Gender: A mail exchange

Some time ago we started our E-Mail-Exchange on the topic of Gender equality because we feel that it is a topic that concerns us on many levels at the moment and we are very interested on the different views on the matter. Additionally, YOW Bremen will have a workshop on Gender in June so we want to connect both mail exchange and workshop results to each other.
We started the exchange with two questions:

1) What are your daily experiences with gender-related issues, i.e. are there situations where you feel treated differently because of your gender or do you feel there are certain things a girl/boy cannot/should not do? Are there situations where you feel limited in the way you are allowed to act and feel due to these concepts? How do you deal with this in your daily lives?

2) What is “feminism” for you? Is it a certain condition/state that people try to reach as a goal, or can it also be a kind of attitude or individual way of thinking?

The mail exchange is still ongoing and will be updated regularly. Read along to know what YOW members have to say on gender today!

Ornela:
I personally haven’t been a victim of this, but I observe many cases of gender imbalance in the environments I frequent. I can first of all say that this imbalance has existed since the creation and there has been a lot of improvement in favour of the woman who has been given rights that she didn’t yet have.
If I take for example the case of marriage in Cameroon, the laws require that the woman be subjected to her husband, he has the choice of the domicile, the education of children, briefly, he makes all final decisions.
So even the government puts the male on a pedestal. There’s an expression that guys like to tell to their girlfriends when they are a bit emancipated “it’s me wearing the shorts in our couple”.
I always hear that Cameroonian society is egalitarian but frankly this isn’t the case. I take the example in Bamileke region where it’s a scandal for a girl to conceive out of marriage, she is humiliated, indexed, branded. I just want to ask: what about the boy who has engrossed her?
It should have a balanced balance. So, the girl is considered not good to marry, she is even called prostitute. If that is the case, why is it not the same for the boy?
All I can say is alleluia to feminists who fight for women’s rights. If a man can be polygamous, why can’t the woman be polyandrous? It’s true that often some feminists do too much, others instead of promoting equality want instead to place the woman above the man. The paradox is that man needs woman and woman needs man, so I think it would be necessary establish a balance.

Joel:
I’m somehow feeling strange when reading in work calls for applications “women candidatures are favoured”. Whenever he fact I’m aware of the statistics about women employment in the world, I personally thought that writing this kind of sentence in a call for application is somehow a little bit frustrating for men who will like to apply for the thing.
Add to that, I’m in school where we are about 500 students studying architecture, town planning and management. Professions which are most of the time considered as men’s one. The number of girls in the school is very small. I sometime feel the same thing like in the call for applications because in our month academic workshop the teacher seems to focus their attention on girls because of their number and because of the fact they thought girls have less capacity to understand some notions. This is what I can say with daily deals. So, what about the African society in general, I think the theme of gender equality especially here in west African culture isn’t so evolved as in developed countries because mentalities are too much linked to traditional values. I really appreciate it and it will be really important for the governments to promote equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities for men and women. But it’s not the case.
About feminism, I used to think that it’s a too radical movement. The political part of it makes me consider that theme as a very sensitive one. It is also a polemic one when I’m looking the actual “femen” appearances. However, it’s a movement that makes a lot of positive results for women rights and that create historical event. I want to emphasise the fact that people used to talk about it without really knowing the history, the concept and all the things surrounding the word.

