Tag Archives: Justice

Socially Constructed Gender Roles: The Root of All Evil

For me, inequality is the biggest issue facing humanity today because it is inequality that is the root cause of so many of the world’s problems. Environmental degradation– inequality in resource distribution and power relations. War- inequality between nations. Poverty and violence- inequality between individuals. I’m sure you’re wondering where socially constructed gender roles come into all this.

From the time the sex of a fetus is known, even before it is born, its gender is being socially constructed for it, telling it how a good boy/girl should look, sound, act, and think. This socialization process continues on everyday for the rest of one’s life. Every society and every family have their own ideas as to how a good boy or girl should be, and these ideas are consciously and subconsciously taught to children from the moment they are born.

As soon as a child is birthed in the United States it is wrapped in pink if it’s a girl and blue if it’s a boy so that the whole world has a visual cue of whether or not it’s appropriate to call the baby “tiny and pretty” or “big and strong.” The first question everyone asks when a child is born is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” (totally denying the existence of intersex people) because the answer shapes the entirety of how other people will relate to this tiny human being. And what is a socially acceptable way to relate to people of the same and the opposite sex varies greatly across time and culture. Many, many people have done research and explained this phenomena much better than I can with this post.

Now, I know some readers are thinking “What’s the big deal? Girls like pink, and they like to be called pretty. Boys are supposed to be strong.” This is where the fault lies. Yes, there are biological differences between the sexes, I am not denying that, but to demand that on the basis of external genitalia one child play with trucks and one with dolls is like trying to push a rabbit through a key hole– you may eventually succeed but it will be messy and not without serious injury.

This separation of the genders, the dichotomy of man/woman, is dangerous and illogical, for man can only be defined by what he is not: woman, and vice versa. The danger lies in dichotomies themselves for the most basic pairing is good/bad, therefore in any other dichotomy society forms one side will equate to good and one side to bad (masculine/feminine, light/dark, straight/gay etc.).

From this we learn as young children that men are rational, strong, and intelligent AND that these are the traits a leader must embody. To contrast, we learn that women are emotional, fragile, and intuitive and that these traits are not suited to leadership. Therefore if a woman wants to become a leader, wants her voice to be respected and heard, she must take on “masculine” traits at great risk to her femininity and marriageability. At the same time if a man embodies the “feminine” qualities of being emotional, fragile and intuitive, he is seen as less than a man and inherently unworthy of respect.

Women in nearly all societies around the world at disadvantaged from the moment they are born simply because the rules have been written to favor males. For a very long time women in the US were relegated to the private sphere, if they had the class privilege, and men were expected to be in the public sphere. Again, the dichotomy here public/private reinforces what is important and what is “personal” and therefore unimportant, respectively.

The male norm of reference (ie. when someone says, “Think of a person,” most people think of a man) means that women are expected to be able to physically and emotionally act like men if they are to compete in the public sphere while men who wish to stay home and care for their children, though ridiculed for their choices, are not expected to give up their “masculine” traits. Sports and physical strength is the best example of this. Over and over again in opposition to the idea that men and women should be equal is the statement that men and women are not physically equal. True. Yet, the definition of what physical strength is was written to describe a man! Practically all sports were invented by men and then when women cannot best men at their own game they are considered undeserving of equality???

Such strong messages are sent to children from a very early age as “Boys don’t cry” and “Good girls sit with their knees together” are uttered across America. This idea that to be “ladylike” is to take up as little space as possible, while men are encouraged to show their physical abilities by taking up as much space as possible, not only reinforces the sexist public/private dichotomy but also leads to low self-esteem and eating disorders.

What we tell children they are, can be and should do has a profound impact on each individual child. If a child grows up being told s/he can do and be whatever s/he wants, that child will usually believe it, whether or not success is to follow. For children who grow up in poverty whose parents don’t have the time, resources or role models to encourage their children to great heights, those children will unfortunately probably continue to live in the cycle of poverty.

The same is true of gender expectations. If a young boy is playing and scrapes his knees he is told to buck up and so, stops crying, at which point some loving adult says “Boys will be boys.” Check that article out for a great POV on how gender roles harm boys too. In many families the same scenario with a daughter would play out quite differently, if a young girl scraped her knees playing she might be chided for being “too tomboyish” while the loving adult in her life will lament that now she won’t look pretty in her Sunday dress.

