By Ghausia Rashid Salam
Discriminatory attitudes towards females begin at home, in the form of discrimination against the girl child. These are normalised cases of gender-based discrimination, as boys are told not to be a girl if they show ‘too much emotion’. Girls are expected to eat less because their bodies demand less, because they don’t need to be physically strong like boys. Girls are supposed to be well-groomed and made conscious of their body-image. Whereas for boys to be well-groomed is a rare oddity, because ‘boys will be boys’ and they run around and are physically active. In comparison, a girl child engaging in the same physical activity is referred to as a tomboy.
In educational institutions, sexist attitudes are reinforced when teachers tell young girls to behave a certain way, to be less boisterous. This can be damaging when pubescent girls are told that they are delicate when they start menstruating. It’s surprising how harmful myths about female health prevail in our society, limiting the physical activity of young girls and women during menstruation. This discrimination translates into social attitudes as well; how many times have women been dismissed, particularly by men, called “hysterical”, “emotional”, or asked,
“are you on your period?” The generalisation of women as emotional creatures, constantly at the mercy of their hormones, is one of the most harmful forms of sexism. It brings into question the capabilities of women, which manifests itself in multiple ways. Salma Jafri, founder of WordPL.net, discovered at a job interview that she would not be hired because the CEO knew that “girls of this family get married to become housewives”. This is just one example of the many ways sexist hiring policies impact women.
Benevolent sexism can also be found in educational institutions. As children are socialised into gender roles, where girls are told that they are emotionally sensitive, physically fragile, boys are told by misinformed parents that they must treat girls with kindness because they are ever-so-frail. Not only is this reinforcing negative gender stereotypes on young girls but it’s also teaching boys that they must carry heavy burdens, open doors — not for everyone, but specifically women. This is the most common example of ‘chivalrous’ sexism and it’s a most ridiculous behaviour to engage in.
What’s distressing is that women often don’t challenge sexism because they have been dealing with it almost their entire lives and accept it as a part of life. This is how deep the roots of sexism run. How does one condense sexist media to one column? From ads that show women only as mothers, daughters, homemakers, to TV shows hailed as revolutionary for recycling the same sexist stereotypes, to media celebrities that opine women should not be allowed to drive, our media is a seething cesspool of rampant sexism that reinforces discriminatory social attitudes.
Make no mistake, the perpetuation of discriminatory attitudes does not occur in a vacuum. Sexism begins when, as a society, people believe that women are inferior or inadequate in some way, and therefore must be treated differently. Sexist attitudes and behaviour only reinforce this belief, making it stronger. So why is this such a problem? Because social attitudes do not only determine the treatment of women.
Socially-sanctioned discrimination impacts educational institutions, gendered wage gaps, hiring policies, government policies and laws, how girls are treated at home, and what sort of social expectations burden the progress of women, linguistic sexism which uses language as a tool for devaluing and discriminating against women. Sexism is not the only hindrance that women face in a patriarchal society, but its overt presence needs to be acknowledged as a social issue.
The best way to tackle sexism is by reforming language. Urdu is a beautifully expressive language, and does not deserve to be vilified with misogynist phrases such as haath par mehendi lagayi hai (have you applied henna on your hands). Similarly, English needs to be gender-neutral, not just in everyday interaction but on an institutional level as well. We also need to redefine gender roles because they play a great part in forming a gender-discriminatory mindset. Most importantly, we need to recognise sexism as a legitimate form of discrimination that needs to be challenged, not just written or read about and then conveniently forgotten.