Women & Power, My Own Manifesto

Women & Power CoverI recently read Women & Power, by Mary Beard and I’ve struggled with writing a review. This book made me think – really think – about my own experience. It inspired me to relate my own struggles and I’ve written (and re-written) this blog a hundred times. Am I being too harsh? Too honest? Or not brutal enough?

There was no way to review the book without getting personal. The subject of equality, as a woman and an ethnic minority, is very close to my heart. And so, I’ve decided to write my own experience as honestly as possible.

If you want a review, go to Goodreads.

This one’s about me.

“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.”

Growing up as a Middle-Eastern woman in a western world has been, for lack of a better word, an experience. The ‘traditional’ image of an Iranian girl is a quiet, well-behaved, beautiful person – she’s as fragile as a flower, delicately beautiful… and silent. Not too quiet, mind, she must be smart and engaging, she is the perfect hostess and can carry conversations, but she must not be too outspoken.

And the West is no better. The ‘perfect’ girl is often described as an ‘English Rose’. The same rules apply, though on a subtler note. The West might not define what’s ‘good’ but it definitely knows what’s ‘bad’. Being too outspoken, or truly standing up for yourself will end in you being called a ‘trouble-maker’. Even our derogatory slang is feminine – ‘bitch’, ‘whore’, ‘pussy’, being a few of the nicer ones.

East v West

I don’t quite fit into either ‘positive’ category. Delicate is not a word often used to describe me; my hair defies gravity, my body is full of curves, and my personality is stubborn at best. 99% of the time I am called sexy – or worse – exotic, rather than beautiful. When they finally get to my personality, I’m ‘boisterous’, sometimes even ‘wild’.

The reality, however, is very different. I’m actually quite quiet, I struggle with small talk and it takes a while for me to feel comfortable around people. Despite this, there have been few occasions when I’ve not spoken my mind. I am not afraid to drink you under the table or debate politics, philosophy, music – any subject I think I can take you on with.

Luckily, I have incredible parents and family friends who seem proud of my ‘oddities’. My mum is the strongest woman I know (seriously – she’s a force to be reckoned with!) and my dad is a feminist through and through. We’re the type of family that’ll celebrate International Women’s Day instead of Valentine’s Day.

And, even more luckily, I live in one of the most multicultural, accepting cities in the world, London. But there’s still something missing. Reading Women & Power verbalised what I’ve always felt, but could never quite pin down.

“My basic premise is that our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male.”

My parents have always been brutally honest about the working world. “Work twice as hard and stand up for yourself. It won’t be fair. You will be judged. But you will not break. You will carry on and eventually someone will see your worth.”

I’ve worked in numerous industries and I’ve seen the best – and the worst. I’ve had suggestions ignored, only for them to resurface when they’re regurgitated by a man. I’ve been inappropriately felt up and labelled ‘slut’ when I said no. I’ve dealt with derogatory remarks labelled as ‘banter’, or been told I’m ‘sensitive’ when I call people out on a particularly racist or sexist joke.

“It is not just that it is more difficult for women to succeed; they get treated much more harshly if ever they mess up.”

For years, I’ve gotten on with it and followed my parents’ advice – keep your head down and it’ll improve. I’ve kept silent for so long and nothing has changed. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

Then, I became an aunt. And all I can think of when I see my amazing little niece is what I would do if anyone treated her in the same way. Even the thought enrages me and that, more than anything, has set something off internally.

How can we allow millions to give up their power and human rights on the basis of gender? How can I stand by silently and watch women be demoralised in my daily life? How will it ever get better for my niece if I won’t do anything now?

So, I resolved to stand up for myself more, to be more active in the fight for equality. But there have been consequences. I’m deemed too sensitive, a troublemaker, or rude. It hurt a lot to start with; friends started looking or treating me differently. But, you know what? I’m OK with it.  I’d rather be known as a trouble-maker; I’d rather progress slower than I would if I was a good, quiet worker; I’d rather be called a ‘bitch’ daily, than ever minimise myself again for the sake of a ridiculous patriarchy.

Weirdly, the hardest thing in sticking up for myself hasn’t been the outrageously sexist. They, at least, are fully aware of where they stand and how they act. It’s been those in denial, who refuse to believe it’s ‘that bad’ for women. Those who think things are equal, then turn around and unconsciously use the same derogatory language that has been used for millennia.

To those people, men and women, I beg you to read this book. Books like these are so vitally important in bringing to light the difficulties we still face.

Women & Power is a brilliant start to the discussion about the silencing of women. Beard traces the roots of this hatred against women back to Greek and Roman mythology, and she connects these historical examples to the modern-day mistreatment of women like Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. It’s incredible to think the same historic references are being used today’s society, but even Beard is just scratching the surface here.

