International Women’s Day (IWD) provides an opportunity to celebrate women, their achievements and their contribution to society.
IWD was first marked in the early 20th Century and was linked to the struggle of women (as a group) for equality on various aspects of their lives.
IWD is now an official holiday in several countries and it is marked on March 8th in lots of other countries around the globe.
Now, in the 21st Century Western World, we may tend to think of IWD as just an opportunity to celebrate women in a climate of total equality and fairness. However, this is not the case today as it was not 100 years ago; the reasons why will be addressed later on but briefly touching on gender and gender (in)equality is necessary before we move on.
Gender is definitely not sex!!
Gender has to do with roles, personality traits, expectations, attitudes, behaviours, values, relative power and influence that are assigned to people by society on the basis of their sex, which is biological and has to do with our reproductive organs, physiology and genetics in general.
Gender, therefore, is a cultural product – a set of ideas, values and beliefs – that makes us define people (including ourselves) and that shapes our interaction with them. Gender is relative to any given culture in which it is expressed; if we pay attention, we can certainly see subtle differences in the expressions of gender in different cultures. However, gender stereotyping, gender subordination and various degrees of gender oppression seem to be constants across cultures. The millions of women and girls from all backgrounds who are currently affected by various forms of Gender Based Violence around the world and the fact that female representation in Parliaments in most countries around the world is under 50% – with the exception of Rwanda (61.3%) and Bolivia (53.1%) – are examples of this phenomenon.
Another crucial aspect to bear in mind about gender is that it is ‘learned’ from very early in our lives and it becomes part of who we are; we live and perform gender every moment; we constantly play by its rules. We start acquiring our gender at a very early age through exposure to the culture and people (performing their genders) around us. For example, since birth or even before, we are given a name, clothes, and toys in line with our assigned / perceived gender, our bedrooms are decorated accordingly, etc. By the age of 3 we already know whether we are ‘a boy’ or ‘a girl’ and by the age of 7 or 8 the gender stereotype is completely fixed in our brains; then the performance of our gender becomes a 24/7 activity.
What is interesting about gender is that despite us being in contact with it and it being around us all the time , it is somehow (as a notion) invisible to us due to its perceived ‘taken-for-grantedness’ and ‘naturalness’. In this respect we could compare gender to gravity which keeps us attached to the ground 24/7 but we do not necessarily think about it once throughout our day. In other words, gender works like a force that constantly shapes our thinking, decisions and actions but we very rarely or never question its workings.
Is there a problem, then?
In theory there should be no problem with gender and gendered differences between people but the reality is that these differences are not neutral. They have been influenced by different ideals about the roles, expectations and relative power that should be assigned to men and women through thousands of years. These ideals have shaped the notions of what it means to be a man or a woman / a boy or a girl, resulting in concrete inequalities between people of different genders; some of them are now historical but some are current. For example:
- Lower social status was assigned to women in ancient Greece (c.283BC).
- It was not possible for women in the UK to inherit property and accumulate capital until the 19th Century.
- It was not possible for women in the UK to vote until the early 20th Century
- Rape in marriage was not recognised as such in Scotland until 1989 and in the rest of the UK until 1991.
- The policing of women’s bodies (virginity tests) (Egypt; 2011)
- In general, all over the world, sex is considered to be a service that can be bought.
- Currently, the majority of sex trafficking victims around the world are women and girls.
- Women’s reproductive rights are currently being interfered with in Ireland, the USA, and other countries.
- The domestic abuse law in the USA is currently being undermined through underfunding.
- There is a nipple double standard – the female nipples being considered “obscene” if shown in public (with the exception of nude beaches, perhaps) –
- Breastfeeding in public places is currently frowned upon by many people in the UK and other countries.
- Russia has recently decriminalised some forms of domestic abuse – first violent attack that does not result in victim’s hospitalisation; etc.
Looking at it from another angle, we can see how in popular culture (and culture in general) masculinity equals leadership, strength, individualism, power, logic, decisiveness and other traits that convey a notion of ‘agency’ of ‘being in charge’. Interestingly, traits that usually define femininity in popular culture like submissiveness, perceived weakness, dependability, relative lack of power convey a notion of ‘non-agency’ or ‘passivity’. “Real women” and “real men” are defined according to these (artificial) standards that reinforce the subordination of one gender to the other.
Now, with greater status and power assigned to men (as a group) securing this way their superiority and influence in society and the consequent subordination of women (as a group) – by the way exceptional individuals like the Prime Minister or Her Majesty the Queen cannot be considered in this equation – gender based violence finds the ideal conditions to flourish. Domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, sex trafficking, prostitution, pornography, forced marriage, so-called “honour” crimes, female genital mutilation, continue affecting millions of women and girls all over the world regardless of their background, cultural or otherwise.
What has been done in terms of preventing gendered violence and gender inequality in D&G?
The Dumfries and Galloway Domestic Abuse and Violence Against Women Partnership (D&GDAVAWP) has been tackling and raising awareness of all forms of gender based violence in the region since 2006; promoting the support available for victims and
bringing information to the general public to help develop greater understanding of the causes, effects and subtleties of abusive behaviour and gender based violence in general. Also the White Ribbon Campaign that provides a space for men to take action against gender based violence has been promoted locally.
Recently D&GDAVAWP and Colleagues from NHS Dumfries and Galloway Equality and Wellbeing Teams (who a year ago formed the D&G Gender Equality Steering Group) have organised two Gender Equality events the most recent one in partnership with Engender. This event involved group discussions searching for ideas for action. People suggested ideas (amongst others) like public awareness campaigns on gender stereotyping; campaigns to encourage people to be good role models; challenging media messages; introducing gender education from primary school; and creating a Gender Equality Network for Dumfries and Galloway.
What else can we do about it?
As individuals we may feel that this is too big an issue to tackle but if we act collectively changes can be achieved. We just need to have a look at recent history for inspiration and take the Suffragette Movement as an example, or perhaps more recent examples that challenged extreme gender stereotyping in visual media like No More Page 3, and take action on gender (and other) inequalities that we can identify in society.
Now more than ever before we have the capacity to communicate instantly with thousands of people via social media; we can exchange and develop new ideas, plan and take action and – if we want to – we can start changing the gender rules and the ideas, values and beliefs that inform those rules.
Change can start with a critical examination of our own thinking, attitudes and prejudices followed by joining forces with other likeminded people who think that change is necessary and possible. Other strategies can involve engaging in a dialogue with other people and examine their own attitudes, behaviours, the language they use, and discuss examples of gender stereotyping we come across daily.
This personal + collective change process will in turn produce change at a cultural level and in the longer run help bring bigger changes in society.
Change – like gravity – is another constant in the universe and in our everyday lives; we only need to acknowledge this and start envisioning the possibility of managing and shaping change…
Change is possible; it can be done…if we want to…
On International Women’s Day let’s #BeBoldForChange !
If you would like to join the D&G Gender Equality Network, please contact: email@example.com
Luis Pombo Is a Research and Information officer for the Domestic Abuse & Violence Against Women Partnership (DA&VAW) at Dumfries and Galloway Council.