I maintain that this most basic reinforcement of inequality that permeates every single component of our lives, is the basis for and the rationale behind anyone’s ability to perpetuate inequality on any other level. It is no shock that the leaders of most companies that perpetuate environmental degradation and most of the world’s powerful politicians are male, that most violence in the world is carried out by males, and that most of the world’s poor are women. Men (and women) have been taught all their lives that men are better, and to be “good masculine men” they must be physically dominant, stoic, and decisive. It is no surprise these traits carry over into their leadership styles which then impact every aspect of life and maintain inequality.

This is not to say, in any way, that there are not brave, heroic men and women and intersex people all over the world fighting against inequality. Everyday people risk their lives fighting against environmental degradation, war and poverty, and speak out against violence against women, children, the elderly, the disabled and the LGBTQAI community. (See what I mean about the male norm of reference! If you’re not a young, nondisabled, straight white male you’re the Other.)

Every fight against injustice and inequality is a good one and worth the fight (as long as its nonviolent… and we’ll get in to strategy in another post) but those hoping for true equality will always fall short of the mark if they do not address the underlying cause of all inequalities: gender inequality caused by socially constructed gender roles. The following quote by Graça Machel, President of the Foundation for Community Development Chair of the GAVI Fund Board, explains this well.

“Without gender equality none of the Millennium Development Goals will be achieved. That is why this report is so valuable. ‘Because I am a Girl’ documents the impact of gender inequality on the lives of girls. It shows clearly and powerfully that our failure to make an equal, more just world has resulted in the most intolerable of situations. In today’s world, to discriminate on the basis of sex and gender is morally indefensible; economically, politically and socially unsupportable.”

So, by now, I hope you’re salivating wondering how you can help eradicate all forms of inequality from racism to ageism by challenging socially constructed gender roles. It’s easy! All you have to do is speak out when someone makes a blanket statement such as “All women get excited to get their hair done,” or “All men love cars;” buy gender neutral toys for any little ones in your life; equally cite examples of men, women, transgender, intersex, nondisabled, and disabled leaders of all races, ages and classes; support marriage equality; speak out against militarization (more on this in another post); and volunteer with your local women’s organization.

Ok, you don’t have to do all of it. But if you did, you would be amazing, and would be rapidly contributing to worldwide equality. The biggest, and easiest thing you can do is to just ask “WHY?” If someone makes a blanket statement, start a conversation about gender roles. If someone challenges your offering of a gift like a deck of cards or marbles with “Why didn’t you get him/her a present that is more masculine/feminine?” they are obviously ungrateful, but it is a good point for you to ask why it is so important to that person that the child be lead in one direction or the other.

I genuinely do not understand the apprehension people have about equality between the sexes, nor do I understand the archaic clinging-to of scripted gender roles. Strength, emotionality, intelligence, intuition, and anything else that can be described as either “masculine” or “feminine” are simply HUMAN traits, and should be treated as such. Henceforth some boys would become strong stoic men and some girls would become passive emotional women but there would also be space in society for strong emotional men, passive emotional men, strong emotional women, and strong stoic women, in addition to space being opened up for intersexed and transgender people.

I am not advocating all women disregard their feminine traits or men throw off their masculinities, rather, I want everyone to be free to be who s/he is without coercion from society telling them they are too this or not enough that. The world would not exist without balance, and socially constructed gender roles brazenly defy any balance within an individual because certain qualities have been labeled as being “boys only” or “girls only.” Every single one of us needs to embrace the “feminine” and “masculine” traits within us and not being afraid to flout tradition. (See the article below at pinkisforboys for a great discussion on the problem of naming with respect to “feminine” and “masculine”… the fact that I can’t think of any other way to describe these traits that isn’t gendered is proof of the problem!)

This post has gotten longer than I expected it to be, but I never want to leave you without a complete understanding of where I am coming from in fighting gender inequality. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, links, or information please join the discussion in the comments. And love one another!

