One that is free from gender-based violence, where women feel safe
The UN System’s 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence (GBV) -- a campaign from November 25 to December 10 -- aims to make the world free of GBV. However, the pervasiveness of GBV raises the question: Can we imagine such a different world -- free from gender inequality, dominance, and oppression -- in the future?
Begum Rokeya imagined a utopian world in her 1905 short story Sultana’s Dream. It depicts a world -- Ladyland -- where contemporary gender roles are completely reversed. In this technologically advanced future, women hold dominant leadership roles in running everyday affairs and men are subservient and practice seclusion by adhering to the social norms of personal conducts, ie, purdah.
With this utopian vision of a “new world” in mind, as a man, I feel an awkward cringe. This personal feeling also suggests that we have created a ridiculous and insensitive world for women -- half of humanity.
If we can imagine a future where no gender-based inequality will exist, the next question that appears before us is: How can we strive towards such a fair world?
Before, answering this question, I will respond to another question: Why has an unequal/violent/oppressive world for women appeared? To find the answer, we may have a look at the historical transformation of human society through which men became possessors of more decision-making power than women.
Historical tracing of GBV
A historical account of the emergence of women’s oppression, GBV to be precise, will become apparent if we have a look at the history of evolution of marriage, and the origins of private property and family. As Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State has argued, exclusive sexual rights to a woman or man, ie, monogamy, evolved historically along with the appearance of private property.
The development of an exclusive right of sexuality of a person corresponded to the idea of private property in human history. Consequently, women’s sexuality came under men’s control. The goal was to ensure inheritance to a man’s offspring, and women were confined within the homesteads. A female child has thus become less desirable than a male child -- the birth of a daughter thereby leads to miserable conditions for many women in Bangladesh.
In many parts of the country it is accepted that a husband has the right to physically assault his wife if denied sex. A 2008 report by Schuler and Islam showed, more than 80% of married women in some Bangladeshi villages believe that “wife beating is right or acceptable.”
With the origin of private property and the spread of capitalistic ideas, women’s subjugation became a stronghold. Gradually, the concept of chastity, that women must be preserved for honour, validated men’s control and encouraged women’s acceptance of the norms that in the long run has resulted in the inferior status of women -- for instance, the crude division between household tasks for women and income generating activities for men, ie, the private versus the public sphere.
Within our value system, sexual violence is regarded as an intrusion in the most intimate sphere of a person or in some cases, of the family, clan, or even an entire nation. Thus, by sexual violence, only the individual person is not affected, it is a ploy that can be used to humiliate the entire nation.
Because of the socio-cultural standing about women’s honour, women hesitate to speak up against injustice and violence. Moreover, their inferior status contributes to the culture of impunity; women in Bangladesh usually feel unsafe and remain concerned about the implications of reporting any violence against men. ActionAid in 2020 revealed, as much as 65% of women feel that if they complain, the law enforcers/society would blame them rather than the perpetrator.
Creating an equitable future for us
Now, I seek attention to some propositions for realizing a gender equal and GBV-free future. To change the world for the better -- not only for women but for humanity at large -- we must principally break away from the ideals of existing gender roles.
Primarily, we must let go of the concept of a “good woman.” In many instances, societal ideas encourage women, the family, and society to endure GBV against women and ignore the emotional trauma women go through to achieve socially established goals.
To become a “good” woman -- daughter, sister, wife, and mother -- specifically, working women must accept the double burdens of earning and household maintenance, as many of us experienced in our families during the recent lockdown days due to Covid-19.
Even we -- men, who claim to be liberals -- did not assume equal household maintenance tasks. We must first recognize that there are no such tasks that only women should do. Even though it is ingrained in us through a socialization process, we must take up serious efforts to change ourselves.
Because of the societal norms that encourage being a “good” wife, women continue to suffer intimate partner violence. Breaking away from unequal societal expectations, we will more readily acknowledge the urgency of seeking remedies from all forms of psycho-social and physical violence that women suffer at different stages of life since birth.
In the process, women will speak up more against unjust social expectations. This is important as during last eight months -- as the world retreated inside homes due to the lockdown measures -- we witnessed an alarming increase of violence against women within and outside homes.
Hence, we must challenge the social concepts that promote a feminine or masculine avatar in us. We must not teach our children to become a good man or good woman, rather to become a good person.
Beside spectacular campaigns, we all must make little changes in our attitudes towards gender roles and relations. If we start questioning the taken-for-granted attitudes, expectations, and behaviours associated with men and women, we start to imagine a newer and more equitable world, where no one will be treated unfairly because of their gender.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.