Of women, gender and the search for equality

Some time ago someone sent me the following message:
“I’m doing a gender story. I want to know why does society refer to gender issues as women and girls issues? Are they not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes? Are we saying that men are not being abused? Aren’t young boys being violated too?”

The questions came during an inconvenient time (I was in the middle of my dissertation) but because they are questions that have been thrown my way time and again, I had to respond. This was my considered view.

Why does society refer to gender issues as women and girls issues?

Because gender issues seek to address, expose, redress, explore and understand the societal realities that often privilege men and simultaneously disadvantage women.

For example: a recent gender issue is the curfew which police have placed on women to limit their movement during the night time. This curfew affects women only BECAUSE they are women at the same time this curfew PRIVILEGES men by allowing them to enjoy freedom of movement without being harassed.

Consequently those who are being disadvantaged by this curfew (ie women) are the ones most likely to make it a gender issue by insisting that they are being disadvantaged on the basis of their sex. On the other hand, while men themselves may feel that the curfew is unfair – they are less likely to pro-actively seek to redress it because it is not necessarily directly affecting their own liberties, in fact the curfew is affording them privileges that are being denied women.

Any issue is often associated with the social group that stands more to gain from its resolution than the ones that have little to gain or in fact are benefiting from the status quo.

Therefore the resolution of gender issues in our society would greatly benefit women and in some cases it would also diminish the unfair privileges men enjoy on the basis of their gender; which unfair privileges enable them to enjoy supremacy over women or exercise dominance over them.

No social group wants to be dominated by another, why should women be the exception? At the very core of it, gender issues represent a search for fairness eg it is unfair that women have a curfew placed on them; it is unfair that men are not given a curfew too. BUT it would still be unfair if women were given a curfew and men were also given the same curfew because that would restrict EVERYONE’s freedom of movement and infringe on their liberties. The fair thing therefore would be for women to enjoy the same privileges that men are enjoying i.e a just society would allow its citizenry to enjoy freedom of movement both male and female.

Gender issues tend to be associated with the social group that is disadvantaged and can benefit from the resolution of those issues that they feel are unfair, unjust or place them at a comparative disadvantage.

Are they not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes?

No, they are not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes. What they are doing is RESPONDING to pre-existing inequalities in our society.

Any attempt at neutrality in terms of addressing gender imbalances in society requires us to pretend that everyone is starting off from an even playing field which is not the case. In our socialization, in our customs and cultures we have privileged the male citizens and relegated the female members – and we have done this because we insist that it is traditional or normal. Gender issues become a way of looking at these inequalities and assessing whether or not the gender roles men and women fulfil are ‘natural’ or merely constructed.

It is not ‘natural’ for girls to do the dishes and for boys to herd cattle – it is a socially constructed expectation, society expects, requires and assigns certain roles to its girls and to its boys and in the same manner it constructs roles, responsibilities, expectations and assigns ‘power’ to men and ‘rules’ to women.

In talking of gender issues and focusing on women and girls – we show an appreciation for the fact that there has been an uneven assignation of gender roles that has privileged men insofar as they have been afforded opportunities that women have not been granted; and these opportunities are opportunities that men received when they were still boys (being able to go to school without first having to do the dishes or sweep the yard) and these are the opportunities that girls could not enjoy (being married off at very young ages, missing some days at school to cope with menstrual pains, not getting enough time to do homework or read because they have chores).

Over the years the advantage merely widens within the job sector as women still have to juggle multiple responsibilities while holding down full time jobs (women are less likely to go for careers that require constant travel or long hours because the gender roles assigned to them necessitate that they be at home being hands on in nurturing their families while men are not required to be hands on and can have more time to invest in career development, being rewarded with promotions, benefits and eventually becoming the dominant partner in terms of acquiring and accumulating resources).

It is not discriminatory nor stereotypical to address an existing gender imbalance by acknowledging the need to give preferential treatment to the social group that needs that preferential treatment to offset the negative cumulative impact of an unjust societal status quo.

