There is an excellent political cartoon that depicts two women walking past each other. One is a stereotypical Muslim woman. She is wearing a black burqa that only shows her eyes and hands. The other is a stereotypical Western woman. She is wearing only a bikini on her body and sunglasses on her face. As these two superficially different women approach each other, each is thinking the same thought. Each pities the other’s plight in not being free. Each believes the other is dominated by patriarchy. Is one right and the other wrong? Or do both women sense the evil of sexism in the "other" culture while downplaying their own society's sexist rules?
Patriarchy is a flexible and fluid system of ideas. Like the other "isms" I discuss, sexism is about making some humans feel superior and others inferior. The tools that reinforce these false feelings are shame, guilt, abuse, and violence. As an ideology, it adapts to its surroundings and finds ways to stay relevant and entrench itself, whether in a traditional society or a so called modern society. Though the two forms of oppression seen in the image above are not equivalent in my view, neither woman is free. Both are contrained through two brands of sexist oppression.
The first and most visual is direct oppression. This oppression limits women's choices blatantly. It is when a woman is forced to wear a burka either by law or by receiving violence from family members or strangers on the streets for not wearing one. Likewise, this brand of oppression forces a woman to not wear a burka or hijab through legal force. This oppression takes the form of a female fetus being aborted because she is a female. It is when a girl cannot go to school because her place is in the home. It is the gang rape of a woman for walking down the street without a male at her side. It is when a father encourages his daughter to be chaste while telling his son to be sexually promiscuous. When a woman is murdered because she “dishonored” her family, this is direct oppression. It is when a woman is raped by her partner because he is drunk or if “she is asking for it.” This oppression leads to women with their clitorises removed so that they cannot enjoy sex. It is forcing a girl to marry an old man even before she has had her first menstrual cycle. And it is the same oppression that makes a wife a slave to her husband’s parents. It is a kind of oppression that yells for all the world to hear that “A woman is not human!” This evil must be eliminated through a worldwide culture shift. However, this shift should not be towards the West.
Western women all around the world are looked at as a model for all women who want progress. They are considered the freest of women and therefore considered free. This is wrong. Women in Western countries are raped and murdered by family members and their so-called partners at disturbing rates. Domestic violence is only slightly less a taboo than in non-Western countries. There are no laws in the West that govern male bodies but plenty that govern women's. Though some of the direct forms of oppression have receded in recent decades for Western women (which is very debatable), an indirect oppression controls them and limits true freedom. For the women of the West wear their own burqa. It covers the soul of a Western woman like a burqa covers the body of a Muslim woman. The second form of oppression is choice that is actually not freely chosen. It is a willingness to accept pain to be accepted. It is choosing to think less so that others will not think badly. This oppression is an obsession for women. It is so ingrained that women themselves are some of the most ardent proponents of enslaving themselves. And sadly this Western form of oppression seeps out into the world so that as women throw off the shackles of one master, they willingly put on new shackles plated in gold and stinking of perfume.
The only way to really condense this indirect form of oppression into one word is to call it Beauty. From an early age girls are taught that the crucial part of who they are is their looks. All else is secondary. Intelligence, humor, ambition are all secondary to the way their bones form a frame on which flesh and skin take shape. Their first complements are on how pretty they look. They look like a princess. They are clothed in uncomfortable dresses while their brothers and male friends wear loose comfortable clothes to go play outside. Even if women wear jeans, they must be skin tight so that their form is recognizable from every angle. They cannot get their tight or flowing clothes dirty because then the clothes would no longer accentuate their looks. Little girls are given toys that have breasts larger than heads and waists smaller than the breasts. They learn to take their “girl” toys and put makeup on them, dress them in the latest fashions, have them gossip. The imagination goes no further than shopping, dating, or partying, or caring for babies. Their parents unknowingly condemn their little girls to a life far less than free.
As the girls of Western culture grow, they cultivate a desire for all things that make them look “better.” On television, the Internet, social media, images of “perfect” women are everywhere. They are so perfect that they must take what are physically attractive women and digitally remodel them so that their eyes sparkle, their skins look like porcelain, their figures smooth. A standard of “perfect” women are created for young and old eyes to compare themselves to. The young seek to make themselves like these impossibly flawless humans, and thus will always fall short of these standards. This leaves an emptiness that young girls try to fill with jewelry, makeup, designer fashion, weight pills, gossip magazines, and all kinds of unnecessary items and services to make them “beautiful.” And as they continue to suffer from the empty pursuit of beauty, they throw away their money to corporations whose only job is to make them feel ugly.
