Gender inequality is a sensitive, yet significant issue. Gender inequality (i.e. discrimination) against women and girls affects their education opportunities, choice of career and even their economic advancement.
Gender discrimination is so embedded in many cultures that it has become normalized, people perceive it as being acceptable. Hence, trying to discuss gender inequality can result in extreme responses such as anger, or maybe denial. It is also common to receive responses of pure surprise from both genders, as if it is an issue that does not exist.
I will try here to my observations of gender discrimination that can be encountered in Oman, keeping in mind that this is not a study. Omani culture is diverse, and is not homogenous.
In my experience, gender discrimination usually starts from day one of a child’s life. Many Omanis still celebrate the birth of a boy more than they celebrate the birth of a girl. You see, a boy carries the tribe’s family name, and thus keeps it going while the girl will be married one day, and her children will take their father’s name.
Until recently (and still today, with many families) an educated woman was considered a person who deserves less respect than an educated man. I believe this was the case worldwide at some point and time, which is why many female intellectuals throughout history used male pen names to publish their work. This is exactly why we did not have many female contributors in science, politics, etc, as this was totally unacceptable in many cultures. Historically, girls were given fewer opportunities to advance in their studies, resulting in much higher illiteracy amongst girls and women. I still hear many men (and women alike) insisting that a woman’s place is the home and that this should be her only choice.
Many universities in this part of the world have colleges that accept men only. I personally graduated from school during a time when the college of engineering in one of Oman’s universities accepted only men. Luckily, this has since changed, and both men and women are accepted.
Moreover, there is obvious discrimination in salaries, allowances, and career development opportunities in many countries in my region. Luckily, this is not true in Oman now. Although, at the time I graduated from university, I had to attain higher grades for my scholarship, compared to the boys who applied at the time. Fortunately this has also changed now, and discrimination in the opportunities given to men and women is much less obvious. However, some discrimination is still institutionalized. For example, if an Omani woman marries a non-Omani man, then she cannot pass her Omani citizenship to her children. At the same time, an Omani man can pass his Omani citizenship to his kids, regardless of his wife’s nationality.
Career choices are also subject to gender discrimination, and men can also suffer from that. I can still remember the comments I heard about men who opted to study nursing. Nursing was seen as a career for women, and men working as nurses received continuous sarcasm.
Women were once only allowed to study education, as a teaching job effectively kept women segregated from men. Studying medicine, for example, was once frowned upon for women. This has changed dramatically, but female doctors are still not widely accepted. Discrimination is obvious even in recreation, as some hobbies are still only acceptable for men.
Discrimination is also common in our daily language. Until recently (and even today, with many families), a man saying the name of one of his female family members in front of other men is considered shameful. Moreover, disrespectful phrases like “don’t be such a woman” are still commonly heard. Furthermore, there are many societal codes forcing specific looks, hairstyles and clothing on women. Any woman refusing to comply with these societal expectations is usually seen as disrespectful. Meanwhile, men are allowed to dress as they please.
In Oman, the tribal system is highly regarded, which means you belong to a huge family and carry their name. If a girl does something unacceptable (say she married without her family’s consent or did something unacceptable in the society), then she brings disgrace the entire tribe. However, if a boy does the same, then he carries his “shame” alone. In other words, women carry the dignity of the whole tribe on their backs. This is more common in rural areas, and less in big cities.
In Oman, women are commonly held responsible for the misbehaviour of men. For example, if a man harasses a woman, the woman will likely be blamed for it. She will be accused of provoking the harassment by wearing something indecent, for instance. Else, she will be blamed for being attractive, walking in the wrong place, talking in the wrong way, etcetera. Of course, the man is excused for whatever he does and is never held responsible. Fortunately, Oman has a strong law now against such behaviour, therefore, this is no longer a common issue here. However, it is unfortunately a critical issue in many countries.
The pressure women suffer to appear, behave, talk, and act in a certain way is huge. As such, the cosmetic surgery businesses are profiting with the active programming of girls to believe that the way you look is more important than anything else. Moreover, marriage is an integral part of our culture, and a lot of men look for beauty above all else, thus putting extra pressure on women. Of course, household chores and raising children are considered a woman’s job only in most houses.
