Our socially-constructed attitudes and expectations have restricted women from reaching their full potential
One of the more contemporary pressing global agendas is: Making the world better for women.
Women face myriad oppressions in our society. Hence, social development interventions try to engage and make aware about various forms of violence they face in daily life, teach them to speak up for their rights, protest violence, etc. SOS buttons were introduced on different digital applications in addition to hotline numbers so that women can seek support if faced with violence.
Nonetheless, the world has not become “better” for women and, ironically, we are mostly focusing on the ways women can just survive in this troubled world.
Towards imaging a better future for women, why don’t we try to become or make better men?
It is a valid question as we -- men -- are letting ourselves slip as perpetrators in terms of various forms of violence against women. So, we must level up. We need to become better men by becoming better husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, friends, and so on. As such, we will also become better members of society.
But the tricky part of the puzzle is: What can we consider as features of a better man?
Those who commit violence against women may claim a “better” man should be strong and in control of the women. From their point of view, being in control of women proves manhood.
From childhood, all male children learn which colour to choose, what length of hair men should have, how should they sit, what they can say, how to behave, etc. Children are taught that “men do not cry.” If boys are not argumentative, they are bullied as having “female” traits.
Similar things happen for female children and we teach all females in our family to be subservient to their male counterparts. Existing norms and values have made sure that women do not speak up against discrimination and physical and/or psychological violence and rather accept the gender-based divisions and oppressions as inevitable.
We have raised today’s perpetrators of violence against women. Many of our social norms and values support discriminatory practices. In response, many development initiatives aim to increase women’s voices against the violence they face. But this is only treating the symptoms. Rather, we should put more focus on changing societal norms which act as root causes of gender-based prejudice and violence.
I think we as men have lost our way in finding our way to honour. Even though we have started to change ourselves, we position ourselves as the liberal segment of the populace by doing the bare minimum. Many of us still find it hard to equally share household work or assume responsibility over household finances. If we reflect on our daily lives, it will become clear that we still have expectations from women that limit their choices in life.
As we are accustomed to thinking that men are naturally more “gifted” than women, we take decisions that limit women’s possibilities. We take less care of our daughters’ or sisters’ education compared to that of our sons or brothers. We encourage women to let go of big roles and prioritize their family, and thereby expect them to sacrifice their careers.
We raise our sons as people on whom we will depend in the future and daughters as those who will leave after marriage. Thus, women are socially burdened to make sacrifices. We -- men -- in our diverse relations with women, restrict them from opportunities that we enjoy by default.
The world has progressed a lot and women arguably have achieved some advancements in transgressing conventional gender roles. But we have much more to do. Women still make all the sacrifices so that men can achieve more in the “desired” productive roles. Many toppers in universities, because of motherhood and not getting enough support from the family members, must let go of their dreams or carry double the burden and stress.
We socially condition women to think of themselves as being inferior to men. Having positioned themselves in a subordinate position, women always hesitate to raise questions against such assumptions. Such an upbringing additionally makes it hard for us -- men -- to accept women as strong, intelligent, or more successful than men.
The problem in our social spectrum stubbornly persists, owing to the way we explain inexplicable behaviours and attitudes of men towards women. We treat dominating behaviours of men as “men will be men.” Similarly, it is believed women cannot lead as they are “programmed to follow instructions.” These mindsets have lifelong repercussions.
In our society, men are used to getting undue attention and privileges. So, egalitarian men face backlash and stigma. Collaborative and power-sharing men are evaluated by both men and women as less competent and less masculine. As we believe, men are by default better than women; if some men are less successful than women of a cohort, we treat them as “weak” or not up to the mark. Our social ideologies produce an inability to accept women as superiors.
Our discriminatory attitudes favour men and create socio-moral barriers for women. It will only change if we can challenge what has been fed to us unconsciously for ages. We must accept that women or men, anybody can be better than anybody and it is not a gender game. More importantly, it is not a zero-sum game. If women get more honour, it does not reduce the honour of men in society.
Tangibly, we can become better men by listening to women, respecting them, and being ready to be uncomfortable in changing our age-old restraining attitudes. We should be committed to letting go of sexism, machoism, and patriarchy in our everyday interactions.
Nonetheless, first and foremost, accept that our socially-constructed attitudes and expectations have restricted women from reaching their full potential.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.