Saturday, 2 March 2013

Responses to VAW incidents: Part 1

On the 16th of December, 2012, a brutal rape would take place on a Delhi bus that would shock India and the international community. The attack and gruesome death of an anonymous, yet now internationally famous 21 year old woman caused violent uprisings in the nation, provoked a reaction from the Secretary General of the United Nations and sparked protests in Paris, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The incident led many women to closely examine the roles they played in their own societies, and re-examine a question we often take for granted: how far have we come, as women, in terms of respect and safety in our countries? To answer this question, a survey was sent to 7 different young women living and working in some of the world’s most gender-progressive countries – Canada, the United States, the U.K, Bermuda and Argentina - to examine their views on the status of women in their countries. This is the first in a series of posts discussing their responses.       

Buenos Aires is a bustling, metropolis city known for its flavour, its passion and also for its women. Argentine women are famous for their beauty, their temperament and their strength. Headed by Cristina Kircher, and the home of the female icon Evita Peron, Argentina has never shied from embracing the power in its female population. Yet somehow, simultaneously, Argentina is known to have a culture of machismo that pervades throughout the city’s social sphere. Twenty-five year old Romina Insausti has lived in countries such as Brazil, Jamaica and Africa and is currently studying in Argentina. Her global experience combined with her in depth knowledge of the Argentinean culture placed her in an ideal position to shed light on the role women play in her home country.     

Professionally, she feels women in Argentina are unhindered by their gender. “Some [women] are expected to become presidents; some are expected to become housewives. But all women have the same possibilities of educational enhancement given that education up to university level in this country is free.” Yet she also notes that women’s equality in the workplace does not always translate to gender equality across the board. Women in Southern American nations still face the dangers of sexual and physical abuse that mar developing countries. Continues Insausti: “In the working class, although they have the same possibilities, women are usually the ones that stay at home while the men work. These women are usually taken advantage of.  It’s common for these men to physically abuse them and cheat on them (i.e. have sexual relations with prostitutes and other women that aren’t their wives). But the real problem that women are facing right now in this country is human trafficking and physical and sexual abuse. Women from the lower and working classes are mostly talked about when it comes to human trafficking, but there are countless women in the middle and upper-middle classes that are kidnapped on their way to work or school and never heard of again. Some are included in human trafficking; some are simply raped and murdered. It is known that police, judges and other people that are supposed to protect people’s rights are involved in human trafficking. Many of the loved ones of the women that go missing try to investigate their cases by themselves because the authorities won’t do their job.           

In addition, it is very common to see cases of women that lose their lives or getting very hurt being beaten and burned by their (ex)boyfriends/(ex)lovers/(ex)husbands/ (throwing some kind of alcohol at them and setting them on fire is very common now). There are high levels of insecurity in this society and women are mostly the main target.”            

Conversely, in the U.K., Caitlin Field, a charming and intelligent tomboy from the University of Edinburgh, relates her feelings about the status of women in her country, across the world, the United Kingdom. While Insausti states she feels relatively unsafe in her country, suffering verbal abuse on an almost daily basis, Field notes that though she feels physically safe. Yet the psychological bias against women in the U.K. is an unseen but powerful prejudice that affects women in the workplace and at home.

“In my society,”, states Field, “both as a UK resident and a citizen of the western world, I do feel that
there are huge social expectations that put undue pressure on women. Often, this pressure is the kind of insidious pressure that creeps in to people’s daily lives, like the pressure to “lose those last few pounds”, courtesy of every women’s publication on the newsstands, or the pressure to decide between career and family satisfaction, as is still depressingly common during job interviews.”       

Field describes her personal situation during university, when she felt pressured to conform to certain set roles, in spite of her own personal preference: “ often depends on what “kind” of woman I was presenting myself to be. For instance, if I wore eyeliner and tighter-fitting clothes, I was treated by my peers as having more of a voice, compared with if I turned up to a class in baggy jeans and a hoodie, with no makeup, I was often not paid much attention to at all. That’s not to say that I was sexually objectified when wearing tighter-fitting clothes, just that I feel like people were better able to “code” me appropriately – something like “tight clothes, woman, fulfilling womanly duties to be feminine, yep, I can deal with that” – compared with when I wasn’t making any real effort to appear feminine, which seemed to make people uncomfortable and confused. In that situation, I become kind of neither fish nor fowl – too feminine to be “one of the guys”, and too masculine to be “one of the girls” – meaning that often the only way I was able to really feel like I was communicating with people was to “femme up”.

The contrast between Insausti and Field are enlightening. In two very developed countries, both which offer university level education to women and enforce gender-equality laws, there is a significant difference in the breed of challenge faced by women. Discrimination comes in many forms; both physical and psychological, and the absence of one does not necessarily mean the absence of the other. This, however, is not to state that either woman does not recognize the progress that has been made in their own countries in comparison to others - both Insausti and Field accede to their being a difference in the severity of problems faced by different countries, with Field stating: “ seems that there are a great many other societies in which women are forced into vastly different roles, with much more of a focus on motherhood and marital duties than freedom of self. The shooting of Malala Yousafzai for speaking out in favour of a woman’s right to education is a clear example of the vast difference between the oppression that I feel women face in the UK, and the oppression that women face in other societies...”     

Simultaneously, however, it is important to take to heart the lessons of the rape in India. A nation’s culture deeply affects the biases and prejudices of its citizens. India, for example, has a long history of gender discrimination with which it must grapple, and the rising prevalence of women in the workplace or in professions does not indicate that this underlying cultural bias has been adequately dealt with. At the same time, an absence of sexual objectification or verbal assault does not mean that a society considers its women equal, as pointed out by Field. To ignore discrimination or gender inequality, in any form, as harmless, or to accept the progress made to the modern day as ‘good enough’ is a passive acceptance of misogyny.  

Farahnaz Mohammed

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