“I want us to start with university students, to give girls opportunities for leadership and to build their confidence while they are still studying,” said one of our colleagues. This is a common sentiment among many in Tanzania’s middle class, that women’s welfare rests on them seeing what they could become and having the capacity to rise up to it.
I said to this colleague, in Australia girls are told they can do anything they want to, yet there is still a swathe of other factors that communicate just the opposite, and keep women down. Women and girls need more than confidence building: they need structural change.
Tanzanians genuinely believe the myth westerners peddle that women are more liberated in the west, so our colleague was surprised by my comments. (We have also recently covered the myths that Australia does not have a problem with racism, and has a more pure theology than Africa.) He asked me to share what those other factors are that oppress women.
Here’s what I said:
1. The peril of prominence for women.
Though we tell women they can do anything, in reality, successful or prominent women are mocked, slandered, ridiculed and denigrated in a way that prominent men are not. It’s not always on the basis of their gender but it’s often in highly gendered language and accompanied by a double standard. Think of Julia Gillard’s responsibilities as a daughter becoming fodder for public discussion, or Sarah Hanson Young’s sex life. My own academic success was cast by one man as a sign that I was a poor wife who neglected my husband. The net result is that while we tell women to strive for achievement, they can see that this also places them in the firing line in a unique way.
2. Beauty and sexualisation
The images of women we see in advertising and media are narrow (white, skinny, sleek, made up) and often airbrushed and photoshopped until they are altogether completely unrealistic. To look like one of these women takes enormous effort – effort that could be put into other pursuits. We communicate this to little girls, where if they are permitted to picture themselves as successful or smart, they must do so with pink accessories. After all, success in a field is often dependent on being ‘likeable’, which often translates into being physically appealing. Furthermore, because this appeal is often cast in sexual terms, it is logical to think that your value lies in your body’s sex appeal. Steve Jobs wearing a turtleneck, jeans and sneakers every day is a sign that he is focused on other things, Stephanie Jobs doing the same thing is perceived to lack respect for herself and others.
3. Scrutiny and criticism
Choice is often portrayed as a good thing for women, but it is rarely free. I gave my colleague the example of children’s sleep. Though the South Australian government mandates babies sleeping in a cot, there are other groups that encourage co-sleeping. I found this choice terrifying and paralysing as a new mum. Whatever I went with, it seemed I was making a life or death decision for my child! But then, I was told I was doing the wrong thing by worrying, and ought to just do what I wanted to (whatever that was?!), so then I felt guilty about agonising about which one to go with! And that’s just sleep! We could talk about any number of other parenting issues and the cost women pay for the pressure exerted on them. Women’s professional paths is another hot topic which is often spoken about in terms of personal choice but is in reality a complex confluence of structural factors at multiple levels of society.
4. Leadership is male
“Women’s leadership” needs the adjective. Otherwise it’s just “leadership”, because men leading is default. For women, the default is nurturing, and this is associated with weakness and softness, generally unpaid or poorly paid professions. When women stray into the male arena, if they conduct themselves like men they are perceived as bossy, aggressive and altogether un-followable. They must make a choice between their femininity or leadership, but un-feminine women leaders are derided (see 1) and feminine women who are not leaders are sexualised (see 2).
5. Women’s lives are less valuable than men’s
In Australia, the stories we tell are about men: the convict, the bushranger, the digger, the sportsman. Women are by and large invisible in our national stories or confined to one page of the history books. And so it is men’s lives that we find compelling. Think of the attention given to the occasional “coward punch” while one woman in Australia is killed every week because of domestic violence. But then, when women tell us about domestic violence, we don’t believe them, or we assume it’s their fault. You can tell women they are valuable, but this needs to be backed up by actually valuing women’s lives and voices.
In the next post I’ll share how my colleague responded to these issues.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.