A Woman like Mum: 1. What Would Gender Equality Mean?

Gender equality is a topical issue today. You hear it from many mouths, it is a popular talk. Do people understand well what this means and entails? This chapter aims at highlighting certain important points to bear in mind in order to arrive at a better understanding, and therefore a profound address, of gender equality issue.

Let go, never manipulate the balance!

Hearsay about gender equality

When we speak of gender equality for some it means seeing a woman driving like a man; a woman in a big, well furnished office; doing what has been known exclusively as men’s work; seeing a man pick a sweeping broom; do the nappies; and if a man comes home late in the night, why not the wife too? Once these are fulfilled this is gender equality. Some people think like that.

Well, some of these scenarios would be desirable to attain. In fact, we already see many women achieving successful careers. However, all these would be normally only the effects, the outcome. Real gender equality is to be addressed at another level otherwise it would be settling on appearances that could either be illusion or superficial. I think there is something deeper at stake and it is from there we should be motivated to fight for any change. Perhaps, we could be inspired by this address of the Female Political Union:

We have been told that the province of women is in the home, and that the field of politics should be left to men; this we deny, the nature of things renders it impossible…. For years we have struggled to maintain our homes in comfort, such as our hearts told us we should greet our husbands after their fatiguing labours. Year after year has passed away, and even now our wishes have no prospect of being realised, our husbands are over wrought, our houses half-furnished, our families ill-fed and our children uneducated… we are a despised caste, our oppressors are not content with disposing our feelings, but demand the control of thoughts and wants.[1] This was a cry of women in the UK 160 years ago but it is still relevant for today’s Zambian women.

What’s sex? What’s gender?

A starting point for further discussions should be the definition of terms. It is important to address the confusion often seen between sex and gender. Although the two are well connected, they are not the same. Sex is biological. You are male or female due to genes. On the other hand, gender is a social characteristic. It is the demand or expectation on the manner of behaving that society makes on the person as a man or as a woman depending on the culture, time and place. It is in this way that sex relates to gender since it already predetermines some social manner of existing. In this way, gender moulds a person’s experience and affects how one interprets oneself. This goes even deeper underlying dress, postures, movement – indeed behaviour in general. The body is surely biological but often cultured so much that when we see a person appearance alone speaks more than nature itself. Being male or female is biological but the interpretation of how to exist as male or female is cultural, and that is gender.

So we learn to be men or women according to the school of our society. What is sad, however, is the fact that such social meanings are applied in a deterministic way so much that they become a matter of destiny. Looking at women we see just how, throughout their lives, they are categorised. They are expected to act within a predefined framework. This is where sexual roles cease to be purely biological since both men and women are expected by society to act in a certain way. But it is true, being male or female does not give an elaborate manner of doing things and yet when society constructs its notions it seeks refuge in biology seeing it as a foundation for what it holds to be true.

What is evident is that there is a vested-interest in keeping gender relations the way they are. Men have used gender definition to dominate. Sex seen through the prism of culture is no longer neutral; your sex will determine your position in society. This is how the patriarchal society has made women reconcile themselves to such social constructs as if they were determined by nature. Unfortunately, women have grown to know and accept themselves in terms of those roles to which they have been traditionally confined. That has become their identity. Because gender is a social construct, including the sex-role stereotypes that necessarily follow, such a social construction will vary according to the class of women, to the place and time and the culture from which they come. Such social constructions cannot be considered as universal norms inherent to sex.  Poor women have not had the luxury to limit themselves to house chores. They have gone out to work, even in certain Muslim milieus where the tendency to confining a woman in the family has been quite strong. The poor white women and slaves in America or Europe laboured like men in some public jobs to survive. No one frowned on the fact that they were women and such work was not their role.

In nineteenth century Britain it was considered inappropriate for women to work for wages outside the home. But a closer look shows that this only applied to middle and upper-class women. Working-class women were expected to work as servants for those women who were not supposed to work themselves. Parallel situations exist today in many parts of the developing world. In Bangladesh, for example, many Muslim women would consider it inappropriate to join the paid work force; yet there are plenty of other Muslim women who are forced into work –often domestic servants –as a matter of economic survival… class has almost as much to do with deciding appropriate gender roles as has biological sex.[2]

From this, one can understand why feminists developed the concept of gender in the 1970’s exactly to portray how women have related to men in different cultures throughout history. Marking the distinction between sex and gender has proved helpful in identifying what is essential and what is not, what can be changed and what cannot be. This distinction of sex and gender is to be borne in mind for anyone dealing with issues of gender equality. It is important not to confuse the two.