Anna (YOW coordinator):
I can somehow understand why they write “women are preferred” – but the reality isn´t like that. It is proven that if you look on a CV e.g. already the photo and the name (concerning also “strangers”/not typical names) is a reason to be put out, before even having spoken.
So actually, it should maybe be done anonymously. It is said that one reason why there is no change is because those selecting are men (still in presidencies etc. it is men! See often women organisations in Cameroon: who is president? a man! Hä?)
So, there would be change needed – one reason for the quota. So as to give a chance at all to show what you are able to do as a woman.
I read as well that young men are not really considered (because the old say “too young”, “too little experience”), and for young girls that they are always (and even unconsciously) checked by “sex appeal”. But youths have normally the role to “overtaking” the old ones… maybe one reason why so many start-ups are built independently…
In Germany it came out now, that for the new government, 3 ministries are only made up by men (and somehow very important ones: interior (now called: “home (patrie)” ministry” – a women reacted as there are no women in: it is not my “home”!), development, traffic. it was a big scream in the public. Because in the coalition contract they say: equal distribution is required. And then the men selecting say: there are no women, but it will come one day, the goal is only in 2025… etc. pp. – roll back?
The problem I see as well is that instead of seeing human beings, the division is getting harsher: women/men, old/young, black/white, “Germans”/foreigners-refugees, handicapped/”not” handicapped etc…. they continue to make smaller and smaller categories instead of seeing INDIVIDUALS and HUMANS. Very strange world, and all that is a helpless reaction in terms of trying to find easy solutions and to “order and structure”?
In Denmark they started to have ONE word only for both sexes. maybe a good idea! As words create consciousness (and here it is often said: the participant, the student e.g., which is in German male, so females are somehow out (a bit like in French there is female and male endings of words).
Ornela, what u write: yes. Here as well till the 70es women were not allowed to work without the agreement of the husband, only in the 90es rape was acknowledged as crime in a marriage… and I still would say in Cameroon there is nearly no space to develop a free identity for girls/women. Fight for rights is necessary, and here it wasn’t the men who helped that, it was done by women. In private life and publicly. Und still inequality continues on many levels.
Nevertheless, I think also the men need to do their work of emancipation (and I see for Germany some do, some not, in contrary they promote a rollback! Maybe as well as reaction on the #metoo debate), and I´m grateful if they do it alone and not again with the help of women. Everybody should have an interest to ask for oneself: who am I (apart from any sexes/gender), and how do I behave in society? Do I really consider everybody equal? No matter what sex, religion, skin colour etc.? Where am I guided even unconsciously by stereotypes and prejudges? What do they “allow”?
The patriarchy is a thousand-year-old story, and men and women do a lot to maintain it by playing “their” role (and (some) men suffer under this as well) – time to change and become as you said equal. We could make a difference as well between someone acting for love, some acting against love –instead of sexes (all this is actually just a chosen difference!) and looking at the motif instead of “judging”.
(I read that an exposition in England was attacked because the artist (woman) put out a picture of painted women looking at a men –it was thought that she wants to put out all this out of the “canon”, but what she wanted was a discussion about: who decides what is put in an exposition? In Berlin they removed a poem on the beauty of women of the wall of a university because it was said it was sexist (which was not the case I would say) – so instead of looking at POWER relations and to really make a debate about power in society they started to put just another “canon”. “Political correctness” became a system to avoid true discussions and thus to change nothing.
Why is it so difficult to just see me in another and to help each other and to consider everyone as human being? Why is it so difficult to understand us human beings (and nature) as a whole, as one?
It starts every second… in our minds… and in our behaviour, in saying stop (or go) and observing and naming power systems…

Hendrik:
I think it’s important that when we talk about gender, we don’t only deal with how women are discriminated against – which is, of course, a huge issue – but also try to figure out how all members of society are brought up to think in ways that limit all of us.
When it comes to simple things such as hobbies, for example, I always felt a little awkward because I did not do what boys were “expected” to like – I preferred playing the violin or dancing to playing football (and I’ve lost count of how many times people said “you dance? That’s so gay!” like moving out of established stereotypes and not conforming with widely-accepted categories was something that needed to be condemned). What is more, the fact that I’ve always had more female than male friends was usually eyed with suspicion – as if boys and girls being friends was something weird, as if our interests just didn’t match as well as they do within a same-sex group.
Another thing I noticed quite a lot is how boys were assumed to be more outgoing, more likely to take the lead and make others follow their ideas. And they often do. Only that such reckless “leading” can easily get those in the lead so caught up in their own ideas that they fail to hear other voices that were not raised to be loud – voices mostly belong to girls. With boys brought up to speak their mind, the confidence they are imbued with seems to make them more credible – but really, I often felt like they were just more likely to say what they think even if it may be wrong. To me, it seems like you need to go all-in, to forego a more detailed view if you want to be heard and respected.
Now in university, I make a similar experience: in the supervisions for our course, my partners are all girls. And when they are insecure about what to say, they seem to prefer not saying anything. When I think back about school, a boy would just speak his mind.
So, what does it mean if we pay greater respect to those who are willing to say their opinion even though it may be wrong? Does that not mean we ignore the potential of those more nuanced and more reflected but less assertive – characteristics that, in their less outgoing fashion, are expected from girls, not boys.
Looking at how jobs are valued, I was often asked why I would want to volunteer after school instead of going to university right away. Volunteering is usually associated with working in a school, a kindergarten, or a retirement home. Now I worked in a political NGO, but volunteering is still generalised so much that people mostly don’t register the difference. I don’t really mind people not being aware of the differences between what you can do as a volunteer; what I am angry about is how volunteering being associated with “social” jobs makes it inherently less valuable. To me it seems like doing work for the people as members of a community is regarded as work inferior to more individualised work. And it is women associated with such “caring” jobs. So it is women’s actions that are degraded, and “feminine” attributes that are deemed less valuable than “masculine”. Again, potential is silenced, and the importance of the work done is ignored.
Feminism should then not be about a simple numerical condition. Instead, we need to be aware that by lumping together individuals as “men” and “women” we refuse them to define themselves and to develop themselves. For me, feminist thinking constantly needs to be aware of how power structures affect our everyday life and all our chances in life. We need to work towards freeing ourselves from these constraints. We all need to give everyone the room to grow and to be themselves. Ultimately, I think we should abandon our thinking in terms of “men” and “women” so as to really be free from the limits such categories force upon us.

