Gender Equality Day
August 26th every year is a red letter day in the annals of struggle by women for their rights. It represents the day when a century long struggle bore fruit as women suffrage was constitutionally approved in the United States in 1920. The victory is commemorated all over the world as Women Equality Day, in recognition of the unfinished legacy of this day, and the continuing struggle to achieve just treatment of women, and accord them their rights. However, today the equality discourse has co-opted men and transgenders too. Men have been carrying the burden of proving their ‘masculinity’ just as women are tamed to adhere to the norms of ‘femininity’.
Men have also been stigmatized for pursuing the ‘soft’ careers just as women have been thought a misfit in Science. If a man cries in public he is pansy. If a woman doesn't buckle down, she is masculine. Contemporary feminism seeks to dismantle these binaries. Very often gender equality is irrationally viewed as a feminist issue - a women issue. Gender discrimination cuts across all genders and concerns men and transgenders as much as it concerns women. Transgenders face the challenge to a dignified life. In some countries they are not even recognized as a third gender. Even if they are, they have to face the humiliation and live in inhuman conditions. In recently concluded general elections in Pakistan, transgenders were not allowed to enter the polling booths to vote. Likewise men are expected to adhere to rigid social norms just like women. They are scorned and sneered at if they opt for the so called feminine career like that of a nurse, beauty consultant etc., traditionally reserved for women. They have to live up to the enormous pressure to be a ‘real man’ and take on the role of the breadwinner for the family. They are expected to be emotionally resilient even in the face of adversity. However we know that historically men have enjoyed the privilege in personal and professional sphere simply by virtue of being men. The privileges that come with being a man have shielded them from a lot of struggles. Right to vote is one of them.
Suffrage movements in the West have a bitter history of struggle and resistance. Women who made an attempt to vote in the U.S. in the early 1870s were arrested and had to face lawsuits. Suffrage came relatively easy for their Eastern counterparts. One obvious reason was that in the early 20th century most of the Eastern countries like India, Sri Lanka were caught in the whirlwind of aggressive nationalistic movements for independence. With the end of colonial rule came the constitutional authorities that gave universal enfranchise to all citizens.
However, all over the world voting rights to women have proven to be just tokenism. It has not ensured any significant political participation of women in politics. In India out of 543 parliamentarians only 66 are women, amounting to barely 12%. In the US only 84 women are serving in the House of Representatives amounting to only 20% of the Congress.
These numbers are also symptomatic of the larger patriarchal attitude entrenched in societies all over the world, which reduce women to mere sexualized objects. Closer to home, in 2017 UP elections, a prominent BJP politician claimed that Priyanka Gandhi is not a star campaigner because there are more beautiful women in his own party. In other words, he was saying: What more could she offer! What else would a woman be good for?
Not only in politics, as recent as three decades ago women were conspicuous by their absence in literary histories, higher education, sports, the corporate sector, the armed forces etc. Thanks to the feminist movements in the 1970s, the contribution of women, hitherto invisible, in freedom movements, literature and other walks of life were finally brought to light. But there is a long way to go still. Women are still seen as irrational beings with lower intellectual capabilities as compared to men. These attitudes are apparent in common preference of couples keen on having a male child, or the all too pervasive casual jokes about women drivers. Not just ordinary mortals but also influential philosophers like Rousseau and Kant believed that woman are beautiful inferior beings and ‘not fit for serious employment’. If they are ‘beautiful and captivating’ that is enough.
Equality Vs Equity
Sexual violence, discrimination, illiteracy etc. are some of the prime reasons that hinder women from self-actualization be it political participation, climbing up the corporate ladder, or any conceivable field of existence and competition. One must pause here and ask what really is perpetuating these conditions. We have been paying lip service at the shrine of equality – laws have been passed, reservations are put in place, tax rebates are given, we even have a separate ministry here in India not to speak of the innumerable commissions. What has gone wrong then? It is time to go back to the drawing board and find the root of the rot. The first step to be taken must be an acknowledgment of the failure of the equality model. The equality model has not and cannot reverse the situation. Women should strive for equity rather than equality. Equality implies uniformity and sameness while equity means need based provisions. ‘One size fits all’ model to promote equality is insufficient.
Affirmative actions like reservation for women is not an ideal solution. Women have 33% reservation in the Panchayat elections in India yet women are still grossly underrepresented and marginalized. Very often they exist only on paper. It’s their husbands who take the decisions on their behalf.
To create an even playing field for women, we need to have programs, measures and strategies to make up for the historical and social advantages women face in the workforce and in their personal life.
To achieve gender equity, we need to recognize that the traditional social roles, rights and responsibilities of men and women need to be redefined. Giving maternity leave to both men and women, for example, will not solve the problem unless men are sensitized that they too need to contribute to childcare. Equality model does not work unless equity is in place. If equality is the end goal, equity is the means to get there.
The status of women has changed for the better in the last few decades. But there are some pressing issues like unequal pay for equal work, domestic and sexual violence, inhuman working conditions of women in unorganized sector etc. which need to be addressed. Even a sport as glamorous as tennis suffers from gender pay gap. A major cultural revolution needs to accompany policy change to stop relegating women to a subservient and inferior position as compared to men.
This Gender Equality Day let’s strive for a world where labels like feminism are rendered meaningless and merit prevails over gender and equality between all genders becomes a given.
The author of this article, Richa Singh is a content writer with Investronaut. She is a voracious reader and a keen traveller.