  Wrong Conceptions

 Gender equality is not about women fleeing from domestic roles. Such roles are essential and inescapable. However it certainly involves breaking down the walls so that women are no longer restrained, so that their gender is no longer a limiting factor. The problem at hand is not simply considering the public stage as men’s space but also that men have abandoned a great deal of the domestic roles to women alone. It would be disastrously worse if women in their misunderstanding of gender equality aspire to be “men”. When a home is impoverished by the lack of a mother’s and wife’s touch; when the motherly role is left to hired “mothers,” it becomes a cold home. Gender equality should not be confused with roles performed or the office occupied by women. It is another danger to avoid. It is not the question of being managing director or doing what women have not been able to do. Neither is it necessarily about who does what in the home. It is not the position that a woman occupies that makes the difference but how she, and the entire society, is transformed in the manner she and others look at her. Whatever one might achieve it has to be the fruit of a new social arrangement. For this reason, the point of fighting for equality is not about putting women in high positions. In fact, we only have to admit that not all women will be able to be managers just like men do not hold the same positions of importance. Otherwise we risk a false impression that gender equality is for educated women claiming positions worthy of their academic qualification.

Again, equality is not for woman to stop some roles they have been performing so that men sweep, change the nappies etc. Well, it may happen but not as a necessary requirement. How many men actually do this type of work as domestic servants yet still we speak about gender inequality? Who does what in the family may not have anything to do with gender balance but is rather an issue that revolves around the way the family is organised. Yes, the organisation may be influenced by the way relationships are seen but also a woman may continue with her traditional roles but with a transformed mentality. The weakness to define equality in terms of roles is that to some extent we arrive at a point where some roles are fixed by our sex; we cannot change. That defeats any attempt for change and gender balance becomes an unachievable. For example, only a woman can bear children.

 What is the source of inequality?

 There has been always the question as to what is at the root of inequality: sex or gender? Those who consider this imbalance as a necessary one, argue that the imbalance is a biological or a genetic determination. It is nature. In this case change is out of question. On the other hand, there are those who posit social constructionism. The difference between genders is relegated to society, culture and history. The inequality is man-made and therefore change is possible. Those differences are not necessarily fixed neither are they universals but specific to a place, people, and time. Generally, feminists favour constructionism. They peg their refusal of biological basis for gender imbalance on the diversity of men’s and women’s roles in different places in history.

What are areas of discrimination?

 There are various forms of discrimination ranging from places of work, in domestic and social affairs, and also in the conceptions and attitudes towards women. Education is one of them. Ideology of domesticity has been at work. Apart from the kind of grooming in the home, where a girl is moulded towards being wife and mother, even in the way girls are educated in schools there has been a bias towards preparing them for what they will be in the home. The mentality still persists. This is exactly what Ardener portrays when he argues that “…men have the power to impose their systems of social categorization upon the womenfolk; women’s versions of social reality become … a ‘muted structure; a story that is not told, and by this means their power of actualizing their own vision is blocked. On these grounds… in most societies men do have domination over women.”[3] In fact, gender inequality and the discrimination against women are a cancer that has eaten away its way through all cultures throughout the world. Often, the causes of this discrimination and imbalance are attributed to different factors. This helps to defeat some simplistic explanations passed for universal and necessary reasons for such inequality. In America, Europe, Asia and Africa we find this bias and discrimination against women though it has taken different forms.

Why do we have to change?

 This is not a change for the sake of change. We need to change because as things stand, they help no one. We have taken certain attitudes in life based on misconceived ideas. Our tenacious holding on to such attitudes and the consequent actions only blind us to the truth. Hence, this change demands of us dropping the filters through which we perceive ourselves, others and society in general. That will help us to see things not only differently but will take us further towards seeing things as they are – the truth. Perhaps that is the cause of fear that often slows down the pace. We fear to look truth in the eye. A lot of things have been falsified about women and about men too. In the name of tradition and customs, in the name of religion, in the cause attributed to production, capitalism, biology… women have been victims actually of fallacious notions that have backed discriminatory attitudes and practices. Hence, this change is not only liberating women but the entire society that has fallen prey to such illusion of thought. As Cockburn puts it the tension is experienced by both men and women.

The culture of masscults deforms both men and women. As individuals we are all trapped and constrained by gender stereotypes. Because I have emphasised the way in which sex-typing of jobs has pushed women into inferior places in the hierarch and into economic dependency, that does not mean that men, too, do not suffer from the pressures of having to live up to ideas of masculine behaviour while may be alien to them as individuals. In interpersonal and emotional terms, sexual stereotypes have intervened between men and women, barring the way to free and supportive relations between sexes. We are still struggling to come to terms with conflicts within marriages and families that arise from differentials in male and female experience, expectations and power.[4]

Women have been pushed to the periphery, compartmentalised and boxed in. They want to move beyond such compartmentalisation to become equal players in the universal family, as Nadezhda Stasova would say. Women, like any human being, aspire to soar to higher values than the traditional and fixed roles. No one can put out the fire of those solicitations from the core of one’s being, the need to participate and exercise fully that which gives meaning and fulfils one’s own life. The change is necessary and important in order to shift the centre of most women’s life; from the focus outside to their own inner life. It is as important as helping a person to be motivated no longer by external but inner motivations. Women, like men in their way, have been tethered to certain or specific roles, conceptions, tasks so much that they have come not only to identify themselves with them but they have come to be their motivation –unfortunately, external motivations. What becomes of a woman who has identified herself solely as a mother and a wife when the children grow up or when the marriage breaks up? What remains of her? It is a crisis. Women need a certain independence from such roles.

