Why women?!

“I was told that whistling wasn’t ladylike, but I knew even then that women were simply not supposed to be that happy” — from Kindling the Spirit by Lois P. Frankel.

A gender role is a set of behavioural norms associated with males and females, respectively, in a given social group or system. Traditional gender roles are oppressive for women and many believe that the female gender role was constructed as an opposite to an ideal male role, and helps to perpetuate patriarchy. In a patriarchal society like ours, women are mostly considered subordinate to men. ‘Patriarchy’ (from Greek: patria meaning father and arché meaning rule) is the anthropological term used to define the sociological condition where male members of a society tend to predominate in positions of power, with the more powerful the position, the more likely it is that a male will hold that position. Such societies give men power and authority over women, which can be found at the individual, group or institutional level.

Most of these traditional gender or sex roles served a valid and useful purpose 20,000 years ago when man lived in caves and strong, capable hunters were especially valued because they brought home more meat. These views should have changed in the 21st century, but unfortunately not much has changed. Women are always seen as housewives — people who should just clean the house and take care of the children.

It may be true that women in general can take care of children better, but that does not mean that they are always less capable of going to work and earning for their family, compared to the man. Now, when education is not just restricted to males, we see many females excelling and proving that they can do a better job in being productive and earning compared to males. In the West, the concept of ‘women should stay in the four walls of the home’ has changed over the years. One can find many examples of men staying at home (should we go as far as calling them ‘house husbands’?), taking care of children while their wives are the bread-earners, since they are capable of earning more. In a country like Pakistan, the big hurdle in a woman’s way is that it is generally believed that if a woman obtains financial independence, she might not give her husband and his family the respect they are entitled to. If a woman is gifted with the ability to advance her career, and can do much better than her husband, should she still be forced to go through deprivation, even if it may mean lowering the quality of care of her children? Mostly, the ghairat factor comes in her way. Not allowing her to work is not just depriving a woman, but depriving the whole society of the benefit from her work. Even in the West, sometimes men take women as a threat to their work. Women ‘Take Care’, Men ‘Take Charge’, a report by Catalyst, a US research and advisory organisation dedicated to advancing women at work, argues that the effects of gender-based stereotyping can be devastating, potentially undermining women’s capacity to lead, and posing serious challenges to women’s career advancement.

The ghairat (honour) factor is not just restricted to a working woman. The ‘honour’ of the men depends on the conduct of their women. Wives, sisters and daughters are expected to be circumspect, modest and decorous, with their virtue above reproach. The slightest implication of un-avenged impropriety, especially if made public, could irreparably destroy a family’s honour. Female virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity thereafter are essential to honour’s maintenance. Even if the husband has slept with dozens of women before marriage and even indulges in extra-marital affairs later on in life, the woman is expected to bear it silently. Generosity, tolerance, forgiveness, fidelity and restraint have been expected of women over the centuries. These virtues are qualities integral to good human living, but when men start to exploit these qualities and take women for granted, it is unjustified.

Each day, one comes across women who are extremely frustrated with their relationships or marriages. They usually express no hope that their partners will ever understand what it is that frustrates them, let alone change enough to solve the problem. Women tend to see themselves as the major force for resolving conflicts, and when they give up their effort, the relationship/marriage is usually over. (Disclaimer: This is not to say that this is true of all relationships).

Women with liberal sexual morals are called ‘easy’ and are thought to be promiscuous. But if the same liberty is exercised by men, everybody thinks, oh men will be just men, and this is just more evidence of how ‘masculine’ they are. Gloria Steinem once said, “A woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.”

Men are always shown as the ‘stronger’ being, while women are the “weaker sex”. Our parents start teaching us our roles shortly after birth, e.g. boys are cuddled, kissed, and stroked less than girls, while girls are less often tossed and handled roughly. In fairytales, women are depicted as prized pretty objects to be won by some brave feat (in many a fairytale, the King offers the hand of his daughter to the male who would be the best swordsman or can slay a dragon, etc). The princess will then shower all her love on the Prince Charming, as if that is all she is capable of doing — waiting for a prince to come down on his knee and ask for her hand, after proving his worth and then they would live happily ever after!

In 1486, two Dominican friars wrote Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer), which became religion’s guide to witch-hunting for 200 years. “Witches” and “women” were used synonymously. The Catholic Church endorsed this book. Jane Stanton Hichcock (1995) quotes from that book, “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman...It is not good to marry: What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours.” This ‘women are wicked’ syndrome is still prevalent and women are seen as ‘plotting’.

Why is it that women have to leave home after getting married? Why are women brought up with less emphasis on their education and career compared to males? Why are sisters told to stay home while the brothers can go wherever they want to? Why is the head of the household usually the father? Why is it considered normal for men to become professionally skilled, while women can finish their degrees and then get married and stay at home? Why is it okay for the wife to quit her job after having kids and just lose direction in her career for the rest of her life and not vice versa? Why do women need to appear chaste, modest and conservative in their dress or they will be thought of as encouraging poor males who cannot resist a woman’s ‘charms’?

“Human development is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations” — Human Development Report 2005, United Nations Development Programme. Therefore, it is not just in the interest of women to get equal opportunities, but to develop the world, both men and women need to be on an equal footing. Treating women with respect, not contempt, is the only way to move forward. The achievement of full equality between the sexes is essential to human progress and transformation of society. As Abdu'l-Bahá said, “The world of humanity has two wings — one is woman and the other man. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly.”


RK Boo said…
Go figure. Double standards. Sigh...when will there ever be gender equality? Well, elections coming up soon. More women candidates. So hopefully, now's the time for women to rise!

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