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And my biggest pet peeves when discussing gender and women’s rights issues from this past year
Happy International Women’s Day! #IWD2016 It is my favourite day of the year because I have an excuse to discuss one of my favourite topics: gender justice and women’s rights. If you have me as a friend on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter, you know that I go out of my way to create spaces for dialogue and debate. I want to continue to embrace disagreement and conflict both because it is uncomfortable, and because it fosters that dialogue.
Every now and then I have a friend (typically a woman) send me a private message asking me about how I deal with the loud, brash, seemingly entitled people (mostly men) who enjoy filling my wall or feed with their opinions about women’s issues. I respond by assuring them that I am ok with these comments, that I see them as dialogue and as an opportunity to learn, to challenge, and to practice communicating complex ideas to people who think differently than I do. It can be annoying, and it often brings me stress and even sometimes keeps me up at night. But it is important to be uncomfortable, to challenge yourself and discuss issues (respectfully) with those who differ from you, otherwise I would be just preaching to the choir.
I would like to tell you about some of my biggest pet peeves that I have discovered in creating these spaces for dialogue, and in the process highlight my favourite posts online from this past year.
Here they are:
1. Why do we still need feminism? Isn’t it 2015? Aren’t you satisfied yet?
No. Here are 15 reasons posted here or another 100 reasons posted here of why I am not even close to being satisfied.
But also because men are still discriminated against as care providers and kindergarten teachers, that they still also experience a lot of violence (mostly from other men and authority figures like the police); that men are committing suicide at alarming rates; men are losing the right to be fathers in court and feel isolation in fatherhood and pressure to keep working (instead of taking parental leave). The economic recession hits men hardest because of patriarchal ideas of who good men are and how they should be as providers and protectors.
That is why we still need feminism and International Women’s Day, because patriarchy hurts men and women.
2. Women do not have it that bad here – I mean, it is so much worse in other places
According to several UN experts who are from countries that we would label as ‘one of those other places’ are shocked by the level of discrimination against women in the USA. See here and here quoting them by saying, “While all women are the victims of countless missing rights, women who are poor, belong to Native American, Afro-American and Hispanic ethnic minorities, migrant women, LBTQ women, women with disabilities and older women are disparately vulnerable,” the experts stressed.
3. Men and women are naturally…
Naturally what? Naturally better toilet cleaners, cooks, diaper changers? Really? What is it about our brain and vagina that makes us better at these things? According to this study published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that brains aren’t distinctly “male” or “female.” Scientists from Tel-Aviv University hypothesized that if the brain is truly gendered, MRI scans would reveal consistent structural differences between sexes. Instead, they discovered that brain features vary across a spectrum like a mosaic. The study concludes that brains are not classifiable as male or female, but instead vary by the features of each individual.
Also this interesting video dispels some myths on the nature v. nurture debate about how biology is somehow separate from society. The two actually shape each other and are interdependent. So, if you could prove that there are genetic differences between females and males and that this shapes women and men’s behavior, to suggest that it is deterministic makes little sense.
4. Why do we call it Feminism? We should call it Humanism
If we called it Humanism, then we are reinforcing a different (already established) theory that historically left out women and other minorities (such as men without property). We call the movement feminism because it is still important to acknowledge that equality and empowerment for women is as important as it is for men.
“The reason why it’s called feminism while advocating for gender equality is because females are the gender that are the underprivileged, underserved gender,” Shives says in his video response. “You attain gender equality by advocating for the rights of the underprivileged gender.”
—And also the fact that people will still listen to his video response more so because he is a man talking about feminism
Feminism emerged out of women’s rights movements. Thus it comes from a challenge to the inequality of women. Feminism today exists as an agglomeration of past and present efforts to address forms of inequality facing women. This post provides excellent answers to some more questions.
5. Female celebrities who say they are not a feminist
This song found here would be my response if I was musically or comically inclined.
“Just take a look at the checklist: You like voting? You like driving? You’re a feminist,” Goodman sings as images of women’s suffrage flash on the screen. The video, which includes a nod to Gloria Steinem and the work of second-wave American feminists who fought for reproductive rights. When you say these things you just prove how you probably shouldn’t quit your day job and tackle social issues. You might actually hurt social efforts and justice and do more harm than good. So use your power for good and just leave it to people who have given it a bit more thought, or maybe do some further reading.
6. Feminists believe women should have more rights than men
Yes, in fact we are angry cat ladies, who don’t shave and have horns.
This stereotype has been fabricated for decades, and negative stereotypes about feminists have actually been created, see here which explains a bit about this history of making you think these things that have little bearing in reality. They are based more on the fear of change than anything else.
7. Feminism does not include me
Feminism has been talking about intersectionality for more than 20 years, explained here. People of multiple minority groups face both distinct advantages and disadvantages. Biases based on gender and race do not always simply pile up to create double disadvantages, for instance. Although feminism at one point in time has ignored certain groups and rendered them invisible, feminism has also learned a lot from this. Those who continue to ignore intersectionality are not up to speed with their theory *tsk tsk*.