Paula:
I think the gender issue is incredibly complex and nuanced: the very problem is that often men (and women) don’t even realise when they are being sexist or suppress the female, as it is so entrained in many cultures and our way of living. In my daily life, I often perceive that what I say is taken with less authority then if men say something, and that it is often hard to make people listen: I doubt as many men face this problem. Furthermore, what really annoys me in society is that I am always expected to smile and be the nice girl (rather, obey and don’t make any noise).
What further limits is that boys are brought up to have more confidence and to dream bigger than girls. I think this makes it especially hard for women to become leaders. There are also so few role models for women in positions of power.
For me, feminism is about progress as a human race. It is a long-standing movement that allows us to reflect, unite, and change something. I think societies have moved far beyond just trying to reproduce, thus, there is NO reason for women not to have equal rights. For me it is thus strongly connected to equality – no discrimination just because that I do not have a penis. That is not something that should matter.

Isabel:
I too notice the lack of confidence many girls have, especially in men-dominated areas as for example transport law, where I work at the moment. I think that this lack of confidence also often hinders girls to enter “men-dominated” areas and so often they consciously or sub-consciously choose “female” jobs which are often social jobs which are less well-paid. And since these “female” jobs often are not the ones which have much influence on law makers or other powerful people, “female” concerns are often not dealt seriously with by politicians and society. So it seems that we are “stuck” in these Gender roles that affect every aspect of our lives and that support the inequality that we have in all areas of society, especially in payment and in law.
To establish a level playing field, I consider measures such as Joel described in his school as very important, and men should not feel threatened about it: Due to our upbringing and different treatment that we experience from an early stage on, women are in fact often not able (and not willing) to fight their way up into a men’s world, and therefore we need special programs to encourage them to take their place. Without these programs, nothing will change: Men will not give up their privileged positions in society as the ones who are able to decide everything, who are listened to, who are often taken more seriously, and women will often be too discouraged to fight their way through these men-alliances and stand their ground.
Studies were made that found out that you need a percentage of at least 30 % women in a company’s management board to truly change the way people communicate and work together, to shape a work environment were women and men feel equally appreciated and to improve the company’s revenue (see for example http://theglasshammer.com/2015/04/16/overdue-change-how-women-impact-on-boardroom-dynamics-and-why-boards-need-it/) . In a nutshell, this shows, that supporting girls in the end benefits society as a whole and men as well.
At the moment, even though in theory girls and boys can study everything they want to, the mechanism that we established as a society too often pushes girls and boys into stereotypes and often prevents them from behaving and doing what they truly want or even finding out what they truly want to be in life, and the stereotypes are often that girls should be quiet and beautiful, marry and care for the children, and men should be strong and work and earn a lot of money to support their family. There is nothing wrong for me if a woman truly freely decides that she wants to care for her children and stay at home; but this decision is often no real free choice and men and women need to be educated and know what this decision means especially for the women’s life, and especially on an economical level; that she will depend on the money of other people, mainly her husband’s. And that this dependency can make her vulnerable and subject to unfair treatment, as Ornella described in her e-mail.
Therefore for example many lawyers and social workers in Germany advise young women to make a “contract” with their boyfriends or husbands that obliges the husband to pay money from his salary to a special bank account in the name of the woman, so that in fact he pays her for staying at home and care for the children. This provides her with a certain financial independency and creates awareness for the work she does in the household, and it saves her from financial ruin in case of divorce.
To a) sensitize people to make them aware of our society’s mechanism and what it involves and b) work together – men and women alike – to educate people and change this mechanism is the reason and task for feminism in my opinion.