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Religion and Modest Dress

France has certainly stirred up quite a storm with their recent enforcement of a ban on the niqab, one version of the hijab that covers the face, in addition to the hair. Women who cover their faces in public will be subject to fines and citizenship lessons. While everyone has an opinion, finally including Muslim women in the debate over niqab/hijab is a huge first-step to overcoming the political wedge being driven between courageous women on both sides by right-wing groups.

As stated previously, women’s identities occur ”in the context of a racistclassistsexist society which places greater value on people who are fully able-bodied and young. Our personal experiences often parallel the experiences of women with whom we identify…. When we foster discussion as to who is the most… oppressed, we encourage the colonialist tactic of divide and conquer.” (Shah, Sonia. 1997. “Women and Gender Issues” http://www.asian-nation.org/gender.shtml). All women must first listen to each other, and then come together to support each other’s rights.

There are many, many things to consider when discussing hijab, the principle of modest dress in Islam, including the fact that observant men are also expected to dress modestly, how laws regarding expression of religion will affect various women, and why women wear outward expressions of religion in the first place. Many Islamic scholars argue that the niqab is a cultural relic and not a true observance of Islam, which adds another layer to the debate.

As an Atheist and someone who is uneducated about the world’s religions, I do not like to discuss the topic; as a feminist and someone who is concerned about every individual’s right to express her/himself, I will now delve into the common principle of modest dress found in the three Abrahamic faiths.

One of the many things Islam, Christianity and Judaism have in common is the principle of modest dress. Each of these three major religions also has followers the scale the spectrum from excruciatingly devout to merely a follower in name alone, and their outward expressions of their faiths reflect this. Here in Turkey, because a religion is strongly encouraged to be included on the birth certificate of a newborn, many parents state that their children are Muslim, with no intention of ever stepping foot in a mosque. Consequently some young women whose families force them to cover their hair rebel by wearing lots of make-up and tight “Western” clothing too. Likewise, many American families are “Christian” but do not attend church or actively practice the religion. This is to say nothing of those people, in any faith, who practice their faiths only in their houses of worship and are bad people everywhere else.

In Judaism the principle of Tzniut requires Orthodox men to dress modestly (no short-sleeved shirts or shorts) and women to cover from their collarbones to their elbows to their knees, not wear open-toed shoes or pants, wear demure colors, clothing that does not show their shape, and, if they are married, to cover their hair. Because many married Orthodox Jewish women often cover their hair with wigs they are perceived as less “frightening” than Muslim women who wear a headscarf. Jewish men too are expected to dress modestly and cover their heads out of respect for God.

Anyone who has ever been to Catholic school can tell you that nuns are scary. And while the habit is not required of regular practitioners of Catholicism, the only women allowed to serve as authorities under the Catholic Church are required to wear black, shapeless dresses and cover their hair. Other branches of Christianity also encourage modest dress, with some practicing women not allowed to wear pants or show their figure. Also the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Dunkard Brethren, among other Christian denominations, require simplicity and modesty in the dress, including head covering, of all followers.

While many of the world’s religions require followers to cover their heads, rarely is covering the face a requirement, and if it is, it is only required of women. In Catholicism women were expected for centuries to wear a veil in church, the difference here being that in Islam women are encouraged to hide themselves from unrelated men, and in Catholicism, women are encouraged to hide themselves from God. I am a fan of neither of these ideas.

Unfortunately, these major religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, are all patriarchal in nature, with women’s voices traditionally being left out of the “written word of God.” Of course there are examples in each of the holy texts, the Qu’ran, the Bible and the Torah, of messages of love and peace and equality, but there are also a number of passages which promote violence or revenge or inequality. Interpretation is key to utilizing the idea of a loving God to promoting human rights, including the rights of women.

Oddly, both sides of the niqab ban debate claim to have women’s rights in mind. I find it sad, if laughable, that politicians and religious leaders alike raise the banner of women’s rights only when they have no other excuse for their actions (ie. Let’s invade Afghanistan to “liberate their women!“) If either the French government or the Islamic leaders in this debate were truly concerned about women’s rights, especially Muslim women’s rights, they would have been speaking out long ago about the racism, sexism and socio-economic disadvantages Muslim women face in Muslim and non-Muslim countries on a daily basis, to say nothing of opposition to war and drone attacks.