Why is it difficult to change?

 One thing that complicates the fight for gender equality is that people have to fight against their own identity that they have acquired through their upbringing as well as what they have embraced in their adulthood. This is the paradox of it all. How?

Our gender defines us and pre-exists us; we are born into it just as we are born into our families, and it operates at a level beyond our individual intentions. For this reason we tend to experience our gender roles as true, natural good. The gender roles that we play in everyday life are of the foundation of our culture, and not easily changed….

Over time, most of us learn to like ourselves in the ‘costume’ that is considered appropriate to our gender, so that most of us eventually choose acceptable gender roles for ourselves….[5]

Therefore, the effective toppling of the patriarchal system is when women summon the courage to cross beyond the lines predefined for them by the system. The difficulty however is that even when women attempt to do that their current identity –self understanding – has been part of those gender role expectations. This makes the women experience a contradiction of themselves in this struggle. They have to fight against themselves.

Both men and women have a role to play in gender equality

Who are the Players?

 One may wonder why the question in the first place. For the answer may appear, to some people, quite obvious. It is a battle of women against men. Wrong! Whatever good issues from the change is for the entire society. As much as women look forward to the emancipation, men too ought to be liberated from the existing beliefs, knowledge, conceptions of themselves and of those of the opposite sex. Anything contrary to that encourages a separatist mentality thereby solving nothing but, in fact, only entangling ourselves in another form of discrimination. Making gender equality an issue exclusively for women, keeping men out of it, is another approach to avoid if the struggle and the resultant change is to make any difference. This is a social transformation and for any change we cannot exclude men who have been the driving force for centuries and whose domination we are challenging. They are stakeholders –in fact, major players. Otherwise, the whole attempt shall be like abortive peace talks that had taken place in South Africa between Kabila Senior and the rebel leaders. The rebel leaders were left out in some meetings on the understanding that they were not heads of state –thus, they couldn’t attend the summit. Logical! Protocol! But stupid, given the circumstance! It was not the heads of state that would put the guns down. Why do you frustrate the key players like that just because of formalities? Hence, no surprise that most of those meetings were fruitless. They could not yield peace to Congo.

Gender equality proponents run the risk of such failure if they allow themselves to be carried by such a separatist approach. If you are alone on the road no one leaves the way, but when many with others –a way is left for you. This also may be inspired by a false assumption. We may have given ourselves to understand people based on the camp to which they belong and thereby content ourselves with our suppositions about them. One guess would be that a woman is an ally in the gender equality activism while a man is in opposition; it could be true. Nevertheless, there are men who have appreciated the imbalance and are willing to work for a change. Ignoring them would be a handicap. In fact, men are very much part of this affair. “Programmes to eliminate violence against women must be aimed at men as much as or even more than at women, and must involve men in their implementation. Unless men change, women will continue to suffer… it is not only women who suffer the effects of such social arrangement but the whole society. Therefore violence against women must be seen as a problem of society, and not just of women.”[6] This is why certain trends of feminism do not hesitate to say it openly that women will not go it alone; they need to march with men though feminist approach sounds as if it is exclusively for women. However it does not necessarily mean isolating women against men or relying on women alone for solution. Besides fighting for rights, gender equality is also a process of discovery by both men and women of the beauty and richness of a woman. In this way, not only are women rediscovering themselves but men will also elevate their relationship and respect for women.

What are the Obstacles to this project?

It is unfortunate, but true, that women would respond to the reclassification as men: “Iwe uli mwaume!” “Mwaume ulya!” (you a man! That is a man!), you hear this often said to a woman as a compliment. The danger is that women may think success in the male dominated society demands playing a man –displaying masculinity and all that is associated with it, in so doing pushing womanliness to the background. They devalue themselves by attempting to do away with themselves for the sake of “success”. Some women also may not be interested in the issue of gender equality, even though it is in their favour. Used to the existing structures in which their security and sense of identity is assured, the novelty may come as a threat. Discriminated though, some women have enjoyed their monopoly in certain areas where they feel needed, important and in control over men. They are happy. Such people too are to be respected. Only sensitization without contempt can help them appreciate there is a lot more they can do as women.

