The menace of gender inequality

Gender inequality stems from the idea that men and women need to behave in certain ways that emphasises their sexuality.

5690947675_7298348b99_bThe most obvious, yet least talked about (until recent times) problem in India is its gaping gender inequality. India remains the lowest ranked among BRIC countries in the Global Gender Gap index. It ranks 105 out of 135 countries. Health, Education, and Economic participation of women has India at its worst among BRIC countries. It ranks among the lowest when it comes to infant mortality and malnutrition among girls. Almost 8 million and more missing girls with demographers projecting that by the year 2020 there would be 28 to 31 million surplus males in the 15 – 35 age group. Almost 11 percent of the CEOs of top companies were female, yet gender pay gap survey shows women make only a third of what a man earns. In public roles, women occupy only 10.7 percent of the seats in Parliament; less than 10 percent seats in High Courts and Supreme Courts and only 2-3 percent senior administrators and managers are women. We are a nation undergoing a rapid transition and are poised to become a part of an economically advanced group of countries. The transition has however left our ethical and moral bearings stuck in a century that still believes in the idea that men and women can never be equal and women can never enjoy the same freedom and security that men have.

The feminist argument that can be made here would talk about the patriarchy and societal backwardness in accepting women in larger roles. The issue however goes deeper than that. It is about an active inequality perpetuated by ideas of what and how gender should look and the stereotypes and myths maintained by a society clinging to norms created to benefit one gender over the other.

Gender inequality or sexism is not the same as sexual inequality. Semantics matter here. Men and women are born different. Their sexuality is different. Gender, however, is a social construct that relies on this natural difference to create a kingdom of stereotypes and myths that invests and builds on the idea that gender equality cannot be achieved. French Philosopher Albert Memmi, explains this difference in terms of racism. That analogy can be extended to sexism. Subordination of a sex is not based on sexuality but the characteristics we build to associate with that sexuality. “It is the assigning of a value to a particular difference in way that discredits an individual or a group to the advantage of another that transforms mere difference into deficiency.” Gender inequality or sexism in India works within this framework. We have for over centuries added values to primary sexual differences that it has become second nature to most to use this difference as a reason for why women can be talked about in a certain ways, why they can’t succeed in certain fields or why men are incapable of carrying out certain jobs.

Women are equated with sensitive, nurturing, cunning or wily and men with strength, courage, aggressiveness and violence amongst others.  We insist on these subjecting every man and woman to predetermined values and insist that the life they lead or the work they do these values. Gender inequality is the result of these socially constructed values deeming men and woman unsuitable for certain jobs. This results in ridiculing of female bosses, female construction workers, male nurses and stay at home dads. Gender inequality is not just about the glaring absence of women in many public spheres, it is also about the lack of men in many roles that continue to be considered as the domain of women.

Gender inequality stems from the idea that men and women need to behave in certain ways that emphasises their sexuality. From teaching kids how to walk, talk, sit and dress — society tells parents that male and female children have to be treated differently. Cultural mores often emphasise these differences to the point that men and women are forced to adapt themselves to fit the stereotype or be blamed for being an outlier. Gender inequality affects both men and women in myriad ways, the differences have however been handed down in such a way that historically women have ended up being seen as deficient, incompetent, and a convenient moral compass that can be blamed if and when society stumbles. Politicians, police and public repeatedly calling for women to cover up, lower their gaze, and behave within the dominant groups definitions of propriety are the best example. The problem is not unique to India. The severe backlash against the victim who was raped repeatedly in Steubenville, Ohio in March this year shows how common it has become to blame the victim in almost every case. Rape, sexual harassment even extreme violence is blamed on the woman, for travelling alone, for drinking too much, for wearing “slutty” clothes, for looking at a male improperly, for asking for it, for daring to cross invisible boundaries.

What is unique to India however is our refusal to open up a larger conversation about the inequalities in our society, in our refusal to accept that equality for genders is not a myth that the West came up with and to educate ourselves on what gender equality, sexism or even feminism really means. We have our excuses and often use words that pay homage to the beauty of a women and exclaim how much the country celebrates women. We call her Shakthi, Maa, behan, make her wear garbs of purity and worship her in myriad ways. We celebrate the Madonna and derisively scorn at the westernised whores, forgetting the women who live within these two extremes. We are so busy building these myths of women that rest on her relationship with men, that we have turned a blind eye to the gender inequality these myths give way to. A single woman alone in a strange city becomes suspicious, an older woman unmarried or divorced must have issues, a girl alone in a public place is not normal, a married woman talking to a strange man is not proper. These myths have consequences.

It has become common place for the men who rule the country to make laws that exacerbate the inequalities, instead of addressing them head on. The long list of separate but equal measures that keep getting passed divides society to the extent that women often end up becoming prized assets, living their lives in glass houses and having men outside waiting to defend her honour. Societies need to move forward, they need to keep adapting and transitioning. By claiming that gender inequality has always been around and the entire system of feminism and gender studies is a western concept is not just erroneous but also defeats the idea of a developing country. We have had feminists in Raja Ram Mohan Roy and others who encouraged women participation in politics and society. A better understanding of the ideas of feminism and gender equality will be able to teach us that equality is not in the choices that women make, but in the environment that she makes those choices.

We have had almost 340 odd cases of rape being reported since January. Almost every time a rape is publicised, we have had political figures, men and women blaming the victim and  giving patriarchal lectures on how western values have decimated the cultural fabric of our society and have corrupted our women. More discussions on gender, sexism and sexuality can perhaps enlighten people on why it is not their women who need to be reset, but the moral compasses that they are being held against. Sensitising children to the idea of sexism and gender and bringing adults up to par should be a priority.

Women make almost half of India’s population. The physical and emotional threat that they have to face every day from those in a more privileged positions is not just a violation of her right to live a dignified, life but in the long run will also pose a threat to the democratic ideals the country was built on. Giving women the vote will not matter in the long run, what will matter is how difficult or how challenging the path to that voting booth is. The dismal state of our country can be seen in the way protests for right to live safely and equal treatment in public and private spheres have brought the government to a halt. Equal opportunity and participation for women in all fields is a reality that we have to come to terms with.

Photo: craftivist collective