My ex-boyfriend was convinced that women have certain obligations when it comes to raising children. Even though he variously called himself a communist, a socialist and a liberal, his argument was: “This is how God made women”. When challenged as to what the woman’s duties might include, he answered: “Changing a baby’s diaper.” His expected reply didn’t surprise me, as my upbringing was similar to his. Yet, I’d say that the years had taught me that these responsibilities he was referring to are duties thrust upon women by tradition and not by nature. The fact that I was born a woman doesn’t make me biologically more tolerant to the smell of poop than a man.
The French author Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” De Beauvoir’s philosophy is already evident in my young daughter. When she was around two years old, I was often told that she played like a boy. Now at four, she pretends to be a princess most of the time, and her favorite color is, of course, pink. Every time I buy her birthday gifts for her friends, I am constantly reminded of the imposed gender roles. The boy’s section is filled with cars, airplanes, scary fighting characters, while the all pink section is all about kitchen utensils, cleaning appliances, and, of course, Barbie and her consumerist friends.
I continue to observe how we are all conditioned into believing that each has to carry out certain duties based on gender. These ideas start first at home, then are emphasized at school, and of course bombarded upon us by popular TV programs. In one of the text books I came across, an exercise in the social skills book for elementary level described the fathers’ jobs as pilots, doctors and engineers, while the mothers’ occupations were limited to that of nurses, secretaries and teachers. Now If we look at the bright side of that question, the textbooks must be given credit for at least showing that women are actually working rather than just staying home washing the dishes or bringing up the kids – as seen in some of other textbooks in the region.
A similar phenomenon was seen in the entertainment TV show “Arab Idol” last year. It’s a program where contestants from across the Arab world compete for the prize of best singer of the year. During the first stages of competition the participants were divided into two separate groups of men and women to play various characters. The men showed up dressed as pilots to perform their song, and, predictably, the women’s group that followed dressed as air hostesses.
What upset me even more is when I hear gender-based comments coming from women. A prime example was one of the jury members of “Arab idol”, the Emirati singer Ahlam, who takes pride in how she defied her parents’ opposition to her becoming a singer. Last year she lashed out at a female contestant when the later danced while performing a song. Ahlam advised her not to sing like a man.
Such famous singers and popular programs like “Arab Idol” are followed and watched by millions of people, many of whom are quite young. One hopes – perhaps in vain – that such influential platforms might be used to raise awareness and promote progressive ideas regarding women’s rights, rather than insisting on portraying women’s roles in a distorted way. Perhaps a change in the mindset!