It has been uplifting and inspiring to see the many strong stories about women in the media this week in the lead-up to International Women’s Day.
Naturally, many articles focused on the challenges facing girls and women across the world, a large number of which are highly relevant to Myanmar: gender-based violence; blatant cultural and institutional discrimination; and the insidious, confidence-draining, quiet-but-debilitating messages from so many quarters that girls are simply not as important as boys.
Other stories celebrated women, including lots of inspiring Myanmar women, who have succeeded despite those challenges and pointed to strong female role models in developing and developed nations.
But among all those valuable and positive articles and messages was a smaller number – mainly from Western commentators – decrying International Women’s Day. Some suggested it was simply not relevant to women in wealthy nations. Others felt offended by the idea that all women should be lumped together. Some even went so far as to point to the fact that girls are outperforming boys academically and to suggest that somehow feminism was to blame for this and had become an enemy of equality.
Now it’s natural that whenever a big deal is made about something, some people like to make themselves out to be different or cool by criticising it. It’s also true that some media commentators spout a lot of provocative nonsense in order to generate a reaction.
But what is not cool, what is actually highly pernicious, is to take something that has proved to be a day of positivity and strength-gaining for so many people who face marginalisation, discrimination and worse, and try to tell them their day of celebration isn’t relevant or important, or is just yet another example of women getting uppity.
And it’s definitely not cool to suggest – as the editor of the UK’s Spectator magazine did in his blog this week – that it’s somehow feminism’s fault that fewer boys are applying to university. Naughty girls! Imagine working hard and having ambition and doing well.
If somehow the number of boys passing exams and applying to university in the UK was dropping as the number of girls increased, there might have been a little more force to the argument. But that’s not the case. The tables published along with the commentary showed that more students of both genders are achieving better grades and applying to university, although more girls are doing so than boys.
Now, I wouldn’t labour what was a clear reference to the UK, had it not got some resonance for young women in Myanmar and elsewhere. Here a system exists that deliberately discriminates against girls wanting to pursue certain degrees, including engineering, requiring them to gain more academic points than boys in a bid to redress girls’ better exam results.
It is a form of “positive discrimination” that is certainly not returned in the majority of fields, including politics, where women are vastly outnumbered by men.
It is certainly cause for concern that boys, particularly those from poor backgrounds, are no longer matching girls in academic achievement. This is not only happening in the UK – it is a growing global trend.
That needs to be investigated and support given. We must aim for all young people to fulfil their academic potential.
But to turn girls’ success into a negative thing and lay blame on that, rather than the wide range of social factors that affect boys’ school achievements, is reductionist and borders on the misogynistic.
Boys do not automatically lose out when girls achieve, and anyone who suggests they do is promoting a dangerous and fallacious correlation.
A 10-year study of 1.5 million 15-year-olds from around the world published last year by researchers at the University of Missouri in the US and the University of Glasgow in Scotland found that girls were outperforming boys in 70 percent of the countries studied, regardless of gender or the level of political, economic, or social equality – including in countries where women’s liberties are severely restricted.
In other words, it is certainly not feminism that’s to blame for boys lagging behind girls in academic achievement.
As for those women in developed countries who said they didn’t feel the message of International Women’s Day related to them, well, of course, it is their right to say so.
I can understand why some women might feel uncomfortable about a day which focuses on their gender as their defining characteristic. Some women may also genuinely feel that gender has not been a barrier for them personally. Certainly gender equality issues in many countries have improved significantly in recent years.
But women in many developed countries still face far too many examples of gender-based violence, discrimination and interference in their reproductive rights, as has been widely evidenced in the many reports out this week. And I defy any woman, in any country, even if she doesn’t believe she has personally faced gender discrimination, to say she doesn’t personally know women who have.
As for women in developing countries, including Myanmar, the need to highlight and address gender inequalities and promote the rights of women and girls is of vital importance, as I have written many times in these pages.
So let’s all be a bit gracious about this. If it makes you feel uncomfortable and you don’t want to celebrate International Women’s Day, then just don’t celebrate it. There is no need to condescend to or criticise those who do, or imply that it’s somehow anti-male.
But maybe also think again about whether you really want to turn your back on other people reaching out for support and inviting you to join them in celebrating their own and others’ successes in the face of hardship, abuse and discrimination.
Concern, support, encouragement, and recognition of people’s rights and achievements are positive things. The more we do those, the better it is for everyone in society.
Link: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/opinion/19434-don-t-blame-girls-for-boys-academic-struggles.html (more…)