What is a Woman? Address on International Women’s Day

Address at the Westpac International Women’s Day Celebrations  

By Nazhat Shameem . Suva, Fiji. 8th March 2012

What is a woman? I assure you I do not know..... I do not believe that anybody can know until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill.” Virginia Woolf –“Professions for Women”
Jodi Tor Daak Shune Keu Na Ase Tobe Ekla Chalo Re-(If no one responds to your call, then walk alone).” Rabindranath Tagore – “Gitabitan” 1905.

In ancient Greek mythology, one of the most disliked characters was Hera, wife to the god Zeus, youngest daughter of Rhea and Coronus, and called the Queen of the Gods. She was and is portrayed as being a shrew, a woman obsessively jealous and vicious to those whom she saw as a threat to her marriage to Zeus. The stereotype of a jealous, obsessive and manipulative woman is a common one throughout history. Even more pervasive is the image of powerful women misusing their power, thus justifying a subordinate role for women in society. 

The Greeks, probably for political reasons, portrayed Persian women as weak and largely veiled. However new evidence shows us* that women in Persian history were economically empowered, independent, and able to control and participate in labour relations. The role of women in history has repeatedly portrayed women in terms of the patriarchal values of the historians themselves.

What was the real character of Eleanor of Aquitaine? A dangerous and power-loving femme fatale who killed for power? Or was she a wise ruler, who when married first to Louis VII of France and then to Henry II of England, wielded both power and influence in an enlightened and farsighted way? Born of patrilineal descent, yet scorning many of the traditions of her time, it is said that she remains an enigma. There were stories that she rode bare-chested to the Crusades. She divorced Louis VII (it is said because he was boring), and was influential during the reign of her husband Henry II and her two sons Richard and John. She was her own woman, independent intelligent and gracious. Yet history demonised her as being unwomanly. Shakespeare treated her with contempt in King John, calling her a “canker’d grandam” who helped King John plan the death of Arthur of Brittany. She was called a Jezebel, an adulterous seductive Queen, and a woman skilled in the art of manipulation.

From Pandora who opened the box out of an insatiable curiosity, unleashing upon the world, sorrow, plagues, famine and misery, to Eve who apparently is responsible for the sorrows of the world and all its problems, to Hera and the fearful Medusa, we women have been portrayed in history as having caused the world’s problems.

The perfect woman apparently, is one who causes no trouble. She is the woman who says nothing, keeps her eyes to the ground, and sacrifices all. In Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare describes Octavia as being of “holy, cold and still conversation” and Anthony saying of her, “Who would not have his wife so?”

The attitudes that we women have to live with in the 21st century have moved very little from the attitudes depicted by historians and story tellers of the past. Aristotle analysed women at two levels, the physiological and the political. He concluded that women were inferior to men in both categories. Aristotle was very influential in medieval philosophy and the distrust of women and the misogyny continued through the literature of the scholars of Europe and the Americas.

What are the attitudes, the stereotypical images of society’s beliefs about women that we have to live with? That women are either goddesses, pure and unattainable, silent and removed from the world; or that they are prostitutes and Jezebels, troublesome, manipulative and evil. There is no half way house. We women, if we speak out and wield influence, are Pandora, Eve, and Hera. If we are silent, we are Octavia, the still silent woman who must be cloistered and protected from the evil of the world.

Whether we are Hera, or Octavia, these stereotypes exist to exclude women from positions of power and responsibility. If we are silent and still we are not suitable for responsible positions. If we are strong and manipulative, we are not suitable for responsible positions. The attitudes which lead society to judge women, not by what they do and say, but by stereotypical images of what is thought to be women’s behaviour, date back to two thousand years Before Christ. They are so ingrained in our history, and in the roots of the philosophy from which modern thought evolved, that those who judge us, are often ignorant of the gender bias inherent in their thoughts. Often, we women are ourselves guilty of gender bias. How many of us have told our daughters to keep their voices down, so that they will be thought to be “ladylike”? How many of us were told by our mothers and grandmothers that girls must not question authority, that they must be submissive and respectful, even when authority is wrong?

