White Ribbon Day

Women, feminism, violence and society.
An edited version of this piece appeared on Forbes online, Jan 14 2013

For years, I insisted that the world had changed. That violence against women was decreasing. That I'd never felt it; never had it affect my life. I wasn't shouting from the roof tops that I was stronger than the other women around. I just thought that things were changing.

A year into a medical degree, I still thought much the same. My male colleagues treated me as an equal. There was no apparent Boys Club in the common room, nor did the male doctors treat us female students as less knowledgeable or hard-working than our male peers. We were all equals. A year on, I'm not so sure.

I'm a stickler for equality. I also feel that, if we are going to demand equality as a society, it would be illogical to still require archaic traditions that are sometimes masked as chivalry. How can I ask you, a male, to treat me as an equal if I also demand you pay for my meal, open the door and walk on the "street" side of the sidewalk? How can I expect to offload responsibility for carrying my own suitcase or helping to shift boxes? And why would I ever think that a smile and a pretty outfit would get me more than a polite compliment?

I've annoyed enough male friends with my disgruntledness over their speedily rushing to open doors and insistence on paying for meals. "I'm just being nice!" they say. "You are," I respond, "but the social constructs around your behaviour isn't as nice as you think. And don't roll your eyes at me." I'm strong enough to open the door. I don't wear restrictive corsets that leave me breathless after such little effort. Sure, if you're standing close to the door and we're going through it together, that's fine. But don't come barreling up from three metres back to grab the door before I get the chance. You'll notice I have two hands and I know how to use them. The tradition of paying for meals is borne of times when men needed to both win the favour of a woman's father and when she did not earn her own money, which would have made paying for her half of the meal rather difficult. But I have my own money. And sure, I don't mind if I pay for the coffee today and you pay for it next time, but I don't want you to always pay for it. I don't want this to set some sort of subtle precedent in our relationship. I don't wear my outfits to impress you. I buy clothes that I like because I like them. And if you ask me to wear a top because you like it, it better be because blue is your favourite colour, or because it actually is a very nice shirt, not because you happen to like what it reveals. And yes, there is a very big difference between liking how I look in an outfit and liking what you see when I wear an outfit. I want to treat you as my equal. But if you treat me like I'm using my body or my gender to get ahead, I'll lose a little of my respect for you. And yes, I know these are all little niceties that "don't mean anything." But they do. It's a slippery slope.

Time and time again, I've noticed subtle shifts in conversation from academic equals to sex-based judgement. The compliments for my cooking go wrong when followed by, "will you marry me so I can eat this carrot cake more frequently?" The times when I'm bored watching whichever sport is most popular at this time of year and, sensing my restlessness, someone will joke, "well make us a sandwich then, love!" I might laugh it off and tell you to make your own, or joke back that maybe I should just go scrub the toilet while I'm at it. That's my way of saying that, even if you meant it to be funny, it wasn't. If you want a sandwich, you can make it yourself.

It'd be fine if the discrimination went only as far as sandwich-based comments. But once you start seeing one form of discrimination, the image of equality becomes quickly evident as only a mirage. When I told my mentor, a strong female in the tech industry, that I'd never really encountered gender-based discrimination, she warned me. "Just wait," she said ominously, "it'll come." Not, "if you stand your ground, you can avoid it" or "times are changing." No. It will come. Her words echoed in my head as a fellow student, a few years ahead of me, began explaining the process of specialty training in medicine. "Be warned," he said, looking squarely at us girls, "it's not all merit-based. You'll have to make decisions about what you're willing to do for your profession." We looked at each other, we two girls. We'll never do that, we thought. Naive, we had thought working hard, learning lots and healing people effectively would be enough.

So how do we change our profession before we get to the top? How do we say we won't sacrifice our morals for our chosen specialty? We won't put up with comments about sandwiches, let alone requests for low-cut tops or inappropriate comments or "accidental" brushings of inappropriate parts of our bodies? How do we really change things?

Some say feminism is dead. No-one's burning bras anymore. We're not striking or rioting. But are we getting complacent? Sometimes I wonder if feminism has gone the way of immunisation arguments. Where, just like inoculations  we did so well for so long that we've forgotten what a pandemic really feels like. Are we, like I used to be, getting comfortable with "almost winning" the battle? Because a battle is never half-won. Just like herd-immunity, you either have equality or you don't. And if you don't, you risk the subtle remarks turning into something more insidious. You risk an outbreak, where the most vulnerable in our community are the most easily hurt. Except instead of risking someone in hospital with measles and treatments on hand, you risk a woman nursing a black eye and a broken spirit, embarrassed and with no-one to whom it turn. Instead of stopping a woman getting into tertiary education, you stop her at the glass ceiling. You claim that her years out of work rearing our children put her behind her male colleagues. That she's gotten soft. That working part-time will never cut it. And all the while, you also remove the opportunity for men to have balanced lifestyles, to spend as much time as they'd like with our children and to express their pain when they're hurt. Because as long as we have social constructs around women being the weaker sex, we unfairly demand that men stand up to be the protectors.

We need to re-brand feminism. It's not just about equal rights for women anymore. It's about equality, across the board. It's about women feeling like they can say no to their boyfriends (or girlfriends or partners). It's about men being allowed to cry on their partner's shoulder. It's about salary equality and work-life balance for all. It's about respect and remembering that gender stereotypes go both ways. It's about women standing up for their right to pay for dinner and for a promotion without sacrificing her own values.

Because it's never okay for anyone, ever, to wake up in the middle of the night feeling unsafe next to their partner. Never okay to be told something that erodes at one's very being. You can't tell a man to "harden up" any more than you can tell a woman to go back to the kitchen. You can't demand maternity leave without paternity leave. A mother is not automatically a better parent than a father. And our biological differences are not an excuse for discrimination.

On November 25, when you take a pledge to stop violence against women, and when you say you've got my back, let me also take a pledge to have yours. My pledge is this - to stand up for my own morals. To stand up for our equality. And to stand up for a world in which we can all feel safe being ourselves.

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