FEMINISTS have been speaking out against the mistreatment of women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, for decades, and yet our pleas for governments to change laws that truly can affect women’s lives have gone unnoticed. Muslim women’s groups and Islamic feminists have also been speaking out about the issues of concern to them… obviously their voices too go unheard since “veiling” is not usually amongst their biggest concerns. Poverty, education, healthcare, democracy, unemployment–these are the rights Muslim feminists are demanding. We cannot diminish their real needs by imposing our ideologies onto them.

Now, one of the most important ideas I learned in graduate school was this: Cultural relativism is one step away from racism. Let me explain. By excusing away some particular behavior as “cultural” we are condoning/allowing it and claiming there is no room, need or ability for change. “[Insert any race/ethnicity here] men beat their wives… but it’s part of their culture. Those people only send their children to school for two years… but it’s part of their culture.” These ideas are inherently the same as blatantly racist statements like “X people are stupid.” Thankfully we do cry out when culture/religion are used to torture and kill people- as in the picture above, but this retroactive lamenting of “cultural practices” still does nothing for the women being killed for being raped.

There are fundamental human rights that every individual on the planet should have access to. In my mind those (should) include: education, healthcare, food, water, shelter, clean air, the right to vote, economic opportunity, the right to form legal bonds, and freedom of speech, movement, assembly, demonstration, physical expression, sexuality, and yes, religion. Of course age and issues of consent arise with such things as sex and voting, but these are still fundamental rights.

The debate over whether or not the government has the right to ban certain types of religious dress is a quagmire. On the one hand, the government has a duty to uphold secularism, work towards gender equality and fight religious/gender oppression, and on the other hand, the government has a duty to protect its citizens’ rights to practice their faiths. The French government has taken the stand that face coverings in public are of such significance to the government that it is justified in denying personal rights.

I fully appreciate the arguments that many women do not really have a choice in wearing the niqab, that the niqab disappears women and takes away their individuality, that outward expressions of religion have no place in government offices or schools, and that in the name of security one’s face should not be hidden. I also appreciate the arguments that telling women what they cannot wear is just as oppressive as telling them what they can wear, that the niqab/abaya allows women to be appreciated for what they say and not how they look, that freedom of religious expression is a fundamental human right, and that not all Muslims are terrorists!

ALL WOMEN ARE JUDGED ON OUTWARD APPEARANCE. Women who wear hijab understand this as much as any woman, and sometimes choose to wear hijab out of rebellion against colonialism/government oppression/imperialism etc. Whether or not women are judged as being sexy enough for marriage material in the West or pious enough for marriage material in the East, what women wear is under constant scrutiny by other women, men, and society in general. Adopting standards of modesty specific to women objectifies women as much as encouraging women to show off does. In both cases women are to be seen, and then their worth determined.

Obviously my mind is not made up as to whether or not the ban is ethical/legal. My biggest concern with the ban, however, is the isolation it is likely to cause. Essentially, the French government is saying, “Either remove this expression of your religion (culture), or stay home,” further widening the chasm between the public and private spheres for women. Another of my concerns with the enforcement of this ban is class issues: French Muslim women who wear niqab will be fined or required to take classes in French citizenship, and the government of France is basically telling the women of the Gulf States, where niqab is the law, that they are not welcome unless they are willing to endanger themselves.

What is needed in this case is not a band-aid solution to the gaping wound that is women’s inequality. To tackle the underlying causes of why men and women are held to different standards in any situation we must start deconstructing socially constructed gender roles in every society. This is hard, dangerous work, but until women are no longer seen as property to be protected from the eyes of lustful men, (and the eyes of lustful men are rightly shamed into looking at their own feet!) we must educate ourselves and anyone who will listen as to the necessity, for men and women, in abolishing strict gender roles.


Day 25- SisterSong

To the readers who know me personally, the lack of discussions surrounding sex and reproductive rights and health has probably been puzzling. Sex, sexual rights, and sexual health are some of the areas about which I am most passionate. As Jean Kilbourne states in Killing Us Softly, sex is both more important and less important, than the advertising industry shows. I have not delved into sex/sexuality yet because it is such an intense topic and I have to be mentally prepared for it. Sunday’s blog will go in depth into the fight for sexual/reproductive rights in the US.

