It’s not what you call me, but what I answer to
Every year around, women’s day, there is a lot of talk about empowering women and providing gender equity in the country. This year we seem to have made a dent in that goal. According to the Gender Equity Index (GEI) 2012 report, Bangladesh seems to have progressed further than its neighbours India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of gender equity in South Asia, based on the man-woman divide in education, economic and political empowerment.
Considering the state of women in our neighbouring lands, it might not be a big win – but hey, it’s still a win. In a country that has been governed alternatively by two women for the last two decades, women are still a social group who have relatively little power in our society. Only recently have women started to be recognised for their contributions to the family, society, social development and other sectors. There are a lot more women entrepreneurs in the country today compared to even a few years ago. There are women holding down positions of power in the workforce today, working alongside with their male counterparts with equal respect. In the rural areas, while there still exists a considerable amount of discrimination, women are finally getting the care and respect they deserve for their contributions to the family and community. Women have made progress in other sectors as well – be it sports or the arts, save politics – we have made progress in all sectors. All in all, it’s a pretty good time to be a woman in this country.
All that said and done, the woman is still essentially expected to be the mother, the wife and the daughter. If you happen to be a girl, no matter how well educated you are and how many degrees you hope to attain, the general expectation is that at some point you are to “settle” down and become a wife, produce a child or two and live happily ever after. And if you can manage to hold down a career besides these goals, more power to you, sister!
Today, when every organisation working for social welfare, be it state or private, aims to further empower women, help them become more independent and have equal opportunities to be all that they aspire to be in relation to their male counterparts, it’s sad how the same patriarchal ideals of what a woman “must be” still applies. God forbid you wish to not marry and would rather choose a career over a man, or worse – children! Soon as you voice these views, you are either tagged a “certain type of woman” or some one to keep your daughters and sons away from. Then of course there are the snide remarks you sometimes encounter if you are a woman climbing up the ladder at work – the accusations being you are using your “womanly wiles” to get ahead while the men having no such advantage lag behind. The fact that you have to work twice as hard to make your way in a primarily male dominated domain is completely besides the point it seems.
Even though there are more opportunities for women in the country now, we still have a long way to achieve the goal of true women’s empowerment. Around the globe women still struggle for equal treatment. Over here, we not only have to fight for equal opportunity, but also for the basic human respect and freedoms that our male counterparts enjoy – the freedom to lead a life as we chose without social stigmatisation, the ability to get ahead in the work place without having our methods questioned, to chose to be something more than just a life-support system for our genitalia and be baby-production mechanisms. Even today, if a marriage breaks up the woman is often given the blame no matter who is at fault, the raped woman must always hear the accusation that she must have provoked the perpetrator and of course the abusive husband, even though he is an inhumane monster, must have been made to act that way towards his wife. Women still end up being killed for dowry, get beaten to near death by an insecure husband jealous of her success and are lashed to death thanks to fatwas by mullahs in the name of justice. “But you are a girl”, is still a valid excuse for holding back a woman from achieving her dreams and explaining why she cannot pursue higher education in a foreign land unless she is married and going with a husband, or has to pass up an opportunity that would further her career or even give up on hopes of pursuing a certain career.
When Alice Walker said, the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any, she really was onto something. While the burden to bring about change rests with society, it also rests with women themselves. If you take abuse and not band together to oppose it, no one can help you out. If every woman raised their sons with the ideals of respecting their female counterparts as people and not something inferior, we’d have eradicated the problem of gender discrimination and inequality eons ago. While it’s difficult to break the norms of a society and re-educate people too set in their ways, it’s far easier to try and change the way future generations think.
While on this Women’s Day we take pride in having ranked higher in achieving gender equality in the subcontinent, I’d say it’s worth remembering that the problem is far from solved. What we need is to get rid of the archaic idea of what a woman must be and view them not based on what gender they belong to, but as people. Only then will we ever end up truly empowering the women and can be proud of it.