The lived realities of gender inequality

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Bodyform RED.FIT Campaign

According to the Monash Gender and Medicine website, Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine. However, today there is a call for actions that challenge this traditional gender bifurcation and the polarisation into masculine and feminine.

With three older brothers and a headstrong mother, my understanding of my femininity was a beautiful mash up of floral dresses and boys hand-me downs. I was told to speak up rather than criticised for being bossy. I was a sports scholar and beat the boys at chin-up competitions, I was a music scholar and mastered the cello with delicacy and passion. My education never suggested that my boobs would be a hindrance to my success nor that having a womb would limit my career choices. The reality of ‘real world’ was a slap in the face!

My inevitable, charming, coming-of-age-whilst-raging, feminist phase coincided beautifully with the year I was an Officer Cadet in the Royal Air Force at University. My occasional drunken ramble about the importance of women at the top to influence bottom-up equality grew tiresome for my uninterested contemporaries. I seethed with rage but also embarrassment when the new Senior Student of my Squadron asked all the women in the room to return to the kitchen at our annual dinner. The room erupted into laughter, sidelong looks cast in my direction. I was visibly frothing at the mouth but powerless to react in the face of such collective mirth.

The experiences are endless, everyone has their story to tell of perpetual and insidious inequality, some more severe than others. There are moments of optimism however, this weekend I watched a new sanitary towel advert from the UK that literally brought me to tears. They were tears of triumph, a shiver ran down my spine and I boldly shared it on my Facebook feed (only momentarily concerned about offending someone somewhere) with a “F*** YES”. Here was a small action by two big companies that was challenging what it meant to be ‘feminine’ in my culture.

I could not quite believe what I was seeing; women, frigging bad-ass physically active women. Unapologetic for their physical power, their disinterest in the need to be ‘pretty’ palpable in their ambivalence towards the imperfections their activities slashed across their bodies. Blood, red, hot, oozing from elbows, knees, foreheads, noses, mouths, toes…and they don’t give a s*** because blood is a regular part of a woman’s life.

The tagline for Bodyform’s new advert? “No blood should hold us back”. It’s a powerful move, it’s a strong statement, it’s an acceptance of a woman’s lived experience into the mainstream of UK society. Its women saying, we bleed and we’ll be damned if that’s going to make a difference anymore.

Would it traditionally be considered unladylike to discuss this sort of thing in public, hell yes. Do I believe it is possible to be ladylike and discuss such things, absolutely. Could Bodyform shift this refreshing and empowering campaign to the next level with an initiative that supplied subsidised sanitary products to displaced women across the globe, well yes.

Since being asked to write on Gender, every day produced something new and wonderful, or frustrating and harrowing, as food for thought. From the ‘small issues’ produced by everyday sexism that Western women face on a daily basis, to the experiences of marginalised communities in less stable states, we can see that gender inequality is an issue for both the developed and developing nations as it impacts everyone.

There was the petition started in the UK demanding dress codes are reformed for women at work. There are the grand debates surrounding Brexit and how women will have the deciding vote. Amber Heard’s reputation has been dragged through the dirt for trying to escape a violent relationship, one that no one else in the entire world outside of that courtroom should possibly imagine they have the right to comment on. All the while refugees are disappearing into the Mediterranean and Fortress Europe continues to drag its feet on a solution to the refugee crisis.

And then there was Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood star out to change the lived experience of displaced peoples as UN Special Envoy. Newly appointed as a visiting professor in practice for the London School of Economics recently announced MSc of Women (note women, not gender), Peacekeeping and Security. There were mixed reviews for this revelation, the most prominent question being “is she really qualified to teach at a post-graduate level?”

There was however one voice that shone out to me, that of Aljazeera correspondent, Bina Shah that focussed on the important issue here. She takes a practical approach to this news and appeals us to steer our attention to the MSc itself, what it’s really teaching and what a graduate will be able to do with it.

These are similar questions I asked of the various Masters programs I was considering. I landed on Monash for its emphasis on ‘practical experience’ and the promise of career-readiness, graduating with more than just the ability to eloquently debate whether we should be bothering at all.

A debate made even more frustrating when one reads statements such as this gem from Kofi Annan: “gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition, promoting sustainable development and building good governance”. Good luck with dissecting that revelation for a specific proposal, William Easterly certainly died a little inside hearing that one.

Having spent a semester now being asked to challenge existing development trajectories (such as the above) and human rights institutions – to understand how we as the new generation of development workers should be expected to move forward – I find Shah’s closing comments, at once striking for their clarity and harsh in their reality:

“If you want to stop women being raped in times of war, you’ll need a different kind of degree: the one that teaches us how to stop war and how to stop women being used as its spoils. And I’m not sure there’s a university course out there that teaches that as yet”

Gender remains to be one of the most pressing issues of our time, and a hurdle in achieving equality. Regardless of the academic research to understand inequality, how can a university course teach how to mitigate, and overturn the lived realities of gender inequality? Will there ever be a university course that does? Can you teach students how to address such global pressing issues safe in their lecture theatre? Or is there no real substitute for hands-on, in-the-field experience?

*All links are provided for the reader’s further exploration of referenced topics and do not necessarily reflect the author’s own opinions.

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