Today I want to introduce you to SisterSong, an amazing organization that is “building a movement for reproductive justice.” Reproductive justice is one of my favorite phrases in the English language. Put simplyRJ is “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.” In other words, reproductive justice explores women’s sexuality and reproductive health while fighting for individuals’ rights to make fully-informed decisions regarding every aspect of life from education to employment to the environment.

SisterSong is a Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. I know that all sounds really hippy feminist, and it is, but hear me out.  Let’s break it down: women of color includes any and all women who are marginalized by the imposed, socially-constructed racial heirarchy in the US, usually anyone who is not or does not appear to be white and does not benefit from the privileges of whiteness; reproductive justice, again, is a social movement that seeks to teach an understanding of sexual and reproductive health and rights issues as it relates to the framework of oppression women face in the US, including poverty, racism, ableism, ageism, and homophobia, in addition to sexism; finally, collective underscores the need for solidarity amongst women to not fall prey to the imperialist tactic of divide and conquer, as SisterSong explains: doing collectively what we cannot do individually.

The Goose Story explains members’ clear committment to the work they are doing and how vital a community of support can be. The SisterSong community includes Southern RJ Activists, the Latina Encuentro, Trust Black Women and these member organizations. SisterSong also produces Collective Voices, “the only national newspaper addressing reproductive health created and distributed by and for women of color….” They also recommend these publications and articles.

July 14-17 this year SisterSong will host its 2011 Let’s Talk About Sex Conference in Miami Beach. The theme this year is Love, Legislation and Leadership. Sistersong also offers three different levels of RJ training which are aimed at audiences of 10-20 people.

If you would like to support the work SisterSong does to end racial oppression and sexism you have a few options: you can register for their training sessions so that you will be more prepared and able to discuss RJ with anyone who will listen; you can donate to Trust Black Women to help continue the fight against racist billboards aimed at shaming black women into not asserting their right to choose; you can donate to help preserve Mother House, the historic home offices of SisterSong in Atlanta, Georgia; or you can donate to SisterSong’s Women of Color Scholarship Program to ensure that “women of color, working class communities, immigrant communities, and young women and students” have access to information and services surrounding SisterSong’s work.


The Personal Is Political

In honor of the transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month I want to explain this classic feminist idea: the personal is political.

People who say they have no interest in politics are at best apathetic and naïve and at worst complacent and heartless. Every single decision you make is political. From the huge life decisions you make–if and who you will marry (if you are legally able) and what you do for a living–to the miniscule, seemingly insignificant daily choices you make–what you will (or won’t) eat for lunch and which websites to log onto–every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Everything you say or don’t say, everything you do or don’t do, is all political. Choosing to marry an attractive person of the opposite sex but the same race and work only to make money have an impact on you, your family, your community, and your society. Choosing to eat only locally produced, fair trade, organic vegetables and log onto change.org also impacts every aspect of your life and the lives of those around you. I am not, yet, advocating for any particular choices. I am merely hoping to show you what power you have. Once you understand the responsibility that comes with being able to choose, it’s up to you to make the right choices for you.

To explore the power choice has, I want to examine two areas of life: partnership and food.

Most people living in the United States and following the marriage equality debates around the world understand just how political choosing a partner can be. While I do believe that who one is attracted to may be instinctual, who one choses to partner with is entirely political. Now, I know that this argument can and will be used to claim that LGBTQIA individuals should just suck it up and choose an “opposite sex” partner, (if that exists–see the Wiki discussion on intersex) but this is definitely not my intention. In fact, I would argue the opposite, that those who have the option to, and support equality,  should choose a “same sex” partner if only for political reasons. Obviously this is extreme but there are other partnering options individuals can choose while remaining true to the person (or people– go here for more info) they are genuinely attracted to.

One option “straight” people have to show their support for equality is to be vocal about it: have an opinion, tell people what you think, correct people when they make crude or ignorant statements. Another is to use gender-neutral language when talking about a partner; this shows that gender/sex is not the most important aspect of your relationship, and confuses people who think they know you are “straight.” Examples include saying spouse instead of husband/wife if you are legally able to be married, or partner instead of boyfriend/girlfriend if you are not legally committed. Many hetero couples also honor marriage equality by refusing to wed until and unless marriage equality is enacted. On the other hand, some people will only marry in places where marriage equality is the law, thus supporting the legal and economic state of equality. Choosing marriage, monogamy and one-on-one partnerships is political. The choice to reproduce, or not, is also an extremely loaded, highly politicized decision.