So young girls become women who focus on their bodies and not their minds. Even those who become educated and learn about how their society has reduced them to mere objects to be gawked at, still out of a subconscious fear or anxiety, they put on their makeup and squeeze into tight jeans, and feel shame about their weight, and hide their ages. With every new physical “imperfection” their souls are tormented by the fact that one day their beauty will fade and society will no longer need them. To stay youthful and therefore, beautiful, they throw away hard earned wealth to surgically alter their looks. They tighten their skin, thin out the cartilage in their noses, and insert fluid filled plastic sacks into their breasts so that they are larger just like those “perfect” women in the media.
And throughout this process, Western women look at the world and believe they are free while their foreign counterparts are not. For they are free to choose everything in their lives so long as society deems what they do is appropriate. And as society’s direct demands on women are challenged, its indirect demands subtly guide most Western women’s choices. Through images, advertisements, and simple comments praising beauty and criticizing its lack, an invisible pressure forces women’s hands to be a certain kind of free. They choose to buy makeup, even though if they chose not to wear makeup they would be judged by women and men alike. They are free to wear painful high heels and tight bras that serve no purpose other than to make their hips sway and their breasts perky. They are free to speak but the contents of what they say are less important than what they wear and how they have done up their hair.
Sadly, this form of oppression is viewed as freedom by those in other parts of the world. To push back ones’ hijab to show a face covered in makeup is a sign of rebellion. It is ironic that one’s form of oppression can be another’s form of rebellion. Women around the world need to see both the makeup and the hijab as two faces of the same global patriarchy. To come out of hiding just to go back into it again is a complete sham. It is a lie that the West’s freedom for the rest of the world’s women lie in expensive, useless clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics. That freedom is wrapped in bulimia, anorexia, depression, superficiality, and unhappiness. The West has some freedom, but its price is not worth it. Better for the women of the world to create a new freedom that is truly free from direct and indirect oppression.
Now is makeup and all these accessories of beauty wrong? In my personal opinion yes, since to accept such products is to accept your inferiority without them. There are arguments to be made in favor of these products but I will not focus on that. Regardless of the pros and cons of beauty products, in a truly free society, these beauty products should be allowed to be purchased and both women and men should be allowed to accentuate their features. What must change is how society favors the trait of beauty above all else regarding women. In doing this both direct and indirect oppression can recede.
In an ideal truly free society, women would choose how to look without their fellow citizens judging them. Women would choose to cover their faces with cloth or makeup, or just have plain natural faces. Women could wear the burqa, tight jeans, loose jeans, shorts, shawls, dresses, pants as they desire, not as their particular society desires. Images on the television and the internet would not have fake “perfect” women. Media would not speak about the look of someone but on the content of that person’s message. Movies would not have female actors play superficial secondary roles whose only purpose is to look good and fall in love. Men would not have warped ideas of sex and would see natural beauty not as just physical looks but as beauty of mind, body, and spirit together. For there are physically attractive people who have a hideous spirit, or an underdeveloped mind. And there are people who are “ugly” but have beautiful spirits and brilliant minds. But what steps can be taken to achieve this?
Correcting this indirect sexist oppression is difficult since a truly free society would not censor the media. Banning sexist images on television is censorship and therefore not wholly correct in my view although if a society makes racist images or content illegal, it must also make sexist content illegal. Sexism is equal or above racism in its evil since racism is oppression of a minority in society while sexism is oppression of half the population. There are times when a racial minority oppresses a racial majority but the point is tackling sexism is as important, or more important than in tackling racism. Like I said, censorship is wrong since it is a slippery slope that can lead far beyond its intended goal, but I can see good reasons for regulating commercial propaganda that seeks to belittle women (See my article on materialism).
Where the real source of progress can be made is with the parents and with education. The oppression of women starts in the family when a mother and father treat their daughter differently from their son. Usually the difference is in how much freedom the parents allow the son compared to the daughter. This creates two problems, first it teaches the daughter that she cannot do what her brother can, and it shows the son that he is allowed more freedoms than his sister and that gives him a feeling of superiority to his sister and to all females he will meet in his life.
It is imperative that both daughter and son be treated exactly the same. If there are chores to be done both daughter and son must do them in equal proportion. Do not differentiate chores along stereotypical gender lines. Sons should cook. Daughters should help their parents with physical labor. Certain activities and hobbies should be encouraged equally among both sexes. Physical activity should be allowed for both females and males.
