In the fight for equality, women seem to be losing….

Girl and butterfly graffiti

In the fight for equality, women seem to be losing…

I was once stopped in the street for a vox pop quote. It was a well-known radio station and the question was simple – Do you think women are treated equally? At the time I said yes. I waffled on about glass ceilings and women being able to work, earn their own money and make their own decisions. And that’s true, at least in the tiny bubble I was living in and referring to. In my part of the world there are opportunities, options, choices (albeit reduced since the life sucking recession) for women, but that is not universal. I still cringe when I think about my answer.

Strangely the trial of Oscar Pistorius has brought the issue of women to the forefront. The Guardian reported that in South Africa there were more than 64,000 sexual offences, including rape reported in the year to April 2012, while domestic violence against women is common. That figure is staggering while the word ‘common’ being used to describe domestic abuse is hard to get my head around. Somehow the practice is normal and accepted.

I think a lot of women (including myself) have forgotten that others are not as lucky. While we reap the benefits of the feminist movement and changes in society, many are stuck in the same situation they have been in for thousands of years with little or no sign of change.

I spent a lot of my childhood in the Middle East. Part of living there was that we were segregated from the people we lived around and beside. As expatriates we all lived in compounds with high and thick walls. I was never sure if it was to keep us in or others out. As a child you adapt and get used to things. It wasn’t strange for me to see women swathed in black with only a slit for their eyes. I remember thinking how hot they must be. In temperatures of over 45 degrees celsius they were forced to walk around in the greatest heat seeker ever invented, while the men wore white long robes that reflected the blazing sunshine which was often raised to be used as a fan. It was as if the garb was made just to add more weight to the woman’s burden, always dressed as night even when walking in day.

It was and still is a culture of superiority and repression. Testosterone is the ruling factor and anything less – is well, just less. I didn’t see it when I was younger, never understood the implications. When I visited as a teenager I found it oppressive. I had to watch what I wore, make sure that my sleeves and hems were long enough. It was a shock to the system despite the many years already spent there. I was acutely aware of my body and felt like I stood out.

International Women's Day logo

The experience made me aware of my gender. I have always felt comfortable in my own skin and going to a mixed primary school, never thought much about the difference between men and women, at least not past the practical sense of physicality. It may sound naive, but I took people for who they were and (a) gender was something I just was.

As I got older I noticed things more, paid attention to the differences. After a stint in an all-girls secondary school I realised that I didn’t like girls much. At least not girls stuck together with no male buffer. It was a bitchy and tense environment where I constantly had to be on my toes, to not offend, say the wrong thing or reveal too much. It was not a place I enjoyed or would like to repeat. Nothing untoward happened. I just don’t think it’s a natural environment for any child, either all-male or all-female. Why exclude half the population? Aren’t you just setting a precedent for this division as ‘normal’?

Admittedly men and women think differently. Men seem less preoccupied with things they cannot change. They have an enviable ability to accept and move on. Pragmatism must be embedded somewhere in the Y chromosome. They also look for solutions rather than dabble in the problems. In my experience women love the problems – or rather the steps to resolution. We want to get there, but have some angst/fun/enamel gritting along the way. But isn’t it the differences that have got us into this, seeking what separates us rather than binds us?

The fact is there is still a huge gap between men and women. It is narrowing in certain cases, but in many such as India where the gang rape of a medical student in Dehli caused protests and outrage, the case of a 16 year old being set on fire for accusing a man of rape (again in India), the widespread practice of female genital mutilation across the globe along with the arranged marriages of children not even in puberty, the chasm just seems to be widening. The ‘weaker sex’ are being kept weak.

I have always hated that term  – ‘weaker sex’ along with ‘bird’, ‘chick’ and anything other feathered reference. It is derogatory and is meant to be. Why does one gender have to be superior to another? Can identity not be linked to what we do and are doing, rather than the costumes we were born wearing? Can’t we just be known by our name?

International Women’s Day takes place on March 8th.

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