Knowing how our societies’ attitudes drive conduct towards women, it is not surprising that large numbers of women and girls in Fiji are victims of gender-based violence, and that incidents of such violence often remain unreported. Dark figures of unreported crimes against women and children are symptomatic of society’s attitudes towards women, that a good woman is “still and silent” and does not rock the boat, and that the cut and thrust of the police station, the courts and the media, are not suitable for the ideal woman. It is no wonder that so many women and girls choose not to report crimes against them. It is also for that reason that judges around the world have found that in relation to access to justice in cases of gender-based crimes; women are historically disadvantaged, and that the justice system, instead of providing justice for victims of gender-based violence, of rape and domestic violence, has become a barrier to real justice.
And how have these attitudes affected women in the workplace? Firstly, they affect recruitment policies. Minimum qualification requirements often have a subtle gender bias which discriminates not in appearance, but in effect. Secondly, they affect workplace policies in the way that work is allocated. If a police officer is never given a murder case to investigate, when she is considered for promotion, the lack of relevant experience may work against her in the decision to promote her. In no job description is there a listed requirement to make tea, yet many women who enter the work force are expected to make tea because of their gender. 
Then there is the workplace environment, now referred to as the corporate culture of an organisation. The pornographic and sexist jokes emails circulated from one computer to another, the use of abusive language under the pretext of a joke, the reprimand of a woman employee who conducted herself in a manner which would be considered acceptable in a man, and the assumption, when women need to look after a sick child or parent, that women are incapable of holding managerial positions because of their roles in the family.

Yet women have been part of the work force in large numbers since World War II. They were considered strong enough to work in munitions factories, but not strong enough to work as doctors and lawyers. The attitudes and stereotypes became a means by which women were excluded from economically powerful positions. The reason most often given for such exclusion was that women were too weak to do the really hard work. They, like Octavia, needed to be protected. The other reason often whispered about and often not articulated, was that women would change the workplace ethics, that they would cause trouble and that Hera, Pandora and Eleanor of Aquitaine, would destroy the goodwill and camaraderie of the workplace.

Yet women have joined the workplace. It is still not easy. We are expected to multi-task, to be perfect wives and mothers, daughters and daughters-in-law, whilst holding down positions as mangers, executives, judges and magistrates. We have adapted, but not all men have done so. There are still fathers and husbands who expect women to earn, to bring up the children, to look after aging parents and be the family cook. Every day, all year. They expect this because they believe that the perfect woman is Octavia, still and silent and uncomplaining. Yet they themselves have resisted the change brought about by progress, and the economic necessity of women entering the work force in large numbers. They have not always learnt to share the load of the work at home and in the family.
There are others who have not adapted. They are our male colleagues who create a hostile work environment or a quid pro quo relationship with us, in order to harass us because of our gender. Sexual harassment is a real problem in work places all over the world. Often people believe that sexual harassment is only about rape and sexual assault. It is about a lot more than that. Sexual harassment is about the misuse of power in the workplace. It is about an unequal work relationship being used to either create a hostile world environment, or to “persuade” an employee to enter into a sexual relationship with the superior or another colleague. Examples of sexual harassment are the writing of inappropriate emails to staff, such that female staff members are offended or embarrassed by it, the asking of employees for “dates” when the employee has already said “no”, and the suggestion to female employees that they should try looking more “womanly” by putting on more makeup. 
These are examples of sexual harassment which have featured in cases of sexual harassment before the courts in other jurisdictions. The harassment does not have to be sexual in nature. The word “sexual” is a reference not to the nature of the harassment, but to the fact that this type of conduct is a form of gender discrimination in respect of which the most likely victims are women. Sexual harassment is an extension and an expression of the view held by Aristotle, the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, of medieval Europe, of Victorian England and of religious dogma, that women are inferior to men, and that in both their forms, the evil Gorgon or the silent Goddess, she is to be controlled and distrusted.