One of the most common ways of discriminating against women is treating them as objects. Many people in this part of the world are aware of the different literature that describes women as jewels, diamonds, or pearls in a shell. This may sound poetic and beautiful, but to many, it is just a way to describe women as fragile, delicate, objects to be owned.
Due to their reduced autonomy, women in Oman are less able to manage daily activities that many women in other countries take for granted. For example, I know many women cannot even go shopping by themselves, nor are they allowed to conduct simple bank transactions. This makes them more vulnerable, and prone to exploitation.
While gender inequality is officially reduced at organizational and political levels, it still continues within the society. It is more difficult to eliminate the discrimination in areas where the law cannot interfere that much. At this point, only raising awareness can help.
These are just few of the points about this critical issue. My aim is not to degrade one part for the sake of the other, because I believe each human being deserves equal opportunity. Moreover, gender discrimination has caused more than enough damage. These days, many households are being run by women. In many cases, women are the sole breadwinners for their families. Women are the ones who raise the kids, help them with their homework, and put food on the table. Reducing women’s opportunities to proper education, careers and treatment affects the whole society. Empowering women in every way possible brings positive change in the economic situation of any country. Many women are not even aware of their rights. They have been raised to believe that they are less than men, and thus deserve less. The vicious cycle continuous and we need to break it. Awareness is one way. I was luckier than my mother and I want my daughters to be happier than me. The fight continues!
Are you aware of any gender inequality where you live right now? What can be done to change it?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Ibtisam Alwardi of Oman. Photo courtesy of the author.
The other day, a fellow mom and I were seated outside, basking in the warm Kenyan sunshine as our children played. We both have two sons, each aged 3 years and 5 years. Our boys were playing in a group of 11 children – six girls and five boys.
Their play area was quite muddy and so were their shoes, as it had rained just a few hours before. But as the weather changed from the warm sunshine into a windy, cloudy affair, with signs of the skies soon opening up again, we instructed the children to each wipe the mud off their shoes before proceeding into the house. Time for play was up!
While the girls immediately began wiping the mud off their shoes, the boys continued running around, begging for more time in the playing field. They even argued that it would ‘be much more fun’ to play in the rain. Their joy lasted for a few more minutes before they finally gave up, realizing that we were not going to relent. They then sat down, disappointed, but nevertheless ready to begin wiping the mud off their feet. But it really got my neighbor and I thinking.
No sooner had the boys begun working on their shoes, than the girls swiftly started doing it for them. Quite effortlessly, they asked the boys to relax, that they would do clean the mud off their shoes for them.
That surprised us!
Our instructions had been very clear – that each child was to wipe the mud off their own shoes.
But it happened so mechanically, so swiftly, that the girls, aged between 5 – 8 years, took it upon themselves to wipe not only their own shoes, but those of the boys too. And to be honest, the boys looked like they were not going to protest the offer at their disposal. Even though we quickly stopped the girls from going ahead and instructed the boys to undertake the chore themselves, it got us thinking: why do women (and girls) instinctively feel the need to wait on boys and men? Is it automatic? Are we born with it? Is it in our DNA? Or perhaps it’s cultural? Could it be how we were raised? Are we raising our daughters this way? Or is this how we are raising our sons: to be more than accepting to have girls and women always wait on them?
The episode took me back to a conversation that I had recently with my colleagues. Why does it happen that when in meetings, when tea time arrives, many women feel the urge to serve the men tea, even though they are all equals in that meeting? Even when she doesn’t feel like it, she just feels as though it’s her responsibility to do so?
When a fellow board member says he is thirsty and could do with a glass of water, why is it almost always that the woman will unconsciously rise up to pour the man a glass of water, and not only stop there but go ahead to ask other men around the room if they’ll have some water too, then pour it for them? Why do we impulsively feel the need to serve men, even when it’s not necessary to do so? Is it something that we learn from our childhood? Is it instilled in us?