Cyrille:
With the polemic that hurt the movie industry the last mouths, (with that thing of sexual harassment and the movement #me_too ; #balance_ton _porc : denounce your pig) the topic of gender is one of the current topics that people are talking about on the worldwide level; thank you for opening the debate Isa.
Hendrik, I read what you wrote with a particular attention. Yes it’s true nowadays we must not only look the topic of gender as the discrimination of women.
Nowadays humans are living with so many stupid prejudices and stereotypes . the example about hobbies that you took clearly shows that. And I also, I’m also facing the same situation as you.It is a not normal for a boy to prefer dance, music to football. Noooooh.
It is not normal for a boy to do some jobs(considered as female ones) same for the aspect of group of friends that you listed: for some people boys are supposed to stay with boys and same for girls. I can write an entire mail to list all those things…
For me, those things are clearly showing that in our respective communities, there is like a kind of classification: what man must do, how he must look like;what women must do how she must look like and for me, it is due to that classification that the problem of gender came from.If I decide to list how many times I was insulted or treated badly because I know to use a needle, because I don’t know how to play football, because I have different hobbies and point of interest than “normal boys” a mail wouldn’t be enough.
Isa you asked us to give some example on how we are facing the problems of gender in our daily life:
it is not a secret that nowadays in the African society there is not really and equality between girls and boys, and you can clearly see it: girls are reduce as cooker and a machine to produce babies.However, I will not develop that aspect today.
I want to talk about sexism and I think it is also link to gender. Since one month now we have a new ICT teacher at the university and that man has many time chocked me by his way of talking: “girls of this class the unique thing that can save you now it to get married” (it was a way to tell them that they have nothing to do in the university doing physics, that they are too stupid and don’t have their place at the university).
That man cannot do a class without insulting a girl about her appearance (“look how she is dressed!”, “what hairstyle is it??”, “please smile like a real girl”) this is what girls of my class are facing every Friday from 1 to 4 pm. What is really bothering me is that when he is saying all those things all the boys are clapping and laughing.As if what he was saying was normal, as if he has the right to say such things, to treat girls like that.
So this is how some women are treated every dealing with those king of men.With a teacher acting like that I understand now why all the stereotypes are persisting in our community, because it is somehow taught in school. These can be a reason why some girls have lack of confidence inthemselves.
I tried to talk with some of my classmate about that issue, with girls with whom I discuss there is nothing that they can do because if they tried to do something or try to reply to the teacher they will not be understood. And for me that fear of not being understood is the reason why things, and mentalities are not really changing.
Girls should speak up and denounce what they are facing what they are living.
#me_too
#denounce_your_pig

Armand:
Cyrille, I totally agree with all what you said concerning your daily experience.
I too I have my junior cousin in Douala who is feminist(behaving like a girl in all what he is doing). He suffers also a lot from these stereotypes and prejudice people have towards him when he is passing around.
But what I like with him is he is so bold and courageous enough to react against people. At the beginning he was shy and afraid to react but now no matter where he is or what he is doing, he doesn’t care what people are saying or those who mocked at him.
Also in Cameroon, people believe that most of the people who are like my brother or do things like girls or are having girls only like friends are gays which is completely false.
Whenever you (gays and lesbians) got publicly or in a dark place kissing or making love, both of you will be severely beaten, sometimes it even arrives to death and the government does nothing since it is forbidden by the Cameroonian law.
Isa I totally agree with you too that many girls/women are not confident enough in themselves and this makes some men to profit or seize this opportunity to impose or dominate girls which for me is instead a sign of being afraid.
Presently in Cameroon with this electoral year (5 elections) there are many NGO and debates over the TV and radio empowering women to take their responsibilities, some say women should seize power from men by acting and not waiting men to always take decisions, many women are still reluctant to speak or act openly, most are not registered on the list to vote, some accept again to remain at home when the man goes out for work, other men even refuse their wife to work but impose them to stay at work and work like their households etc.
I like that German law asking men or boys to put money in an account for their wives or girls, for me it really makes some men to have consideration or appreciation for the work done at home by their wives.
If am given the opportunity one day to be at the parliament, I will propose this law to other parliamentarians to vote.
Apart looking this aspect of gender(men and women),we also faced this problem of tribalism and ethnicity that is growing at an alarming rate in Cameroon and this greatly divides our society and create many problems and hatred. A concrete example is what is happening in the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon(North west and South west).
Even at the lowest level we still feel.
Most of the time you apply for a job, the first thing they look on your CV is to know where does your name comes from? Sometimes you come from which family? Is your father rich or poor? etc., instead of looking at your competence or does your profile fulfil the job description?