The pinnacle of inequality arises when children become young adults. As a daughter becomes a young woman, her parents, especially her father, tries to limit her exposure to young men for fear of her having sex. At the same time the son is encouraged to interact with other young women. Having sex with whomever he wants is implied in this encouragement. If there is to be limitations on interacting with the other sex, then parents must limit both daughter and son. If parents want their young adult children to be sexually promiscuous then encourage the son and the daughter to be so. And if parents want their teenagers to have healthy relationships with the opposite sex, then teach them equally on respecting one’s body and emotions and on respecting the body and emotions of her or his partner.
Now relating to the oppression called “Beauty,” parents create this goal in their daughter by treating her differently from her brother. When the children are young, parents should not dress them so differently. Though it goes against everything that the parents have been taught to believe, there are no feminine colors or masculine colors. Colors just are and therefore clothing should not express a stereotype. A daughter should not be dressed in tight restrictive clothing while a son wears loose comfortable clothing. Either both wear restrictive clothing or both wear comfortable clothing. A daughter should not be scolded for dirty clothing if her brother can do the same action without scolding. The phrase, “Boys will be boys,” is unacceptable in responsible parenting.
Habits created in childhood usually last a lifetime. Therefore, it is crucial that parents not make their daughter into a disciple of Beauty. Parents should not put makeup on their daughter or pierce her ears, unless they do the same to their son. Parents should praise their daughter’s wit or spirit rather than her looks. This way, improving these changeable traits brings her reward rather than trying to improve her physical traits. Parents should praise their children’s looks equally and using the same words. A boy can be beautiful and a girl can be handsome. The best action for parents is to not praise looks since that becomes a lifetime goal for any child that comes to believe looks are truly important.
When a daughter comes of age and because of the lies she sees on the internet and television, desires to wear makeup and wear jewelry, parents should not forbid it but sit her down to speak. Parents should explain what the purpose of cosmetics are and that such things reduce her humanity in a society that only wants women for their looks. If she wants to make herself look “beautiful” to attract boys, then explain that a truly good boy will find her beautiful without such beauty products and that the best boys are those that want a girl with brains and spirit as much as physical beauty. But if she continues to want such things then allow it because if it is forbidden then makeup and jewelry will be seen as an act of rebellion which teenagers love. Continue to praise what is improvable and therefore important, her mind and character.
Parents should teach their daughter to respect her body. They should not make her feel ashamed of her body so that she must cover it but should also teach her to not be pressured to wear clothing that makes her a purely sexual object. Her body is not a canvas to be painted and sculpted into a piece of art. She must learn that it is art as it is. Wholly unique in its natural un-manipulated state, not necessary for it to be hidden or overly exposed. Her body is hers and what she does with it or how she dresses it should be her choice, not shamed into any one direction.
Now while family is key to the solution, education can play an auxiliary role by exposing the inequalities in that society. It is necessary to start with young children and continue this education to the end of primary education. By educating both girls and boys of how certain actions, certain thoughts, certain images have underlying messages and problems, they can be united in understanding society’s wrong doing. It is also good to show how society manipulates boys to fear being “feminine” or striving to be supremely “masculine.” Educate both sexes on how society harms each and that society helps make girls and boys, both victims of indirect oppression, oppress each other (though it is very important to emphasize that though both sexes are victims of patriarchy's oppression, males get many more perks in their servitude to this ideology).
Treating the male students as victims too rather than solely victimizers allows them to see the problem rather than become defensive. They must see any of their sexist actions as separate from their character. Show female students how they are taught to admire “masculine” men from the same media that teaches them to look “beautiful.” By showing both females and males together the wrong ideas put into their head, then they can come to see both sexes as victims of society rather than each other. This way, the antagonism is toward the ideas of the old generation, the old society that would perpetuate oppression through the next generation. The key is to start early in a child’s age. By secondary school, a boy raised with chauvinism becomes a chauvinist man. And by secondary school age, a girl raised to treat herself as an object to be gawked at, becomes a woman anxious to look beautiful at all times.
Though direct oppression is most pressing, it is fundamentally linked with indirect oppression. A society will never be rid of sexism if the pursuit of Beauty endures. A woman, and a man for that matter, cannot be truly free if choice is forced by an invisible oppression. If people cannot choose freely who to be then they are not free even with political rights and the ability to earn the same wage, and have the opportunity to have an education. Family is the foundation on which indirect oppression can take shape, but then it is the only real liberator. Education can reinforce and possibly correct the shortfalls of parenting but education policy is set by the older generation. Taking on sexist propaganda in the media is a behemoth task that could potentially fall into the questionable realm of censorship though there may be legitimate ways to regulate it. It must start with those who are parents and those who will become parents. It is up to the forward thinking to combat society’s poison and help society be a pillar of justice rather than a hammer of oppression.