The incident of our sons and their girl playmates was quite revealing, I must say. How are we raising our daughters? How are we raising our sons?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Maryanne Waweru-Wanyama of Mummy Tales in Kenya.
Photo courtesy of Women Deliver / Flickr.
The moment I saw the title of the book, I knew what the author meant. It was as if it was written for me. Black Milk by Elif Shafak, renowned novelist from Turkey, is a memoir described as ‘a thoughtful and incisive meditation on literature, motherhood, and spiritual well-being.’
Although I enjoy reading, I am not good at writing book reviews. As a lover of books, I can talk about what I read with friends, who, like me, are still amazed by the creativity of authors. I find it easy to talk about my favorite books, and the stories that stick with me, ones that I will never forget. However, writing an objective book review is something I find very challenging. Yet with Black Milk, I believe I owe mothers out there. I owe them sharing what I gleaned from reading this groundbreaking book.
Shafak wrote about herself – but it could have been about me. Me, a mother who experienced postpartum depression; a new mother who felt at a loss, and who thought that she should not feel this way; a woman who stopped doing things for herself and thought that motherhood should be more than enough; a mother who experienced fluctuations in her feelings 100 times a day; a woman who did not really understand what was going on.
Black Milk describes those ups and downs encountered by many new mothers, especially those experiencing anxiety about the huge change they’ve embarked upon – those mothers who overthink things and believe that they should be able to control the world, and not stop and ‘relax’ for a moment and ‘blend’ with the world.
In the book, Shafak has many inner conversations with her ‘Thumbelinas,’ who each represent aspect of herself. These tiny ladies are constantly fighting, trying to overcome one another to be the dominant part of her personality. Shafak is very objective in writing about them, and instead of hating them, you feel the opposite. In writing about the competing characteristics within, she seeks to find some kind of unifying identity for herself.
Shafak writes about western female writers as well, including Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, and Alice Walker. She explores their lives, the way they found balance between being writers and mothers, or the way some of them chose one role over the other. In these women’s lives, Shafak seeks balance between her life as an artist, and her new life as a mother.
Being a mother and a writer means seeking some sense of self, besides the role of motherhood. The same applies to any personal career or decision a mother takes. Such a choice was not common in the West until recently, and it is still not acceptable in many eastern societies to this day. Thus this subject, though some might consider it a personal issue, is more of a political one that is affected by patriarchal societies. Elif Shafak does not make judgements, and why should she – this is a subject that has no right or wrong to it. The ability to choose and be respected for whatever choices you make should be totally acceptable.
Shafek’s book touched me, as a mother, a writer, and a woman. I really identified with her struggle, her experience with postpartum depression, and her personal crisis as she adapted to motherhood.
How do you find balance between your own personal well-being and the demands of motherhood? What books have inspired you on your journey?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Ibtisam Alwardi of Oman.
Photo courtesy of Raúl Hernández González / Flickr.
Growing up I never had to see any women around me struggle with finding a ‘work life balance’ because women didn’t work much. They were either teachers or worked in hospitals. A few women owned their own businesses but had to have men run them. And the large majority of women I knew worked for the non profit sector running charities or working in them. I would say these charities were where I saw Saudi women working the most. They were a force to be reckoned with.
We also saw women doctors. I remember going to the eye doctor to get lenses for the first time when in walked a tall, thin woman wearing a niqab (face cover with opening for eyes). She was the opthemologist. Her hands, which were the only body parts I could see, were beautiful.
Her nails immaculate (being a life long nail bitter I notice these things). But women who worked in hospitals sometimes had a stigma because they worked in a mixed environment. I later learned that the majority of women who wore niqab’s in the hospital only did so to avoid this stigma and indeed never wore them anywhere else!
I went to an all female school and was taught exclusively by women, but the majority of them were Syrian. One year I remember distinctly there was a surge in the number of Saudi women in managerial positions and some teaching positions in school. They were always well coiffed, smelled nice, wore nice shoes and had make up on. They didn’t look like the typical teachers we were used to seeing, harried and there to do a job.
