Yes, let’s make fun of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sexist praise of his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, for being tough on terror “despite being a woman”. Social media in India and the world over has had a field day with Modi’s comment. I’ve laughed and tweeted along with everyone else.
Imagine: the leader of the world’s largest democracy — and one which had a powerful female prime minister — making such an old-fashioned, disparaging remark about women. Outrageous. Unacceptable. Shocking. Offensive. Indian men are still stuck in a time warp.
Really? Once the laughter stops, let’s take a sober look at the sad reality of women’s role, status and influence in the 21st century. And let’s also recognise that there is no dearth of men — and women — who still believe that women should be neither seen, nor heard. And that those of us who do manage to live “normal” lives, sometimes even becoming prime ministers, parliamentarians, business leaders, judges, doctors, teachers, journalists and so on… do so “despite being a woman”.
The data on lack of progress on women’s rights is daunting. Too many statistics point to the hard struggle still going on to end gender discrimination in government, business, schools and at home. Women make up half the world’s population and yet represent a staggering 70% of the world’s poor. Although some changes have been made, the struggle for women’s development and empowerment continues to face many obstacles due to government neglect, discrimination, family traditions and actions by religious authorities.
The good news is that achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls is recognised as an important priority in the post-2015 development agenda. But how committed are governments to giving priority attention to women and girls in their national development plans? Even more importantly, how ready are societies to accept women as full participants?
In the same week that Modi got blasted for his comments, Tim Hunt, an English biochemist who is also a Nobel laureate, told the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, that he believed scientists should work in gender-segregated labs.
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry,” Hunt intoned. Oh dear.
Hunt’s angry critics have warned that his comments are a “disaster for the advancement of women”. And of course, female scientists are outraged. As it is, not many girls are opting to become scientists.
If only Modi and Hunt were alone in believing women aren’t really strong and stoic enough to play hard ball. As the two men have shown, rubbishing women is probably the one sentiment/prejudice that unites many men, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, living in an industrialised or a developing country.
It’s a common strand in the belief and discourse of Christian conservatives and their Muslim and Jewish counterparts. Veil them, cover their bodies and keep them home is the mantra of religious zealots of all faiths. And that includes the self-styled Islamic State of course.
Sadly, women are as bad as men in believing women can’t make it to the top — and sometimes shouldn’t even try.
It’s personal. As a teenager when I was still in Pakistan, a female “friend” of the family suggested that as a future housewife, I should study “home economics” rather than international politics. Others asked vaguely why I wasn’t thinking of attending a “finishing school” to make me into a perfect wife.
“I plan to have a job,” I remember saying with some disdain. “But only if your husband allows it!” was the angry response.
Well, luckily things turned out differently. Interestingly, at a recent dinner debate in Brussels on “women and development”, almost all female participants had very moving stories to tell of their different trajectories and of the men and women — mothers and fathers — who had helped or discouraged them on their voyage to self-fulfilment.
There was talk of the “HeforShe” campaign that acknowledges that men have a key role to play in women’s empowerment. The importance of role models, inspirational mentors, hard-nosed teachers was stressed. Some women said their families had encouraged them to break away from stereotypes — others acknowledged that they did not have family support as they sought their own way in life.
It was an evening of laughter and some tears. Of promises that as mothers, we were bringing up our sons and daughters differently, teaching them to respect each other.
Women have achieved much over the years. But there’s still a long way to go. For all the howls of derision directed at him, Prime Minister Modi has done his bit to empower women through political appointments and social policies. After taking office last May, he appointed six women to his cabinet — the highest number in the history of the country.
He has taken a strong stance against female feticide, which he called a “terrible crises” since India has a child sex ratio of 918 girls for every 1000 boys, a recipe for social unrest.
It’s great he’s taken these and other steps — despite being a man.