In recent years, I have noticed how “feminism” and “equality” are used interchangeably, and how most people believe them to be one in the same. Feminism exists to combat the sheer amount of violence, discrimination and abuse women face on a daily basis, and is a movement to liberate those who have been oppressed by structures of violence. Equality, using the UN definition, means “equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys.” However, I have found that by using the word equality when we really mean feminism, the message is over-simplified and erases a vast majority of women’s voices. This is because we end up re-framing our conversations around men and male standards as a paradigm of success.
When equality is discussed in mass media, it is often used comparatively and framed in relation to men. A google news search of “equality” gives us examples such as the desire to be treated equally to male counterparts , having the same rights as men and being paid the same as men for doing the same jobs. While it is important to recognise that there is a power imbalance between men and women, framing equality to mean “equal to men” positions men and male cultures is ideal goal that women should reach to become equal. Through doing so, we work within the structure of male dominance, and place women inside it, rather than dismantling the structure that is inherently oppressive to women.
Examples of this include the “Lean In” method coined by Sheryl Sandberg. Her ethos is to “lean-in” to male-dominated spaces and encourages women to be assertive in the workplace and take more leadership roles. The markers of success tend to be women in CEO positions or higher management positions. And while it is important to have more women leading, that shouldn’t come at the expense of devaluing spaces held by women, such as the informal sector, domestic work and unpaid emotional labour. While we focus on male-dominated spaces we hope to populate with women, we ignore those women who fall into the gaps between oppression and privilege. The concept of “equality” reinforces the idea that women’s experiences are only valid of our attention if they fit into the status quo of “man,”
By working within the structure of male dominance, we subtly lend credence to it and send a message that the structure isn’t broken, we just need to strive to survive within it. This means we end up placing women in positions of power and calling it success for equality without looking at the deeper issues. I’m from the UK, and we have had two women Prime Ministers; Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher. I wouldn’t consider these women feminists, nor any step forward in the name of “equality”. Thatcher only promoted one woman to her cabinet and as well deported pregnant women. Plus, both women come from privileged backgrounds and have done little to highlight specific inequalities faced by women. Rather than equality in any true sense, we are presented with the patriarchy wearing a woman’s face.
In patriarchal societies, women are only granted agency so far as their existence is validated by men. For example, traditionally a woman’s status is confirmed by her role as a wife or mother, or the overt sexualisation of women’s bodies for male enjoyment. Part of the core message of feminism is to dismantle these beliefs, and show women as agents of their own lives. Centring men in our pursuit of “equality” will restrict long-lasting, tangible change.
Gender inequality did not appear out of nowhere; it exists within a wider structure of gendered oppression. This oppression intersects with different experiences of race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, etc., and presents a system of obstacles that keep women subordinate and men dominant in society. Gendered oppression is upheld by a core belief; that women are lesser than men. This belief is reinforced through continuous dehumanisation of women in media images, social institutions and through sexist jokes.
I do realise that equality is a step in the right direction. It provokes conversations, and allows us to expand our understanding of complex issues. And this is especially important in developing patriarchal societies where feminism and equality are emerging topics, and where women are finally being more visible in public spaces. However, we must be aware of the caveats of the discourse of equality, and that we don’t silence women who do not fit the male model of “human”. In spaces that have been created to discuss gender issues, especially in Cambodia, I have noticed how quickly the conversation is diverted to men. Whilst it is important to let men into the conversation, we cannot let it overshadow the fact that women are seldom allowed a space devoted to women’s rights, to discuss the tangled web of oppression and violence so many face on a daily basis.
Gender equality is a step along the right path, but it can’t just end with us placing women in male-dominated spaces and claiming we’ve achieved “equality.” Yes, in patriarchal societies it is incredibly important for people to see more women in traditionally male spaces, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of looking at women-dominated spaces with equal importance. Illiteracy rates are extremely high, with 86% of the global adult population considered illiterate. Valuing women-dominated spaces means looking at issues like period poverty, which causes 20% of girls to drop of school in India. Working to break this structure will involve ensuring free access to sanitary materials in public bathrooms and schools, while also creating education programmes in schools to raise awareness and de-stigmatise periods. Equality should not stop us from being able to centre women in our conversations. The truth is, patriarchal structures oppress women because they were created to keep women as subordinate. And our target should be dismantling them.
Cover photo taken from: https://www.behance.net/gallery/Poster-for-tomorrow-2012-Gender-equality/5169019