Then in 2010 things began to change. Mainly because of huge reform in laws that used to restrict women working in Saudi. This was the beginning of the King Abdullah era which saw the number of women in the workforce rise from 55,000 to 454,000 in 3 years! Suddently, women were in the work force, working along side men in many cases.
There was a mixed reaction to this change. Families could see the importance and benefit of adding another income, but at the same time, were conflicted about the women of the family going into the work environment and gaining independence. The women who were already in the work force were a huge support for the women newly coming into it. But men had a hard time working with women. Some didn’t respect them, others had no idea what do with them or where to look or how to address them. In the case of my cousin, who is the head of a non profit organisation, some men flat out refused to talk to her util they realised that they would not be offered an alternative and either had to work with her of shove off.
Then there is me. I have always felt the need to do something.
Since I got married at the age of 22 I have been planning, and researching and imagining this business I would open. I have files and files of papers printed, notes scribbled, suppliers contacted over the years until, finally, my dream was realised. Before opening my business it was a breeze working on it while being a ‘good’ wife and a ‘good’ homemaker and a ‘good’ mother. My time was my own and I worked when I liked. And it was still a dream… not a commitment.
Then I opened… and my life changed. I cannot speak for the women for whom work is a necessity. The ones who’s families depend on them to live. I do not think they have the pleasure of having this ‘life work balance’ conversation because without work there would be no life. Such as Um Ahmed who worked for a while as a cleaning lady at my center. She was the sole breadwinner of her family. When I met her she was in her late 30’s, she had 5 children, none of which worked. What blew me over was when she told me she would have to take a day off or leave early every few weeks as she was learning to read and write and wanted to sit her exams. Um Ahmed left a year after working for me as she got pregnant and had to stay home with her 6th baby.
In my case, working was a choice. It did come from a need to realise a dream I truly believed would be beneficial to society even in a small way. It was a necessity in that sense but it was very much a choice I made. No one is relying on any money I could potentially make (God willing at some point) from my business.
Society here puts the burden of making everything work on the woman. If the marriage fails they look at what the woman didn’t do. If the children turned out messed up they looked at the mother. If the house was less than pristine they looked at the wife. If the husband strayed they say “did you see how his wife let herself go?’.
I remember talking to a school teacher as we sat in a restaurant with her 11 month old and a few friends. She looked tired and harried while she bobbed her child on her knee and told us all about how when she gets home from work she makes dinner immediately so she has time to shower and fix her hair and get dressed up for her husband before he got home from work. She tried to make sure her son was calm and clean for his father.
She even gave us suggestions of things to do to make our husbands lives easier and more interesting (from having him walk in on you wearing your wedding dress to having him walk in on you wearing nothing… not sure what she did with her son in these instances).
She said “you know, we have to make sure they are happy and comfortable”, and I said “who makes sure you are happy and comfortable?”, and she looked surprised, then laughed at the absurdity of it. I went on saying “what little things does he do for you? take you out to dinner? Give your son a bath? Help with the house work?” she didn’t like this line of questioning and thought I was being rude I think so I dropped it.
In our society women must look beautiful for their husbands. And if you are lucky then you have a husband who at least tries to look presentable for you. I remember going to see a child counsellor when I was pregnant with my second child because of an anxiety issue my son had. I walked into her office, 8 months pregnant with my daughter, and talked to her about my son.
Somehow we ended up talking about me and about how I needed to make an effort in the way I look! She said “why don’t you have any makeup on? did you husband see you like this before you left the house?” Needless to say I left the office and never came back.
But it goes without saying that if you, like me, work because you want to work not because you have to work, and that work means you will not be perfumed, creamed and coiffed and wide awake for your husband when he comes back from seeing his friends at night, then you have failed. If your house is not totally impeccable then you have failed. If you don’t look like you stepped out of some sort of magazine at least 85% of the time then you have failed.
