All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
George Orwell, Animal Farm
Animal Farm satirizes human beings and the nations of the world, specifically the Russian Communist state, using animals. The main message of the book comes out clearly by the end: that power cannot be divided equally – that once power is acquired, it will always be abused – and that it is impossible for everyone to be equal.
The weekend before last, I attended a music festival which many had been anticipating because of its excellent line-up. As expected, the turnout was huge. The festival was exciting, and I had a wonderful time. Towards the end of the night on Sunday, however, I witnessed two incidents that were worrying. I tweeted about them. To summarize, I saw a lady being groped by a man she did not know because she was drunk and vulnerable. Later on, I saw a tipsy woman reporting that her sister was being beaten to the guards, and them not believing her.
As expected, there was a lot of shock from some of the people reading my tweets, with many wondering how a person could pay between KSH. 2,500 – 4,500 ($29 – 52) to come (sexually) assault women. Some blamed the women in question for being drunk, said that women are normally to blame when they are assaulted; claimed that my witness account, and subsequent tweets, could not be taken seriously because I am a feminist. Many, encouragingly so, wondered what could be done to put an end to such behaviour. A male friend even called me to express support, and to ask me to find a way to show men how sexual assault actually affects them. I understand that he was trying to help, but this yet again throws the responsibility back at women – to MAKE men understand. I will, however, oblige.
In “Animal Farm”, Snowball and Napoleon fight for control of the farm – they both want to be the leader because they know that the leader has the most privileges. The pigs, who are in charge at Manor Farm, have the least amount of work. They also receive more food than the other animals. This can be compared to patriarchy – a term used to describe the society in which we live today, and have lived in for aeons, in which there are unequal power relations between men and women that lead to women being dominated and disadvantaged.
Patriarchy, in many ways, is the primary form of oppression. Its victims comprise half of the world (there are 102 men for every 100 women on the planet) and it transcends all other forms of discrimination – be it on race, religion, education, social class or sexuality. It is pervasive – transcending time, all social strata and affecting all societies. It is the most universal form of oppression.
How do we know that women are oppressed? The numbers say it all. As at December 2012, only 9.8% of the Kenyan parliament was occupied by women. 46.4% of men were formally employed as compared to 19.3% of women, while only 46% of adult women were in the nation’s labour force. 12.9% of girls aged 15 – 19 had been married off, compared to 0.5% of boys. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS among people aged 15 – 24 was 3.5% for women in 2011, as compared to 1.6% for men. The state of women in Kenya is not encouraging – gender based violence, rape, HIV/AIDS, FGM and early marriage are key sources of oppression.
When one faces these statistics, it becomes clear that there is a problem, and that a big part of the problem can be attributed to the patriarchal nature of our society, as well as factors like poverty, which serve to exacerbate the situation. To bridge the social, political and economic gap between men and women, we must end patriarchy.
There must first be a recognition by men that they are its beneficiaries. Many think that sexism, of which women bear the brunt, is a thing of the past: the anecdote is that there are more women getting educated; owning property and working than ever before, and that women are becoming increasingly sexually liberated. However, this is skewed, as shown above. Sexism (the belief that one sex is superior to the other, usually that men are superior to women) still carries the day.
Traditional sexism is characterized by statements such as “Women belong in the kitchen.” Or “Men are smarter than women. Duh.” It holds men to be superior to women in many tasks, and is extremely old-fashioned – it is something you would imagine your grandfather saying/believing because he may not know better.
Modern sexism, on the other hand, is thriving. It is the belief that we live in a post-sexist world, that women empowerment programmes are unnecessary (and are a form of discrimination against men), and that women who complain about sexism (usually feminists) are just troublemakers – bitter about the hand life has dealt them. Modern sexism makes out feminists to be the enemy, believing that they are hurting men. It ignores obvious statistics on violence, employment, and the fact that women earn less in the same role when compared to men.
Benevolent sexism is the belief that women are some sort of angels – pure and delicate, possessing qualities that men lack. This may be seen as positive, but it tends to punish women who do not possess the qualities that the benevolent sexist extols. For example, when a woman wears a long dress, she may be seen as an angel, worthy of respect and the highest standard of treatment. When she wears booty shorts, on the other hand, she is a dirty whore. Women who do not fit in the benevolent sexists mold are seen as “not wife material”. A slight deviation from this is the ambivalent sexist, who believes that some women are good and worthy of the highest standard of treatment, while others are bad and deserving of poor treatment. As such, his mother, sisters, grandmothers and relatives are angels, while other women are terrible and undeserving of respect and love.
As a man, it is important to recognize your privilege – the fact that our patriarchy puts you in the seat of power and allows you to mete out the above forms of sexism against women. The recognition of these types of sexism in oneself can then be followed by actions to end them.
The oppression of women is largely perpetrated by men through the patriarchy. They are its biggest beneficiaries. Even if all women were to rally behind feminism (which is the belief that men and women should enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities), we would still need men to support the cause and end the discrimination. For example, in the case of rape, women are told that there are countless things they can do not to get raped – don’t get drunk, don’t wear tight clothes, don’t show too much skin, don’t go out at night – while all men would need to do is not rape.
As a society, we need to examine the standards to which we hold women, especially sexually and within the family. Women are first and foremost judged with regards to their role, or lack thereof, in the family. It is common, on Kenyan Twitter, to see tweets like “If she doesn’t cook chapattis, don’t wife that b*tch.” Or “Married women have no business being on Twitter.” Or “If you want to get a boyfriend, shut down your Twitter account.” Women are thought of as chattels, vehicles for the fulfillment of the desires of men – be they reproductive, sexual or intellectual.
This type of thinking is problematic.
Sexual liberation has also created additional pressure for women – they are now expected to exhibit sexual behaviour, in addition to all the standards we set for them as a society. Too little and they are frigid; too much and they are sluts. The biggest culprit is, of course, the media. The highly sexualized images of women we are bombarded with every day encourage the view that women are things, and because these media (television, newspapers, magazines, websites and radio) are so pervasive, this sets a standard for all women. They have to have long legs, tiny waists and thick bottoms. They have to pout in pictures to look sexy. Their dressing is the subject of many pages and talk shows. When they commit a crime against the image dictated for them, several man hours are dedicated to setting them straight on these same channels. It goes on and on.
On the other hand, God forbid women have sexual needs and desires of their own. We need to stop policing women, and treating them as objects of fulfillment of the pleasure of others.
Where do we start?
It starts with the awareness of one’s own privilege and a conscious effort to stop one’s own sexism.. Creating awareness among our friends and family both online and offline is the next step, as well as calling out the sexism around us. You may not want to be a feminist – that is fine, but then let feminists and their allies do their work. If what they advocate for is so stupid, then it should not be the subject of endless debate in which your goal is to put them down. The refrain “Not all men…” should also be retired. Do not make yourself the victim when chances are that you are the perpetrator.
Remember that it begins with you – the decision not to assault, not to rape, not to discriminate – this is what we need in order to end patriarchy. Otherwise, we are no better than the animals in George Orwell’s farm.