Feminism is now considered obsolete: the appropriate term is “gender,” as my mother recently reminded me. I have no problem with this: feminism has attracted a certain negative aura of female sexual extremism. So, gender it is: the aim is no longer to affirm woman’s equality to man (or superiority, as some have interpreted it), but to establish it in practical terms. In the West, most consider this task complete and, perhaps, archaic. But is it really?
In Sub-Saharan Africa, where I have lived for the past six years, there is no doubt that woman lags behind man in many ways - well, I should say, is forced behind man. They have no right over their own bodies, which can prove fatal with the fast-paced spread of HIV/AIDS. This and their much lower school attendance (boys are worth sending to school, while girls are not, or are more needed at home) are all highly unacceptable practices that show how sometimes extreme sexual discrimination is rampant. In other countries and communities, too, this fact has been affirmed.
With the stark example of Afghanistan under the Taliban, these countries have been accused of and rebuked for their discriminatory practices. I must agree with these critiques: as an Occidental female, I am used to the freedom that I almost take for granted, and consider that their treatment of women grossly infringes on our rights as humans. Here’s another example: In Asia, selective abortions of female fetuses radically lower the female to male ratio (from the norm of 96:100 girls born to boys born to as low as 60:100 in some areas) and sexual tourism and slavery are all part of the landscape.
Sexism and gender-related discrimination are raging the world over, especially in countries considered underdeveloped. But do we, in our complacency, even stop to think about the situation in Europe or the United States? I cannot vouch for the latter, having too little experience with the U.S., but it seems clear to me that in Europe, for lack of attention or an inherent complacency, gender inequality seems to flourish anew.
As a teenage girl educated with European mores, and especially with the cultural experiences I have gained from living abroad (Burkina Faso in western Africa is my fifth country of residence), I tend to take my emotional and physical freedom for granted. My parents have always valued me as an individual warranting care and attention; they have listened to my ideas, weathered my moods, and challenged me in the ways I needed, and still need. I recognize this is not the case for more women and girls than I dare to think about, in every country and of every creed and religion imaginable, and though it would seem more appropriate to talk about the imbalance between genders in the under-developed countries, I have chosen the Western world. Not only because I hope to make my niche in this corner of the world, but also because the Occident seems to take for granted the “emancipation” of women as a “done thing” of the past, to be only vaguely remembered.
It is not so, not by a long shot. Though in most European countries women are theoretically afforded the same legal rights as men, they often are not given them in practice. The most obvious example would be salary differences. In many countries, including America, men are still paid more in all types of professional jobs. As a teenager, I notice other types of discrepancies between what we say we do and what we actually do as Westerners, in respect to gender issues. Foremost are social issues.
An example - have you ever read one of those glossy “girl” magazines? Even if you have not, you know the type - sleek graphics, perfect photographs and a ton of adverts. The women are beautiful and thin, of course. Now, do not get me wrong: I am not going to use the well-trodden “The models are too thin, they’re setting a bad example for girls” argument. My point is that, although a lot of the articles in these magazines are great - real stuff for real girls - a substantial number peddle an idea that I do not find at all attractive - the “Boys are Everything” doctrine. Fact: girls think about boys. A lot. But that is not all that we think about - or should - and it definitely is not the scale by which we should measure ourselves as girls and individuals.
These magazines send the message that being valued or desired by the opposite sex is extremely important - too important. While articles like “What Hairstyles He Likes on You” or “Ten Boy Turn offs” are usually funny and have a smattering of “truth,” a lot of girls will change themselves to fit this image. Not only does it foster insecurity about our self-worth, but it also lends a stereotyped image of men to these girls. Oh, and I do read these magazines - I call them stupid but I still read them. And I wonder why most of them are about boys. Girls have other interests too, you know!
But, talking of men - are they emancipated? In order for women to become equal, they need to see us that way too. There are many things that show me they don’t. Pornography and dating habits are perfect examples of the ways men (and therefore boys) still cling to ideals of superiority or control when it comes to us. I think that pornography seriously exploits and degrades women, making them little more than mating animals. This is deeply insulting. As for dating habits, I have personal experience of how some boys have not grasped the idea of equality with girls. Many boys affirm the fact that they are happy when girls approach them and make the first move, but in my experience it takes a very secure and intelligent boy to accept a girl being the “mover.” Since it is usually the boy’s “responsibility” to make the first move and take the lead in the relationship, some boys find themselves threatened or afraid if a girl takes command, and they back away. This leaves the girl in a position of either placid acceptance or passive waiting.
Having looked at these aspects of gender relations in regard to teenagers in Western society, I still find a large margin of what is acceptable and what should be acceptable. Women and girls should be the equals of men in every way, but are not. Women are still encouraged to think a certain way and want certain things which are deemed socially acceptable in a society that is still ruled by men. The emancipation of women in society is not just about women: men need to be educated so they are able to accept women as equals. If not, equality will never exist. It needs to be a gradual process of changing mores and acceptance, which currently seems like a hopeful dream.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.