Every year, we celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, to highlight the wonderful progress we have made in terms of women’s rights. This is a great opportunity to remind ourselves of the problem of gender inequality, especially as it relates to women and girls, but, at the same time, we need to widen the scope of feminism and all that it stands for.
To think that “feminism” is all about women or their rights, is missing the underlying problem, which is gender inequality, an issue that affects every single person regardless of gender. If you’re reading this article right now, you are affected by gender inequality in one way or another, whether it’s through the way someone else treats you based on your gender, or through the behaviours or social roles you learned early on in your life that hold you back from doing the things you want to do.
Gender equality, and how it affects you
One of the basic ways it affects young people is through the gender roles and expectations assigned to them as children. Certain emotions are more typically expected (and accepted) coming from girls rather than boys.
Girls are comforted when they’re sad or crying, but boys are punished for the same behaviour. If you’re a girl, you’re likely to be rewarded for behaviours such as being nice, caring and cooperative. If you’re a boy, however, your parents are more likely to praise you for speaking up, being good at activities such as sports and taking charge of things.
When girls and boys are praised for exhibiting such different behaviours, they grow up with an imbalance in their range of abilities. This is why so many girls have little confidence in themselves and often experience feelings of low self-worth. As a girl, have you ever had the experience of not feeling confident enough to raise your hand in class even though you may have known the answer to a teacher’s question?
On the other hand, boys who are encouraged to take charge of every situation can sometimes fail to notice other people’s perspectives/needs because, as children, they were not trained in skills such as empathy (the ability to notice and share another person’s feelings). Moreover, since they’re often taught to act independently, they can fail to ask for help when they need it; this ends up leading to depression and loneliness in the long run.
Unfortunately, the entire spectrum of human qualities and skills has been divided in half between women and men. You know what that means? That we’re all operating at only 50 percent of our potential.
Can you imagine how different each person, and the world, would be if we learned the full spectrum of all the wonderful human potential each of us is born with?
What’s the basis of gender inequality?
We are all extremely talented when we’re born, but as we grow up, we’re encouraged to pursue different activities, praised in different ways, and pressurised to conform to behaviours traditionally defined as either feminine or masculine. For example, boys are encouraged to play with mechanical toys (airplanes, robots, etc.) whereas girls are supposed to play with dolls. It is not surprising, then, that there are so few women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
According to the psychologist Anders Erickson, the only kind of “gift” or natural talent that humans possess is our brain and body’s ability to adapt or “learn” new patterns and behaviours. There is really no discernible difference between the natural abilities of men and women. The differences that do emerge later on in life are actually “learned”; and what’s learned can always be unlearned.
What really is feminism?
Feminism is the belief in the equality of the sexes, but it is often mistaken as the fight for women’s rights alone, which makes sense. Historically, women have faced a great deal of discrimination, injustice and lack of opportunities, and they continue to do so because we live in a patriarchal world in which men hold most of the power and enjoy greater opportunities than women.
Even though men have more power, they’re also suffering under the limitations of patriarchy just as women are, because patriarchy is a social system that forces them to act in limited ways that are stereotypically defined as “masculine” (e.g., not expressing emotion, which is psychologically harmful and often keeps them from seeking help in difficult times).
According to the writer and feminist Gloria Steinem, “A feminist is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men”.
This means that men need feminism as much as women do. Not only that, “full humanity” implies that we must expand our narrow definition of gender, and instead claim all of our human feelings and abilities.
New feminism: A journey to being fully human
Before we identify with labels such as male and female, we’re all simply human. We share 99.9 percent of our DNA with each other. We have the same array of human emotions (27 in total) and the same abilities, so there’s no reason to divide up our talents or, by extension, the kind of work we choose as adults.
Research by Jordi Quoidbach et al. reveals that emotional diversity (i.e. the range and number of emotions you experience) is a better predictor of physical and mental health than your overall positive or negative emotions. So if you want to be physically and mentally fit, you have to step out of the more habitual emotions you’re allowed to feel and instead start being aware of other ones you may be ignoring.
For instance, girls are encouraged to be nice all the time, so they often suppress their anger or mask it as sadness (which is more socially acceptable). Since all emotions are basically signals — and anger is a signal that something in your life is unfair and needs to be fixed — by suppressing that signal you may be creating more and more resentment in your life.
This is why we need to change our perception of feminism to address the gender-based issues we face every day. Let us redefine feminism as the active practice of breaking out of gender stereotypes and into embracing our full humanity and full potential.
How to be a new feminist?
Here are some cool ideas arising from the core of feminism that are worth discovering.
Shift your perspective
Often, there’s a lot of rivalry when it comes to girls and boys, which is a myopic way to look at the issue. Why not remind ourselves instead that the only fight we’re fighting is the one against the most pressing issues of the world? It is only by joining forces — and not by opposing each other — that we can use our collective creativity and full capacity to solve the worldwide issues we face today, including gender inequality itself.
Learn from the other side
Another way to look at the issue is through the perspective of skill acquisition. How can you improve aspects of yourself that were not developed enough because of your stereotypical upbringing?
In my life, I’m learning the art of assertiveness from my brothers who can speak up fearlessly (sometimes on my behalf) about things that I’m terrified to voice.
In the same way, my brothers have benefitted from my discussions around the practice of compassion and forgiveness, and developing the skill of perspective-taking in difficult situations.
Ask the opinions of your friends and family. How do they think gender inequality affects them (and you)? One of the reasons gender norms have such a powerful hold on us is that they’re often unconsciously upheld. Once you begin to discuss them with other people, you’ll become aware of ways they’re affecting your life and the lives of others.
Read about it
If you want to explore feminism in greater details, read books on the topic. Feminism is for Boys by Elizabeth Rhodes has beautiful illustrations and a great message: that boys can be feminists too.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions is a wonderful book by the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book started as an email from the author to one of her friends who wanted to know how to raise a feminist daughter, so it’s very short and written in a conversational, easy-to-read style.
Once you’ve learned the fundamental ideas of new feminism, you need explain what that means. There are a lot of misconceptions about the essence of feminism which need to be dispelled. Share what you learn so that others can be inspired and join you on the journey to realising the full human potential we all have within us.
Act on it
At heart, being a new feminist is about recognising how the concept of gender may be holding you back on a daily basis. Have you ever felt that you couldn’t do something because it was too girlish/too boyish?
Whether it’s a specific class you wanted to take at school, or a simple behaviour you wanted to adopt, identify whatever it is, and start to believe that you can do it because you have the same human potential as anyone else.
Make the 2020s a time for change
2020 is a great year to begin a new page in the worldwide dream for equality. It’s the start of a fresh decade, and by the end of this new decade, you — the readers of this magazine — will have grown into wonderful, socially responsible adults who’ll be able to make this world a place where biases and inequality are a thing of the past.
The 2020s are going to be a beautiful period full of progress and prosperity for everyone. But remember that it all starts with you: little new feminists marching together into the world with your full potential, fierce hearts, and big, fearless dreams.
Published in Dawn, Young World, March 14th, 2020