If you have two children and one of them has a limp; your offering a crutch to the limping child is not discriminatory but it is an appreciation of their comparative disadvantage. You cannot then insist on offering both children a crutch just to appear non-discriminatory. Similarly insisting that gender issues should provide a crutch for the social group that has historically enjoyed dominance and privilege is unhelpful.

Discrimination is unfair, women should not get favors just because they are women BUT by the same token women should NOT be denied opportunities or privileges for being women.

Are we saying that men are not being abused? Aren’t young boys being violated too?

We are not saying that at all. We are saying that women and girls are comparatively worse off in terms of vulnerability. The key issue for me (as far as I can tell) is the issue of ‘comparativeness’…. there is a degree and an extent to which the vulnerability of women and girls to abuse significantly outweighs that of men and boys.

And it is practical for most to start by dealing with the bigger problem before addressing the smaller one – but in dealing with the bigger issue we are not saying that the smaller issue does not matter or is unimportant. We are merely prioritizing in appreciation of where the resources, support and mobilization are needed the most.

We could of course, say lets prioritize the abuse of men by women and forgo (for now) the abuse of women by men – but you would find that it would not go anywhere in terms of addressing the issue of abuse in our society because such an approach has IGNORED the social group that is most deeply affected by the problem. It is not about being dismissive towards the suffering of men or about pretending women do not abuse men but it is about appreciating the varying realities of men and women that make women more vulnerable to abuse than men.

And as for the violation of young boys, there is no way anyone in their right mind could insist that the suffering of little girls is more important than the suffering of little boys. The suffering of children is categorically unacceptable and gender issues are all encompassing in relation to the rights of children. However the truth is it is impossible to protect the rights of children (both boys and girls) without securing the rights of women.

If the rights of women are violated, their capacity to provide for their children materially or emotionally and otherwise is diminished and severely hampered. Battered women are battered mothers and their condition as victims of abuse and violence dis-empowers them and diminishes their capacity to create and sustain safe home environments for their children.

Gender issues are intertwined with the issue of children’s rights, with the issues of fairness, of social justice and of equality between the sexes in terms of enjoying similar privileges, enjoy equal access and freedoms and in terms of enjoying the liberties of being a full citizen. The only reason why these gender issues become synonymous with women as a social group is that men as a social group already enjoy all of the above. And in seeking the elevation of the status of women in society – gender issues is just a means of saying, “lets all share it together”.

…a slap in my face!

This post was originally written for and appeared in The Sunday News Leisure Magazine, in the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (Issue of 6-12 November, 2011)

I spent the last two weeks proof-reading and editing a book on marriage and had it been written by anyone other than my best friend Talema’s dad – I would not have consented.

For one thing, the book is lengthy and I have a crazy schedule without adding anything else, for another – I was certain that my views on the subject of marriage clashed completely with whatever his were (generation gap and all that).

I approached the book with a respectful attitude, prepared to keep my prejudices on a tight leash and also unwilling to contradict the author – after all he’s been a distant father figure to me for nearly 15 years.

I read the book and it left me feeling like I had been walking around with shit in my shoes.

Reverend Levy Moyo’s soon-to-be published book, The Woman in White – is a blunt, relentless and devastatingly written book – brutal in its honesty and frank in its castigation.

I did not expect to encounter such a frontal onslaught to all my ideas around marriage; never mind the fact that each chapter made me want to dig a deep hole and shove my feminism in there like some dirty secret!

The book is engaging and reads like an invasion – drawing in the reader, ruthlessly tugging, pulling and testing every idea or notion one has of marriage.

Proverbs 31: "1 The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him. 2 What, my son? and what, the son of my womb? and what, the son of my vows? 3 Give not thy strength unto (loose) women, nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings. 4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink..."

The book is like an armpit check; it makes you want to keep sniffing at your own life or ideas to see whether you’re the one that’s being written about and it forces you to take stock of your life.

Like a sober parent, Reverend Levy Moyo’s book spanks foolishness out of the mind; firmly asserts wisdom, discipline and the stinging slap of reality.