How much progress have we really made, if attitudes thousands of years old still reflect on our work relationships, if we are still too intimidated to report crimes against us, and if we are still subjected to insults and assumptions based on our biology?

Today, on International Women’s Day, is there much to celebrate? I believe that we can cautiously celebrate. There are now many more women in the legal profession, the medical profession and the banking sector than there were 20 years ago. Girls are greater in numbers at many universities than boys. The Employment Relations Promulgation forbids sexual harassment and makes it compulsory to have sexual harassment policies in the workplace. Rape can now be committed by a company, where the offence has been committed by an employee, officer or agent of the company acting in the course of employment, and where the offence has been committed as part of a corporate culture of lack of compliance with the laws on sexual assault. 

As I look around me today, there are women everywhere, bright, intelligent, articulate and confident women, who know what they want, and know how to achieve it. Better still, we have brought up our daughters to be stronger than we are, and our sons to respect all persons male or female, and of any sexuality, and to judge our women not on the basis of gender stereotypes but on their individual worth.

When we stereotype people, male or female, and of whatever ethnicity, when we make assumptions about them on the basis of their gender, their sexuality or their race or religion, we rob them of their individuality, and their worth as human beings.

If there is one thing we must be committed to as women, it is to treat every person in accordance with what they do and say. We - who ourselves have been victims of gender discrimination for two thousand years- must never be accused of inflicting such an injustice on others around us.
For those brave women who have forged changes, who have been brave enough to complain about harassment and gender discrimination, who have continued to progress despite opposition, and bias, remember the immortal words of Rabindranath Tagore-“ when no one answers your call, walk alone, walk alone, walk alone”.

The Westpac Bank must be commended for organising this breakfast on International Women’s Day today – to celebrate the progress and worth of women all over the world.

* Mary Brosius 1998 Women in Ancient Persia 559-331 BC Oxford University Press


Empowering women said…
Perhaps your friend Ms Shameem can inform us how many women in Fiji are currently empowered to vote? I find her comments, coming from someone who supports and works with this military junta, somewhat dishonest.
Anonymous said…
To Empowering women:
Currently men are not empowered to vote either. Assuming that you are correct that Ms Shameem works and supports the junta (your word), by what stretch of logic do you conclude that she is therefore unqualified to speak about women?
get real said…
To Empowering women:
Currently men are not empowered to vote either. Assuming that you are correct that Ms Shameem works and supports the junta (your word), by what stretch of logic do you conclude that she is therefore unqualified to speak about women?
Battered man said…
I think this regime has put too much power on women and it is dangerous. The Domestic Violence Act let's women come to court and get orders against their husbands and the judges are giving the orders even to throw the husband out of his own house! Women in the old days stayed out of politics and looked after the children. What's wrong with that? This regime is too pro women in my opinion. Who has the guts to say that these days with women marching in the streets and running the country?
A Room of One's Own said…
How many Fijian women or girls have the luxury of a "Room of One's Own"? For that is the bare minimum requirement to empowerment. (Title of a book by Virginia Woolf)

In September 2005, one was quite empowered to vote but the ennumerator who so discourteously visited ensured that registration was thwarted. He filled out the form at his insistence, he then saw to it that no DOB was inserted. Was this a deliberate oversight or mere incompetence? But it might have stymied my vote. In the event, after vigorous complaint to the Electoral Registrar himself, a double registration ensued with precisely the same details on two lines: how odd! How egregiously generous?

Empowering and then implementing one's right to vote are two quite different functions. The European Union observers chose so glibly to declare

"All is Well. All manner of thing is well" (Mother Julian of Norwich 13th century).

What a dereliction of duty! They had best believe we shall not endure such insults again. In common with lying, it shall never be tolerated twice.

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