The law may be open, allowing women to be involved in those fields they have been barred from for long time; but what is the mentality of both men and women regarding trust of women as leaders? One example could be the 2001 tripartite elections in Zambia. A high number of capable women were filled in as candidates, for the first time, and good campaign was advanced by a women’s organisation for any woman candidate regardless the party of her affiliation. And it is known women are majority voters. In the midst of all that very few women made it. Well, this may not be the best example bearing in mind the many factors at play. At the same time, that was quite revealing. Society may be used to male leaders, to consider women for the same positions could be a big negotiation to do for some people. Are women themselves ready to trust and have confidence in their fellow women? It might not be easy for cultures where a woman is always under the influence of some man: a brother, father, son or husband. This might not be that stupid as an obstacle.

Wrong Motivation of Change

Why should we fight for gender equality now, why not leave things as they have been? Certainly there must be a good reason. We need to appreciate that we have been wrong and we want to put things right and not that “….things have to change when environmental or political pressure is such that the system would fall apart if gender roles were not modified.”[7] That would be deception, and mere using of women. The shortage of labour during the War II when Women were to be employed in men-monopolised fields could be just one example. It is the same as doing things for political correctness in order to access especially donor funds or to save international face. By all means, we should avoid looking at women as a spare wheel. Unfortunately, even in certain voices pushing for more women’s involvement you detect that tinge of considering women as a last option. What may appear to favour the promotion of women, at times, may have nothing new to offer in terms of accepting women on the same level with men. History may merely be repeating itself whereby women have been allowed space on the public stage only because of being short of the “right” persons. Their image never improved but they remained second class to do the inferior jobs that men shirked? History has it all. Is this not what the Nigeria writer, Chinua Achebe, fears in his Anthills of the Savannah? “But the way I see it is that giving women today the same role which traditional society gave them of intervening only when everything else has failed is not enough, you know, like women in the Sembene film who pick up the spears abandoned by their men folk. It is not enough that women should be the court of last resort because the last resort is a downright too far and too late!”[8]

That is why a change of attitude becomes important. Any benevolent gesture that however reinforces women as second-class to fulfil what men are too busy to do is a mockery to the effort towards gender equality. Unless society is prepared to acknowledge and respect women on the equal platform with men, any action less than that only manages to expose them to further humiliation of condescendence. Certainly, that is contrary to the spirit of genuine gender equality. There are various reasons why people give what others ask: to get rid of them so that they no longer bother or pest them or for fear of appearing selfish. Every person, gives but for different motives. Judging externally can thus be deceitful. Would not this be relevant to women who are or may be seeking something serious but only to be shut up by the unwilling male dominated society with external grandiosity but empty of substance, which changes nothing for the better for them?  

What attitude do we assume for the change?

 Maria Stewart, a free-born black woman who was the first American to speak in public on civil and women’s rights in 1832 linked social emancipation as a black woman with mutual self-emancipation as being central. There is a lot to learn from her. “While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence; while others prayed for a good time, I worked for it; while others argued the equality of women with men, I proved it successfully engaging in business.”[9] It is a positive sign that actually Zambia can proudly give a good list of her women, today, who are making a breakthrough in doing and achieving what people normally think it is not for women. This should be a source of inspiration for those still lagging behind with their traditional image of a woman.

What is genuine Gender Equality?

 Genuine gender equality hinges on creating a level ground that allows free self-development, self-expression without discrimination based on gendered sex. Hence, it is a human rights issue by which women should be men’s equal partners and thus be let free to follow their own destiny as ability allows the individual person. Women should see themselves in a new light, no longer glorifying masculinity as a kind of aspiration for them, rather, they should be proud of who they are. This will require a new look that appreciates femininity which by no means is subordinate to masculinity. Women ought not to be ashamed of who they are and never should they lose the beauty of their feminine touch in the way they do things.

1] Female Political Union of Newcastle Upon-Tyne, address to their fellow countrywomen, 1839.

[2] Julia Cleves Mosse, Half The World Half a Chance: An Introduction to gender and Development, Oxfam, Oxford 1993, p. 4.

[3]Harriet Bradley, Men’s Work, Women’s Work – A Sociological History of the Sexual Division of Labour in Employment, Polity Press, Oxford 1989, p.30.

[4]Bradley, P.239.

[5]Mosse, Half The World Half a Chance, p. 6.

[6]Christine Bradley, “Why Male Violence Against Women is a Development Issue – Reflection from Papua New Guinea”, in Miranda Davies ed., Women and Violence, Zed books, London 1994, p. 25.

[7] Mosse, p. 6.

[8] Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, Heinemann, 1987.

[9]First Pronouncements of Victoria Woodhull published in the New York Herald in 1870.


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