And here’s the twist – he wrote the book for MEN!

The woman in white is premised on Proverbs 31 in the bible and it is the Reverend’s contention that although that scripture is always quoted to women and sermons are crafted with the intention of ministering to women through it – that Chapter is a mother’s letter to her son.

It was written by a woman to her son, for her son, and in order to help her son find and marry a good woman.

Reverend Levy Moyo redirects the message back to the audience it was originally written for – men.

He points out that behind every great man there is a great woman – only that woman is not his wife; that woman is his mother!

One of the things that left me frazzled is how he demonstrated the devastating effects of verbal abuse in a manner that I have tried, unsuccessfully to express in my own writing.

Perhaps it was because I too, was of the opinion that verbal abuse was bad but not that bad; I used to compare verbal abuse to physical abuse and sub-consciously classify verbal abuse as a ‘lesser evil’.

But Reverend Levy Moyo draws an intriguing parallel between verbal abuse and The Chinese Water Torture technique.

In this one paragraph, he encapsulates the undesirability of a contentious woman.

Chinese water torture is the popular name for a method of water torture in which water is slowly dripped onto a person’s forehead, allegedly driving the restrained victim insane.

The Discovery Channel investigated Chinese water torture and found that dripping water on the forehead, by itself, was not particularly stressful.

Immobilizing the subject along with a variable water drop schedule proved the most stressful of the methods they tried, and cold water intensified the effect.

The key part of this is that the water drop was made to be randomly timed. Thus, the victim would not know when the next drop would come. I think there are many men that live in dread of when the nagging, yelling, shouting and quarreling will start or what will trigger it.

Some women are accomplished Chinese Torturers and some men live in perpetual torture…because what some women fail to appreciate is that they fail to the long-term consequences of short-term repetitive actions.

The mouth is hard to restrain and many men live on the receiving end of what is arguably the greatest weapon of mass destruction known to human kind – the undisciplined tongue.

As a mother to a young boy; I fervently hope my precious son does not fall into such captivity and endure a lifetime of having to put up with a Chinese torturer of a woman!

I’m keeping a copy of that book and like, Lemuel who remembered the words of his mother; may my own son remember my words as I too point out life’s endless follies.

Parting shot: “Victims were strapped down so that they could not move, and cold water was then dripped slowly on to a small area of the body. The forehead was found to be the most suitable point for this form of torture: prisoners could see each drop coming, and after long durations were gradually driven frantic as a perceived hollow would form in the centre of the forehead. Many of the people that were being tortured suffered a great deal of mental retardation.” – Wikipedia (describing Chinese Water Torture)

The abused man is not a phantom…

In growing up we are fed a lot of nonsense in the form of fairytales, folklores and other forms of oral tradition that we discard as we grow up – learning that the earth is round when we were raised to believe it was flat.

Perhaps it is rather harsh and irreverent of me to dismiss it all as ‘nonsense’ but some of these notions have caused more harm than good and sometimes it is hard to reverse the thinking of years.

Such as thinking that men can’t be hurt by women, that men can’t be victims; that men don’t lie awake at night crying or enduring some deep emotional hurt or psychological trauma.

It is testament to the rigidity of my upbringing that writing this article should be so taxing an exercise because it requires me to challenge accepted notions of how men cannot be victims of abuse and how women cannot be the aggressors and perpetrators of such abuse.

...who told you men don't cry?

The abused man is not a phantom – he is real and he lives, walks and breaths amongst us – wearing a mask of normalcy layered with a thin coat of machismo; he fools us all into thinking that he calls the shots over his life.

A while ago, I met and conversed with two gentlemen that expressed disappointment over my bias and lack of objectivity in how I treated the subject of abuse in my writing.

They said that women were just as abusive as men and the slant of my articles often served to obscure this fact.

One of them challenged me to research on the prevalence of abuse amongst men and advised me to approach men in their various pubs and watering holes where they relaxed and socialized and find out from them what kind of abuses they were enduring at the hands of women.