Hendrik:
First off, concerning your cousin, Armand: I think what you said about your cousin being a feminist in “behaving like a girl in all what he is doing” is a huge issue. It touches upon how we understand feminism and gender more generally. So that’s what I will focus on.
In saying he “behaves like a girl” you essentially say that there are things “natural” and “normal” for both boys and girls. Without knowing him and his exact situation, I do believe that is one of the main reasons he suffers: because he doesn’t meet the expectations people raise towards him only because they believe that he “is a boy” and should behave “accordingly”. I am so happy to hear he has the strength to act the way he feels is right for him – especially because I know what it means to be called “gay” only because you don’t act “like a man is supposed to be” (you see I use a lot of quotation marks „“ – that’s because I do not believe we can just speak of „women“ and „men“. I’ll come back to that later). In such cases, “gay” is used to denote those that blur the boundaries of what is believed to be “typical” for women/men. And I think because of these boundaries it is important to come back to how you, Armand, said your cousin was a feminist because he acts “like a girl”.
To be honest, I don’t think that has much to do with feminism. For me, being feminist is not about acting “like a girl” – instead, it’s about becoming aware that there is no way to “act like a girl” or boy. If you say that his way of being himself, “untypical” for a man, makes him a feminist, you basically accept that certain ways of acting are defined as male, why others count as female. But why do they do that? Is there anything in nature that prevents men from wearing skirts? I’m sure there’s not. Is there anything in the nature of women that prevents them from being outspoken and speaking their mind? Of course, you can argue that hormones have an impact on this. But there are men who don’t like always being in the front of a conversation; I often don’t. And there are women who are outgoing and assertive. The lines aren’t clear-cut at all.
I believe this is what feminism should aim at: at pointing out that there are no natural male/female attributes. But that whatever we consider to be female/male is something socially agreed upon. We take certain conditions of people and map them onto their bodies, saying that it is intrinsically connected to what sex organs they have.
Your example of how women cannot carry a large wooden plank or operate a sawmill illustrates that quite well, Armand (don’t get me wrong: I’m not picking on you personally or anything, you just made a lot of very interesting points that I think are worth discussing). I’m sure I’d struggle with doing the chores you mentioned. Does that make me a woman? I know you said it’s not an exclusive and absolute men/women divide. But I’m sure if you asked a random sample of men to do what you described, a good number of them wouldn’t be able to. On the other hand, there will be women who can do it. So, it is about the body – but is it really a question of whether we have a vagina or a penis? Again, yes, you can bring up the hormonal argument and say that men have more testosterone, making them more likely to have the strength necessary. But that does not explain all the cases. Still, we assume it is because of that person’s sex (not gender). What if we moved away from associating strength with being male? What if we just viewed people as more or less physically strong?
This is what feminism as I understand it aims at: questioning the everyday categories we apply to people and trying to understand why they are who they are and what that means for our conception of the world and the logical divides we apply.
That is why I could so much relate to what you wrote about dancing/sewing/football and that lecturer of yours, Cyrille. Those are all good examples of how we use gendered categories to order our perception of the world and the ways we act in it. We instinctively associate those actions with one gender or the other. But if we think about it, none of them are “naturally” linked to any gender if we focus on the individual rather than their sex organs.
That’s what I wish the issue of gender to move towards: a focus on the individual; a perspective that considers every act as unique, as part of who a person is. And a conception of the world in that whatever we have between our legs does not get to impact how we need to manoeuvre our individual social worlds in fear of violating the borders of the categories assigned to us. This questioning of how relevant gendered divisions in men/women, feminine/masculine really are is what feminism means to me.
Just as a side-note: every time I wrote something like “men and women”/“female and male” I would instinctively put “male” or “man” first and “woman” or “female” second. That is just a linguistic twist that I am used to, and maybe it’s relevant only for me. But I believe it is worth considering even such small details – because what message is conveyed if men always get to be mentioned first?

— To be continued —