The food one eats and has access to is also political. If you cannot afford to shop at WholeFoods and buy most of your groceries from a WalMart, that is political, both for you and for society. Classism can wreak havoc on equality debates, especially when discussing speciesism. See this blog for a great discussion on classism from vegans. Merely being able to cut one entire food group (meat) from your diet is a luxury for many Americans who can barely afford to feed themselves and their children. Knowing where your food comes from, understanding the impact this item has had on the environment, and the people and animals affected by it, can severely change the choices you make. If what you’re eating is processed, where did the original ingredients come from? are they doused in chemical fertilizers and pesticides? who farmed them? were they paid a living wage? did they have any other work opportunities? When you start questioning everything you will begin to make choices that reflect what you care about, if you have that privilege.

I recently stopped eating chocolate. I am not a vegan, or even vegetarian. I do not eat meat often because it is expensive and I am poor. I do eat eggs regularly though, because they are inexpensive and readily available. Living in Turkey and not speaking Turkish my ability to know the source of my food is lessened. However, local bazaars are a wonderful place to buy fresh produce from small family farms. Unfortunately at the moment I cannot usually afford to buy from the farmers who say they use organic practices. My partner and I eat a lot of store-bought pasta and bread. It’s cheap and it keeps us alive and it is produced in Turkey where the minimum wage is somewhat livable. For now we have to take the chance that the pesticides used on the wheat fields won’t kill us. Small amounts of chocolate was one of the few luxuries I used to afford myself on my meager budget but recently I re-taught myself what damage the cocoa industry does to both the people and the environment. Watch this if you’re interested in learning about the oppression of the adults and children trafficked into work in the cocoa industry of the Ivory Coast and Mali. Once I learn which brands of chocolate that are sold here use fair trade labor I may go back to my chocoholic roots. If you live in the US here are some good chocolate options for you. Remember, every choice you make is political.

The ability to choose or not is also very political, as evidenced by the abortion debate in the US. Many feminists argue that women who are forced into prostitution because they have no other options except starvation are socio-politically being denied the right to choose. If you have the privilege of options, in any circumstance, weigh your choices carefully, for they affect you and everyone and everything around you profoundly. If you choose to take strategic nonviolent action and participate in a boycott of Hershey’s, you are recognizing your own power. Your personal decision will have an effect on the political climate of that company. And that company’s politics may affect you personally. (The Hershey’s plant in my hometown shut down and moved to Mexico after 41 years of being made in California, putting nearly 600 people, and their families out of work.)

The personal is political. Your choices matter, exercise them responsibly. You have a voice, you have power, you can make a difference. And you will if you choose carefully, and understand the political repercussions of your decisions.

Join me tomorrow (and every day in March!) to kick off Women’s History Month! Tomorrow’s discussion will be about Arab American and Middle Eastern American women’s activism in the United States. Any thoughts, links, and resources are welcome!


Welcome to Feminist Activism

Feminist Activism will be up and running just in time for Women’s History Month- March 2011. Feminist Activism will be a forum for discussion of all gender issues but the focus of discussion should always be “What can be done to overcome this particular inequality?” Dialogues surrounding socially constructed gender roles, feminisms, sexualities, identities and, in particular, strategic nonviolent activism, are highly encouraged. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”- Rev. Dr. MLK Jr.

In honor of Women’s History Month the first week of March will be dedicated to activism used to advance women’s equality in the United States. The second week will have a focus on international women’s actions- including International Women’s Day, March 8th. During the third week of March nonviolent action that has been taken to eradicate violence against women will be discussed. Finally, the fourth week of March will cover a range of topics in which women have used strategic nonviolent activism to meet their goals, possibly including sexuality/reproductive justice, (dis)ability, the environment, indigenous women’s rights, and class. Any suggestions, recommended readings, links, or favorite feminist/equality-focused quotes are more than welcome.


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