Barbaric incidents such as the famous gang rape case of the young Ethiopian girl, Hanna, has heightened my sensitivity to the chauvinist nature of our society. I attempted to pay attention to the little daily injustices that women have to face, and that men cause.
Incident 1: I spot an interaction between a man and a young woman through the window of a minibus taxi: the woman is carrying a binder in one hand and possibly on her way to or from school. At a careless glance, the interaction might pass for a slightly rough encounter between acquaintances. However, it is one of those unnoticeable harassments that passers-by completely neglect. I’m not a good lip reader, but the man is possibly saying: ‘So you thought I would never find you? Haha. Put that smirk off your face! What are you going to do now, huh?’ He takes her hand and twists it just a little to make her uncomfortable. She seems to be briefly responding to his remark along the lines of: ‘Let go of me. Let go of me’. By suddenly appearing and ‘invading her space’ (as I’d like to call it) the man seems to be succeeding in making her so uncomfortable that the most rebellious thing she could be saying cannot be anything better than: ‘I have somewhere to go! Let go of my hand!’ This only seems to make the man enjoy the situation even more. In what seems to be both the climax and the ending of this unpleasant show, he now subtly pats her behind. But now she musters all her strength and snaps off his grip and goes away while the man looks satisfied and smiling. These two individuals will probably never meet again. All the same, the man has just spiced up his dull day and has a funny story to tell to his friends.
I am under no illusions that I played the good man’s role by just being an offended spectator of the show. To be sure, I didn’t get off the taxi to give any support. I didn’t bring this situation to the attention of other passengers. I didn’t try to call the police. I didn’t video record it on my phone.
Incident 2: One morning during the time when I worked in Adama, I was one among several who desperately await a Bajaj taxi to go to work. Bajaj taxis in Adama are in the habit of not taking passengers during morning rush hours. Apparently, these taxi drivers expect that one or the other passenger, out of fear of not arriving at work on time, would offer a contract-taxi fare. Indeed, they usually get what they expect. Other passengers who are not willing to pay five times as much as the regular tariff have the fate of jostling their way to get one of three seats if and when a Bajaj pulls over to board passengers at the regular tariff. Now in this mayhem, a veiled women standing beside me makes a slightly angered remark to a driver on why he is not taking passengers. To my shock, the driver becomes all too sensitive and trespassed on, raises his voice, and starts calling her names. Would he have responded the same if a man made that remark? Strictly factually speaking, the woman seemed younger, smaller, and more defenseless than me. And so I put my question to the test by immediately taking up the woman’s remark and echoing it myself. No surprise, the man’s anger subsided; he made a few mutters and went away.
Incident 3: A female colleague of mine at Adama Science and Technology University, where I taught, gets serious deliberate classroom misbehaviors from students. Some sit on the table from time to time; her request for classroom silence is never fully granted; sometimes students boycott and ditch her on a make-up class; and she gets anonymous unpleasant phone calls from individuals claiming to be her students. Well, I addressed the same group of students as she but never had any of those personal and professional offenses. It can be argued that not all the misdemeanors I mentioned can be attributed to the fact that this colleague is a female. However, it is very unlikely that our gender difference has no significant correlation with the reaction we get from the same group of students.
These three incidents are but regular little incidents. I’ve not begun to talk about the publicity incidents of acid spilling and rape. I will not begin to talk about these for the purpose of this essay. My contention is this: the little overlooked, and usually outright nurtured, daily incidents of sexist and bigoted attitudes aggregate to make huge injustices appear benign: we are so much better off without them than with them. I’ve become very intolerant to even small teasings that even my best male friends pull off at random women. A host of several factors, not least of which is upbringing, might have wired me to be against such deeds. Nevertheless, I’ve never been sufficiently courageous to do anything about it.
Think of a hypothetical woman walking a street in Addis. On average, you can expect that she has a good number of responsibilities, might have several important things in her mind, and might be heading to an important event (appointment, errand etc). Now what is it about her gender being female that immediately gives a man the right and impunity to make personal remarks, make small banters, or in general ‘invade her space’ all to the man’s entertainment? How is it that, by default, a woman must be made to resist and avoid such challenges on a constant basis? Grant that that there is no touching. Grant also that the remarks are rather benign. Trying not to listen to the remarks and to focus on her walking, in and of itself, takes up a considerable amount of her attention resource. This is not fair. There is no way this can be reconciled with a clear thinking mind.
A society whereby half of it, by definition, lives in fear of offenses and threats by the other half cannot reasonably be expected to thrive. If at all there is a reason for a segment of society to somewhat get privilege over another segment, the birth coincidence of being male cannot be it. There is nothing that men have done to be men, and women to be women. Of late, I have become of the persuasion that, when necessary, good men should use on-the-spot slander and physical force to reverse daily gender injustices. I contend that we must work toward a society where equality is not just preached, but inequality made taboo. It must be made shameful, disgraceful, and dangerous for a man to encroach on a woman in any way that she doesn’t want. I think it is really up to men to rise up to the frank realization that the superiority and chauvinism they tempt themselves with has been, and is, false and empty. To my knowledge, there is not a single evidence that women’s intelligence, creativity, problem solving skills, management skills, and overall contribution to society are inferior to men’s. Anyone who confuses the current differences in social and economic status between men and women with an inherent ability gap has not given the matter enough thought. It is enough to consider the enormous family sacrifices that women pay during their most productive and youthful years, while men generally face lesser challenges to advance professionally and economically. Extend this over an intercultural and long historical canvas. The end result: men become controllers and easily get into delusions of superiority. In fact, a good case can be forwarded that, on aggregate, women’s societal contribution trumps that of men.
I admit that my strong stance on the matter partly emanates from the psychological biases drilled into me by the fact that a clear majority of the people closest, dearest, and most important to me are women. I cannot help but feel a hatred of my own gender developing in me when the prospect crosses my mind that we could be seeing yet more Hannas and Kamilats. But the deeper and remarkable impetus for this writing remains a factual and logical one. This is that, attitudes matter. Daily environments and interactions must be safe enough for men and women to operate equally. And make no mistake: this is not a single independent issue. Whether men truly respect and acknowledge women manifests itself on many layers: in family and child rearing, and in work, to mention the most important ones. I leave it to specialists to back this with statistical grounds but I have a proposition that, far more efficient than women’s activism, good men can effect surer and quicker solution to the problem of gender injustice if they make a wholehearted and full-force solidarity with women and among themselves to ‘say no’ every day and in every place.
Iskinder Yacob (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[Iskinder is currently PhD student and graduate research assistant at the Department of Polymer Science, the University of Akron, in Ohio, USA. While his major preoccupation involves hardcore science, he is keenly interested on the public application and dissemination of reason and science.]