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The need for a paradigm shift in gender perception

Sep 14,2014 - Last updated at Sep 14,2014

In tracking the global gender gap index from 2006, when it was first developed, up to 2014, one finds that gender disparity is still evident even in the most developed and progressive countries, which have worked for decades to close this gap in various spheres.

Although there has been substantial development in the condition of women in the modern world, they are still under-represented in all domains.

Despite global efforts to eradicate all forms of discrimination against women, challenges still prevail. They include: wage gap, limited social mobility, restricted ownership, poverty, poor political participation, health threats, violence and foeticide.

To fight sex-based discrimination, some countries drew plans and implemented reforms to help eradicate the discriminatory processes, apparatuses and tactics that feed gender discrimination and naturalise gender roles.

However, men still enjoy a disproportionate share of society’s resources, rewards and privileges while women are often deprived of equal opportunities in education attainment, utilisation of competitiveness and talent, and freedom of choice.

Our part of the world, although genuinely willing to bring about the necessary changes, by exerting some effort in this regard, seems either to be going in the wrong direction or proceeding at a very slow pace.

Or maybe it is a world trapped in its own narrative of reform, still struggling to transcend rhetoric, ceremonies and PowerPoint presentations.

What is the gender scene like in the modern Arab world?

Although there have been “efforts” in the last two-and-a-half decades to import various paradigms of reform that would help build an environment compatible with “democracy” and “equality”, the Arab world still ranks the highest in gender imbalance.

In Jordan, there is an ongoing “effort” to modify curricula for the intended purpose of attaining gender equity.

Unfortunately, modifications in curricula were themselves subject to various gender-related discriminatory practices.

Women, for example, are almost completely erased from history books as founders, scientists and reformists; their contribution to state or nation building is completely ignored; they are deliberately erased from the Arab and Islamic memory and the archives of scientific advancement and evolution.

Instead, they are mentioned in general as sacrifices, victims of tribulations and beneficiaries of salvation, a narrative that has perpetuated stereotypes of women’s fragility, vulnerability, incompetence and passivity and projects women as emotional and incompetent for leadership.

Generally speaking, women’s roles are still viewed within the “personal” sphere of sexuality and the family. They are either the biological machines of reproduction or a symbol of the nation’s honour.

A woman’s best choice is still to marry and beget children. Her worst fate, in case she is believed as not maintaining the “honour” of the family through preserving her chastity, is to be killed.

Being a woman, thus, often means a perpetuation of her biologically determined roles, subservience and acceptance of violence against her.

Why have women, in the Arab world and elsewhere, always been biologically and culturally undermined in a systematic way?

Why have they been always subject to gender discrimination, subordination and objectification?

Why do women in top positions always face a backlash if they act in a way that does not fit within the confines of the male conduct?

Feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak eloquently captured the gender relations, saying that “women are men’s colony”. Many feminists consider sex-based discrimination as one of the oldest and worst forms of apartheid in the history of humanity.

Such philosophical or ideological notions can have devastating effects on women’s status in society.

Think about the impact sexist practices against women has on children, young people and society at large.

What messages are conveyed when women are deprived of the legitimate right to pass their citizenship on to their family members, when the legal accountability of the rapist is blurry and the killing of women is “honoured”?

What messages are sent to the world when polygamy, which some men abuse, is naturalised?

There is a need for drastic changes: A revolution within language and culture to bring about gender parity, a paradigm shift in our thinking habits, our collective consciousness and value system.

We need to transform the society’s mindset from one favouring discrimination and sexism to one open to and supportive of gender equality.

The high cost incurred by the state, society and individuals because of the low rate of women representation in the labour force and decision-making spheres should no longer be tolerated.

It is time to talk freely and transparently about our problems, challenges and threats — high among which is gender-specific discrimination — and admit them in order to start the long process of recovery.

The first two domains where we should start working are school curricula and state legislation.

The writer, professor at the American University of Madaba, is a consultant on gender studies and feminist theories for several national and regional associations. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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