8. The gender wage gap exists because women do not want to work and take lesser paying jobs
Skeptics of the gender wage gap say it’s misleading to cite the statistic that women overall are paid 78 cents on the dollar compared to men. This does not account for women’s choices, whether it’s working fewer and more flexible hours, or in industries or college majors that happen to pay less. But advocates say this misses the point. It’s true that the 78 cents figure does not account for different industries and education levels. But controlling for those factors still doesn’t erase the gap—women are paid 7 percent less than men a year out of college even controlling for just about every possible difference other than gender.
The gender wage gap is not only bad in the STEM fields, but also in social sciences. This article talks about how bad the problem of sexism is in the social sciences, such as economics.
9. Policing women’s bodies? Don’t be so dramatic!
Here is a list of items of clothing women have been told not to wear in 2015 – from a skirt that was too short, or too long (or skirts in general), from pants that were too tight and hair for being in braids, from flat shoes to high heels. The list goes on and on. Remember all of those times you or your daughter came home for disobeying the school dress code? Now do you believe me?
I always shock my friends and colleagues who live outside of Canada and the USA when I tell them that women cannot breast feed in public where I live. I mean they can, but there are always the dirty looks and side glances, and even sometimes that person who feels so entitled that they tell you it is gross. Women literally have to hide in toilets or cover their child with a blanket in order to breast feed. My friends do not understand because that is what women’s breasts are primarily for (they are not just play things), and also because nipples are so harmless (especially since we see men’s nipples all the time). We wonder why women get so lonely and suffer post-natal depression and make them feel even worse for being bad mothers for suffering depression. Perhaps it is because we cannot go anywhere because breast feeding is actually very demanding. Don’t believe me? Check out this video here.
Objectification of women’s bodies goes so far that even this study says that certain female students get higher grades because of their attractiveness. Wow.
10. We can empower her by…
You cannot empower someone. Empowerment only comes from within. This means that empowerment is by definition someone’s ability to imagine their world differently and be able to act upon it. You cannot just throw money at her and BOOM all of her problems are solved, she is empowered—doesn’t that sound like objectification? And I find it even more worrying when women’s empowerment is used to sell products that reinforce gender differences, and are ultimately disempowering. For example, this Dove commercial that continues to patronize and remind us that we need to think we are beautiful.
11. Feminism is Un-African
Some of the most popular current feminists are African, so really what are you talking about? Here is a list of 18 phenomenal African feminists: from Theo Sowa, Abena Busia, Osai Ojigho, Leymah Gbowee, and of course Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Liberate yourself from mental slavery, please.
12. Men’s Rights Movement (in North America)
This blog post exposes the terrifying types of men who are part of this movement. “No longer a fringe movement constricted to static ideology, MRAs have become a persistent, often violent force online, stooping to rape and death threats when defending their stance.” I recommend reading this post of an interview with one of the leaders and those attending an annual conference. This movement is an injustice to men’s issues and men everywhere. The issue of disproportionate suicide for men, experiences of violence (from other men) lack of access to formal health services, isolation in fatherhood are all symptoms of the same system that also hurts women – patriarchy. One of the most destructive forces in our social construction of masculinity is this notion of having to be the tough guy, the provider who does not feel emotion (until he explodes) or feels so much pressure resorting to violence (even to oneself). This same construction of masculinity is part of the reason that holds men back from accessing services, such as child care and health.
The men’s rights movement recognizes these issues, but places the blame not on social gendered norms, but on feminism. I know, I don’t really get it either. The worst part is when women’s issues come up and are raised, the conversation gets diverted (i.e. #notallmen) making issues to be again all about men. If I was a man, I would be more horrified with the level of misplaced anger that the men’s rights movement has – #notinmyname seems appropriate.
Please share the post, resources and leave comments debating these points. I know the resources are not gold standard or peer reviewed. I know the facts are communicated in definitive and simplistic ways – but this is my attempt at being clear, concise and interesting. I assume you will take issue with something – and I respect that. I look forward to what you have to say.
I just came across this paper by my Masters degree convener Andrea Cornwall and Althea-Maria Rivas that I think has profound insights for the way women’s empowerment initiatives are being deployed to fix the deeply rooted, context specific and complex gender inequalities that exist. In my line of work, women’s empowerment in agriculture strategies commonly entails ‘closing the gap’ in improving access to agriculture inputs, extension, finance and investing in labor-saving, female-friendly technologies to progress women’s efficiency in food production. Mainstream policy and planning tend to frame women as in a vulnerable position, undervalued, constrained and left out by a range of institutions related to food production and who are also disproportionately responsible for the provision of food at the household level. Renewed calls to place women centrally within development policy and planning (even for their empowerment) I think have been woefully inadequate.