We have not entered, nor do I think we will ever, the phase of being proud of our mommy pants and the fact that we look tired because, well, we work hard and we are tired. Regardless of how hard you work or how much you have accomplished you will always be expected to maintain yourself. And in most cases it is down to you to make life interesting, entertaining and comfortable for your husband and children.
How do I feel about this? Even though, in the light of how much I have put into this business and how obsessed I was when starting it and how supportive my husband has been, (He only asked me to shut it down once when we were on vacation and I spent my whole time Skyping the staff.) I feel like I am failing probably about 60% of the time.
My husband works from home, and therefore, sleeps late. This means that I sleep late because I love spending time with him one on one. And by the time my kids are in bed he would have gone out to see his family or friends, and I would do the same. On most nights I would go out just to avoid falling asleep on the couch or in some instances I would fall asleep with my kids do and have a late nap till her comes home!
How is your life similar? How is your life different?
This an original blog post by World Mom, Mama B. of Saudi Arabia. You can also find her at her blog, YaMaaMaa.
Photo credit to Roberto Trombetta. This photo has a creative commons attribution noncommercial license. It has not been altered.
World Moms, Cindy Changyit-Levin and Jennifer Burden, are in Washington, DC this week for the World Bank Civil Society Meetings.
About 10+ years ago I worked in Washington, D.C. as a financial analyst, and when the World Bank meetings were coming up nearby my office, my then employer, the Federal Reserve Board, would caution us about the protests surrounding the event.
We were told to take a different metro route or come into the office at a different time in the best interest of our safety. But this week I was invited back to Washington, D.C., in fact, for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings by the World Bank to report for World Moms Blog, and now the atmosphere is a little different…
Gone are the closed doors. The World Bank has since opened it’s doors to civil society and are taking note of the concerns of people from the countries where they are lending. This was very different from my first impression of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — I had learned back in the late 90’s in college as a finance major that the organizations were set up to end poverty, but their lending actually made the countries worse off in the end. Hence, the angry protests of the past from people who cared.
It was time that the World Bank concentrated less on turning a profit and more on helping civil society, the very reason why it was created in the first place.
New leadership — did you know that Jim Yong Kim, the current President of the World Bank is a former anthropologist, cofounded PIH with Paul Farmer and others and was formerly the Chairman of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School? — has come in and the doors have been held for the angered (rightfully so) civil society members, so all should be good now, right?
But, how quickly can change occur under new leadership in an organization of over 9000 people?
The answer is that it takes time.
The World Bank is currently undergoing a reorganization, which is ruffling a lot of feathers, as there were protests just yesterday from staff members about the reorg and the payment of higher-ups, according to the Financial Times. And, yesterday at the civil society meetings we heard complaints about corruption and lack of adequate safeguards. Safeguards are precautionary or counter measures that are put into place to protect against the infringement of an agreement.
We heard concerns about human rights issues including gender equality and LGBT rights. And, we saw World Bank employees and officials taking notes and saying that they’d get questions to the bank leadership.
In fact, the bank fielded questions from people who flew in from Morocco, Albania, Egypt, Madagascar, Congo and more places for a “Civil Society Town Hall” with Dr. Kim and the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde that will take place tomorrow.
The World Bank has invited its most stringent critics into their doors from the streets and is listening.
How can you make change if you don’t know what the problems are?
This process of listening is a big step from the bank of the past. How can money be lended to developing countries and provide the intended result, to end poverty?
Who will be on the ground policing the programs and seeing them out as intended?
This is a pivotal time in World Bank history, and I look forward to watching it unfold in the right direction to help, as is stamped on the pavement outside and in all the elevators to…”END POVERTY”.
Follow World Moms Blog contributors Jennifer Burden and Cindy Changyit-Levin as they report from the World Bank Civil Society meetings this week. They will be live tweeting from @WorldMomsBlog, @JenniferBurden and @ccylevin. Also, follow the hashtag for the event: #acso14.
See the article on World Moms Blog by Cindy Changyit-Levin that got us invited to the meetings this week.
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Founder and CEO, Jennifer Burden of New Jersey, USA.
Photo credit to Rashika Weerasena.