It's only appropriate for women's history month to follow black history month as both factions are subjected to systemic oppression that largely discounts their mere existence and achievements altogether. You may ask why "women's" history month or why "black lives matter", why not "men's history month" or "all lives matter". The point is that even today we are still not questioning the prejudices that exist in our society. Take the gender gap for instance; it exhibits itself in different forms at different levels in society such as salaries or leadership positions in professional fields, sharing of household work or parental care/leave, dress codes, representation in the media and the list goes on; same goes for the racial gap. By using such counterarguments such as "not all men", "all lives matter", "what about men's history month?", we take the spotlight away from the issues that are very real and affect a multitude of groups that include, but are not limited to, people of varying gender, religion, race and sexuality.
Today is International Women's Day or shall I call it "Why not International Men's Day?” The fact that we need to be discussing this at all speaks volumes about our current views towards women. So, let's take a step back and internalize what brought about this so called "special" treatment of women on this day and why it is so important.
Most of the biases against women and other minorities emerge from stereotypes. Ever heard the term gender bias? But what is gender in the first place? Sociologically, gender is a social construct just like race, money or sports. What does that mean? Well, as a human society, we created gender, which is separate from our biological sex in order to satisfy social roles. Traditionally gender is the identity that was defined to be binary: male or female who play either masculine or feminine roles based on their biological sex. We defined what it means to be "masculine" or "feminine". But, today we see a larger definition of gender that is non-binary, in an attempt to break this stereotypical social view.
Having said that, we are still at a turning point in society where people who don't conform to these stereotypical roles of gender are discriminated against, men and women alike; not to mention the LGBTQ+ community. Not to say that everyone possesses this bias but, if you know anything about psychology, there is such a thing as unconscious bias. Picture a train conductor… ok, now picture a nurse. What gender did you picture the two people as? If you answered male for the train conductor and female for the nurse, then welcome to the club that acknowledges that we are all biased when it comes to gender roles to some degree. I have taken the test as well and was shocked to see that even I possess biased views on certain communities even if it is to a small extent. It is very much implicit, however, it has made me be more self-aware of the biases so as to consciously make an effort to not model it in the future. First introduced by Harvard University's Project Implicit, you can also take the test to discover your own implicit biases, whether it be based on gender, religion, sexuality, race, skin tone, weight or other.
Now that the definition of gender is out of the way, why do women still significantly suffer in society as compared to men? Despite there being both positive and negative stereotypes about them, women always end up with the shorter end of the stick. For instance, in the United States alone, women are poorer than men, women are paid less than men for doing the same job; they are more likely to be a victim of sexual violence than men, occupy lesser positions of political leadership than men.
Looking at pay gaps, if you think this is an isolated event in the United States, then think again. It persists worldwide with even deeper pay gaps in the global average as can be seen from the following infographic from the World Economic Forum:
In the U.S., women are paid on average, 79 cents to every dollar a man earns. It only gets worse when you add race, religion, ethnicity, etc. to this amalgam with women of color earning even less, specifically 54-63 cents for every dollar a white man earns. Also, age affects this ratio and further deepens the gap to favor younger male counterparts. For more statistics, check out this link. Women also form 2/3rd of the world's illiterates due to this lack of exposure attributed to education that is deprived to women outside the domestic setting.
1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives according to CDC's 2010 Sexual Violence Survey Report. Also, 1/3 of women in the United States experience rape, violence and/or stalking, specifically by an intimate partner. Further, 1 in 4 women experience sexual assault on a college campus. And then we bicker about the status of abortion as a human right. Both these extremes steal away from women's agency as an autonomous human being who has the right to live their life without their privacy being violated and their rights snatched away from them. "Pro Choice" vs. "Pro Life" poses the same type of comparison as "not all men". Of course not all men rape, but pointing it out is not helping the rates of violence against women go down. But, we still find the need to be defensive instead of doing something about these alarming rates.
So, "Why not International Men's Day?" you ask? The answer to that question is: because every other day is men's day, where we celebrate men's higher salaries, champion their leadership positions, and respect their agency to not be violated sexually as much as women and neither hold them accountable for safe sex. But, the same does not apply to women with their every move scrutinized and their every achievement overshadowed by that of men.
When it comes to “equal” rights, you may think we are already there since there’s one too many females in the workforce outside the domestic setting today than we were used to as a society. But, is that enough? There are 50.4% women who populate this world yet they are underrepresented in most branches of society. Even if they have the largest population, we forget to look at the appalling statistics disadvantaging women and other “minorities” when they try to be independent of the strict gender ordinance placed on them. We simply assume that they are where they are because they are just not capable enough to bring themselves out of poverty, gender-based sexual violence, and other prejudices that they face in their day-today lives, restricting them to the traditional gender roles in society.
Think about it this way, we balance the weights on a weighing scale by adding more to the side that has lower weights. It is about “gender equality” because men are confined by their own gender roles just like women, even if men have an overall advantage due to their privileged roles that society has defined for them. In order to work toward equality, we need to pay more attention to what is going on around us. I, myself, realized that it is very much a fight for equality and not men’s rights vs. women’s rights, when I first started looking into the systemic structure of privilege, oppression and power dynamics in our civilization. It made me rethink on how to engage other people to join the cause for equal rights without all the stigma around the word “feminist”, which literally means someone who advocates for equality of genders on all levels: political, social and economic.
In my opinion, to be a passive bystander is equivalent to contributing to the discrimination. Though I understand I have been privileged enough as an Indian Muslim woman studying Robotics Engineering and not having to undergo most of the oppression that women face today. I still felt the need to give other women and men, a chance to enjoy similar privileges by providing a platform to discuss the current affairs surrounding gender equality and overcome the barriers of discrimination; a place where one can freely express their views and opinions without discrimination. So, I started a club on my campus with some great classmates I was introduced to as part of my education; we named it the Gender Equality Club. We not only talk about women’s issues, which are definitely far more rampant, but also about how the strict portrayal of gender norms can affect men as well. The club is a step toward equality, especially on our campus, which is a technical and engineering university with a 7:3 ratio of men to women. As a club, we recently screened two documentaries: one about media’s poor portrayal of women and another about the narrow definition of masculinity that men have to live with. It was a way of highlighting the cause of gender equality at the inauguration of our official recognition as a club. If you are interested in these documentaries, check out their trailers: “Miss Representation” and “The Mask You Live In”.
We have a long way to go to achieve equality among the genders at the current rates of improvement. So, this International Women's Day, let's acknowledge that gender is a social construct and since we created it, we shouldn't be limiting its definition and thereby people’s confidence in their own capabilities. Let's work toward addressing our own unconscious biases by being aware of them. Let's empower and appreciate women's agency while encouraging the men in our lives to do the same. Let's try to dissuade ourselves from questioning women's health choices and look beyond the biological differences. Last, but not the least, let's not buy in to the stereotypes of gender roles and help each other be better at everything that we do and not just the norms. Whereas we are all capable of accomplishing the same things and more, everyone deserves to be treated equally so as to jump the rope and advance human kind together.
Ayesha Fathima is an Indian Muslim woman pursuing graduate studies as a Robotics Engineer at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She is the founder and former President of the Gender Equality Club on her campus and feels strongly about the need for spreading awareness about gender issues that affect everyone, but especially, women. She believes that being a passive bystander is equivalent to contributing to the problems in society, so she endorses the fact that you don't have to go through the extreme oppression personally in order to fight against it. As an avid roboticist and advocate for equality and human rights, she hopes to use the little privilege that she has to highlight issues surrounding gender, sexuality, religion, race, color, creed, ethnicity and disability.