-argue, to speak, to be. Poor dad and uncles were always the minority at family dinners; they listened to us and treated us as peers.
I sound almost nostalgic talking about my childhood in a « woman-friendly » home- a euphemism? How I wish the world out there mirrored my home. I am always wary of using the ‘f’ word- feminism. Perhaps it is the aggressive, man-hating label that comes with it that makes me uncomfortable? Or its hackneyed image? I have seen female colleagues tagging themselves loudly as feminists on social media, yet refusing to share work information with a female counterpart who I supposed, had made them feel threatened.
I have listened carefully to actress Emma Watson’s speech for the United Nation’s HeForShe campaign to end gender inequality. I applauded the goal of encouraging men and boys to take action against gender bias, discrimination and violence. I was moved, I felt privileged to have attended a university where women too can study politics and to earn the same salary as my male counterpart and to be afforded the same benefits as he does. But perhaps, I did not have concrete examples in mind to relate to at the time.
I would still be feeling nostalgic about my childhood if I did not feel so angry by the way I was hushed at a small meeting involving two men and myself yesterday. I took the floor to present an argument for the paper we were collectively editing. I cannot recall the first few words I had uttered, for the shock of being so abruptly hushed by one colleague: « You already told me that last time. »
« But I haven’t even begun my sentence, let alone my argument! »
« Yeah, but I know what you will say ».
« I don’t think you do », I silenced him vehemently. This was a point that had just come to my mind during the discussion, and which I had never shared beforehand.
At other times, I was either left ignored when interjecting in disagreement or I had to significantly raise my voice to make sure my views were heard.
Today, I shared the anecdote with friends to laugh it off, although I had not yet digested the full implications of his attitude. I was still mulling over what had made me feel so humiliated, so disrespected, so outraged. I hasten to add that this is not a mere case of a rude person. He is one who had rushed to get married in order to have a maid, I mean wife, to (in his own words) iron his shirts/ warm his bed/ cook his dinner before he proceeded on secondment abroad. He does not believe a woman’s university degree is worth investing in, let alone post-graduate studies.
I presume that being shocked when such incidents happen is a rather positive sign, for bouts of sexism come as mostly exceptions in my life. Every time I am confronted with gender discrimination, I am simultaneously reminded of the luck of having been raised by progressist parents in an Asian society. They were the first gender equality ambassadors in my life.
Late last year, I attended a humanitarian seminar in the sub-saharan region, organised by an international organisation. The participants and the facilitators were mostly middle-aged married men, former or current military personnel, throwing sexist jokes around on what to do before being deployed on an emergency mission. « Remember to pack the condoms! », « Inform your mistress(es) before you leave! », and so on. Male facilitators from the continent’s humanitarian offices spoke openly of the prostitutes they went to after working hours.
We carried out simulation exercises where I was assigned leadership of the group. When I was not superbly ignored, I was talked over in spite of pleas from the facilitator to listen to what I had to say. To have been silenced would have at least been a form of acknowledgement of my existence. I still feel the frustration, the anger and the feeling of powerlessness months later. As the only woman in the group, I was asked to take notes while they discussed, I was requested to stand by the door of the on-site emergency centre to greet people, to be the nice smiling woman who looks pretty but has nothing important to contribute to the discussion. I was to have no substantial role in the simulated mission.
The prevailing male attitude also sadly reminded me of the too frequent cases of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and other soldiers on the continent. For sure, my two examples of gender discrimination as cited above are two extremes, one in the harsh world of conflicts, and the other in that of a plush air-conditioned office, leaving out a whole spectrum of discrimination possibilities, including against non-binary genders. I have been raised by unintentional « feminists » and made sufficiently aware of gender discrimination to be able to recognise its strong or subtle demonstrations. Have most women been, and more importantly, have men been? Can you, man, woman, speak up? Can you help stop it? Can we educate our children so that they do not live imprisoned by these gender stereotypes, can we teach them that boys can cry too, that they do not have to be aggressive to be respected and that girls do not have to be submissive? Can we learn to be free from prejudices, to be ourselves and to accept others? Perhaps, if we start from there, things will change for girls and women as a natural consequence, and also for those whose gender identities do not fit neatly into boxes. All in all, it is not the words we use, but the ambitions behind our efforts, and the concrete actions we take to be advocates for gender equality and diversity, that matter.