These initiatives often look like encouraging women to produce female oriented food crops in gardens or care for small ruminants close to home by providing them with the tools and skills needed, even for free. This is to encourage her to be more productive so she can make more money and have more authority over her own life. It often looks like providing ‘new’ technology, like the old story of cheaper, energy efficient cook stoves, that are supposed to reduce her burden of work by making it easier on her. The women’s empowerment initiatives stipulated in policy and planning problematically tackles issues of power imbalance through an instrumentalist rationale. This “making women work for development, rather than making development work for their equality and empowerment” (p. 398).
The problem with these initiatives is that it puts a lot of responsibility on the individual woman to solve the problems facing her family, like that of hunger. It actually places the solution and change on individuals, often in a way that reinforces traditional gender norms, further women’s work burdens and limits adaptive capacity, by providing those things that are female friendly. The danger is that this focus in policy may not reflect the lived realities of people’s experience, while possibly reinforcing the gendered status quo. Ultimately, the present empowering women strategies do not address the socio-economic inequalities that have led to her marginalization, such as the political economic dynamics and cultural geography. It also does not acknowledge the positions of power and agency she also has, afforded by privilege.
While there is recognition in policy and planning of the important contributions men and boys make and a detailing of human rights based approaches, women’s empowerment initiatives are pursued without deconstructing the underlying, unfounded assumptions about women and men. The narrative about women’s empowerment in development planning includes a number of myths, portraying women as hardworking, more caring and responsible than men and a better investment.
Although improving women’s opportunities is important, whether this will lead to transforming the unequal rules that are engendered is unclear.
– Even a small plot of land can reduce the risk of poverty, by acting as a bargaining point for attracting further resources from the State and from within the household, yet this link is by no means clear.
– Technology to relieve domestic duties like cook stoves do not shift work loads, i.e. women still need to cook on top of the other income generating activities that you have given her, like that goat.
– New technology can also end up being labor-displacing. It could encourage women to take up work in collecting water or processing grain for wealthier farmers in return for wages reinforcing inequitable class dynamics.
– Microcredit offered to poor women are typically under conditions that few affluent individuals would find acceptable and which few developed countries would allow. Moreover they remain small, recent evidence pointing to these loans as not having much of the intended transformational effects.
– Training some women is also likely to have limited impact as having to attend training courses may benefit only those better off and who can sacrifice the time to attend the training
– Focusing on women can reinforce the gendered status quo and result in alienating men from contributing anything to the household.
– Targeting women also often include backlash from men, who feel left out from interventions, widening inequalities in different ways.
Moreover, the problems with targeting women who are labeled as victims of discrimination are that it may alter incentives and encourage them to adapt to this label so they receive development assistance. According to Ann Whitehead this framing of women without agency largely explains why the market-based strategies of the last 15 years in SSA (1987-2002) have not resulted in significant improvements for food security or agricultural development.
What can be done that is transformational?
Mainstream gender policy and planning maintains a post-feminist logic of empowering women through improving their productive capacity. The implications for this post-feminist logic that focuses on the individual woman are that it can reinforce traditional gender norms, increase work burdens, further intra-household conflict and, limit people and community’s adaptive capacity. In the least, policy needs to take a longer view and offer a broader range of opportunities people can choose to opt in or out of. Most of all, feminists should reclaim policy and planning spaces to politicize addressing the gender bias across various institutions for improving well being.
Other more specific actions include,
1. Be informed by broader sets of interconnected inequalities, which involves a range of actors and activities embedded across various institutions. This includes recognition of discrimination of other oppression and differences, such as ethnicity and age, and other experiences of stigma and violence.
2. Intangible resources need to be considered, which are beyond asset provision, money and commodities include informal networks and associations-collective consciousness and building group solidarity. Moreover, human assets that focus broadly on the labor power, health and skills of individuals are critical.
3. Gender mainstreaming in reforms requires gender consciousness that goes beyond the staff of the programs to also include traditional authorities, men, and women to redress social inequality. This is not just about simply involving or engaging men, but also about holding them accountable to address any inequitable privileged positions of power.
4. Create conditions where people are not only able to express concerns, but also ensure they are listened to for increasing participation in decision making.
5. Most of all we need to examine the extent to which we harbor assumptions, myths, stereotypes, and limiting beliefs that prevent us from treating everyone with dignity and respect.
The slant of women’s empowerment initiatives in current policy discourse logic restricts women and men’s ability to contribute to their own development in multiple ways and ignores the need to transform institutional arrangements that control access, which is what actual empowerment looks like. Providing a group of woman with micro-loans for their shea butter production for example does not address the underlying socio-economic inequalities they face as peasant farmers engaging in a political economy that is actually shutting them out. This can be done by at least having a longer term perspective with the hope of providing a greater range of opportunities for people to decide what is best for themselves and their communities to adapt to changing circumstances.