I was skeptical.

It was difficult for me to see beyond my own prejudices against how men have historically enjoyed dominance and prominence in their public and private lives at the expense of women.

These two men told me of men who are scared to go home at night because they fear the abuse that awaits them at the hands of their wives, girlfriends or partners.

They spoke of men who live in a state of constant anxiety fearing that they would be verbally emasculated in public by their abusive partners who chose confrontation in inappropriate forums to air real and imagined grievances.

They told of women who were manipulative by faking pregnancies to keep men stuck in relationships they were no longer interested in and then faking miscarriages and letting their reluctant partners endure emotional torment needlessly.

They gave examples of women who file for maintenance for children they knew very well were not fathered by the man they claim money from.

They gave instances in which some men remained trapped in relationships because their partners threatened to commit suicide if they attempted to terminate the relationship.

They spoke of women that used the threat of terminating a much desired pregnancy if they did not get their way effectively holding their men to ransom.

They spoke of women that habitually threatened to lace food with poison as a means of compelling their men to toe the line.

Even as they narrated some of these things; my mind kept coming up with excuses as to why these women would behave in such a despicable fashion because at the core of me I had no desire to admit that men were as vulnerable to abuse as women and that perhaps for men, that abuse was exacerbated by the fact that no one would believe them as I myself found it hard to believe.

The conversation I had with these two men has haunted me since, taking up residence in my subconscious and incessantly nudging at me but I have ignored it for fear that it would be hard for me to write convincingly of something I, myself, was skeptical of.

...society "guilts" men into staying in abusive relationships because a 'real' man is expected to "roll with the punches"...

In many instances the fervency with which I write is often an extension of my own personal convictions regarding the subject I am writing about – and the subject of an abused man seemed implausible.

Recently, my maternal aunt came to see me off at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and while waiting for my flight she entreated me to write ‘something’ about how badly men are being abused.

She made an impassioned plea to me; saying she felt there was little awareness about the issues of man abuse which she said was rampant, cruel and often kept secret by the men themselves out of shame.

Again I was skeptical.

But she is my mother and the least I could do was hear her out, especially since she had taken the opportunity of my departure to bring the matter up – it must have mattered deeply to her.

She told me of a casual acquaintance that she had been doing business with who was in an extremely abusive relationship with his church-going wife who was a complete tyrant at home.

She said she only got to know what kind of marriage the man was in after the man’s wife had called and thoroughly insulted half of the women in their company for interacting with her husband.

The man was extremely embarrassed and had had to apologize to all the affected female colleagues whose numbers had happened to have been saved on his phone and had since been deleted by his wife.

She said the man’s wife collected his pay check although she was gainfully employed herself, that she checked on him and gave him curfews.

The man was scared of his wife and eventually did as she asked to avoid confrontation which his wife seemed to thrive on.

Still, there was a part of me that remained skeptical; thinking if that man really wanted – he could always leave that woman.

But my aunt said he didn’t want to traumatize his children.

That’s right.

The man’s excuse for staying with his abusive was that he was doing it for the children!

It is not only women who use the, “I am staying in this marriage for my children” line – men use it too.

Because they are just as committed to bringing their kids in ‘whole’ families as women are – no parent (father or mother) wants their child to grow up in a broken home.

Sensing my incredulity at her tale, my aunt just asked me how I would feel if it was my brother who was the victim of abuse or if my son grew up and ended up in an abusive marriage?

Did I want to wait until someone I know, love and am close to was a victim before I started addressing the issue of man abuse?

That hit a raw nerve; because heaven knows I would do anything to protect my son, my brother and other male members of my family.

Perhaps protecting them begins with an article such as this one – an article that tells the world that men suffer too; that men need support too; that men are victims too and that the abused man is not figment of the imagination like a phantom.

Parting shot: When I am asked why a man/woman doesn’t leave their abuser I say: They stay because the fear of leaving is greater than the fear of staying. They will leave when the fear of staying is greater than the fear of leaving. Rebecca J. Burns TheLastStraw