The book is based on two lectures Beard has previously given. Though she’s purposefully kept it as close to the originals as possible, I wish she went further. She has put into words what I’ve felt my entire life, especially with this quote. In one sentence she summed up everything I’ve – and many women – have struggled with.

“What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don’t have – and that they want.”

When put like this, it’s this really so much to ask for?

6 thoughts on “Women & Power, My Own Manifesto

  1. Jessie @ Dwell in Possibility says:

    Thank you for sharing this post. I really enjoyed reading your well-written thoughts mixed with Mary Beard’s quotes. I’ve also resolved to be more vocal in the fight for equality and in my feminist beliefs. We have to start drowning out the incessant noise of both explicit and hidden sexism and misogyny, but it’s not an easy task. I’m really looking forward to picking up Women & Power soon!

  2. literarylad says:

    I appreciate the sentiment. While I have seen inappropriate behaviour by men (as well as by women) I have to say that your experiences don’t fit with what I’ve seen in my life in the UK. At work, I’ve usually found myself at a lower pay grade than most of my female colleagues. In the organisations I’ve worked in, I’ve seen women progress rather more easily than men.

    Mentoring programs are set up to teach women how to get on and allow them to make contacts further up the hierarchy (they’re not open to men – it’s assumed we have those skills, and the confidence required, already). Women get promotions on quotas rather than merit, because the organisation doesn’t want accusations of sexism (which only ever work in one direction, because men couldn’t ever be discriminated against, could they?)

    When women have children they get 6 months, sometimes more, paid leave. When men have children they get nothing. Women with children get ‘parents contracts’, which means they can get in late, leave early, take leave at short notice, all for the same wage as those of us who don’t have children, who have to cover for their absences.

    In many of the offices I’ve worked in there’s been a strict dress code of suit and tie – for men, while women can wear whatever they like, other than jeans.

    As a writer, I find that most of my competition is made up of women. When I see that they are generally more successful than me,I shouldn’t see it as discrimination, but it’s only human nature. It’s difficult to become a successful writer when you have to work full-time elsewhere to earn a living. And so many of my fellow writers and bloggers don’t have to work, because they’re supported by their partners, and they have, by their own admission, plenty of time to write.

    And sexually abusive behaviour isn’t restricted to men either. I’ve been touched up at work by women. At one place I worked I discovered that at the interviews the women in the office were grading the male candidates by how attractive they were.

    I do understand that there is still a lot of male misogyny out there. And the organisations I’ve worked for may not have been representative. In my life, at work and elsewhere, I’ve always called out inappropriate and discriminatory behaviour, whichever way it’s directed. Maybe my experience is unusual, but I don’t feel that my gender has been a factor that has made life easier for me. In some respects, just the opposite. I do feel there is a negative attitude in Britain today where the slightest suggestion of unfairness to women is accepted without investigation, whereas talking about possible discrimination against men is a taboo subject.

    I know I’ve gone on a bit! But while I fully respect how you feel about your experiences, and sympathise with the things you’ve suffered, I thought it might be useful for you to hear a different perspective.

    • parastoukhiaban88 says:

      Thank you for being so honest, I always enjoy your comments and I’m glad you’ve opened up. I’m sorry you’ve had such negative experiences too. Though I’ve focused on my own life (unavoidably female), I am completely against discrimination, be they male, female, Middle-Eastern, English… anything. And what you’ve experienced is despicable.

      I do disagree with a few points, however. Seeing as I’ve stated in my post I rarely back down on a good debate…you brought this on yourself haha!. The caveat here is that I don’t want to comment on your own experience, but what I know/understand of the points you’ve made.

      1) There is proven evidence of the gender pay gap in the UK, only hours ago the BBC reported the latest figures and 76% companies pay men more.
      2) Quotas are in place because women and ethnic minorities are so vehemently discriminated against, there had to be some measures put in place to avoid this taking place. If you think about it, it’s tragic that our society must rely on laws to impose a modicum of ‘equality’ in the recruitment process.
      3) Maternity law changed in 2015, both parents get 2 weeks, but the remaining 50 weeks of leave can be shared between parents.
      4) Yes, women are being offered flexible (parental) contracts in some companies. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that, based on our patriarchal society, the majority of responsibility of childcare is on the woman.
      5) Though I sympathise with the plight of any up and coming author, I think you’re being a little narrow-minded here. I’ve worked with many debut writers, most of whom worked two jobs and wrote their novels on their commute. Some of which, as you say, were ‘cared for’ by spouses, but there were just as many men in this category as women.
      6) Sexual harassment and discrimination is despicable in any organisation. Full stop.

      My argument, which echoes the book is that, over the centuries, the system has been built in a patriarchal way that silences women. What they bring to society is deemed of less importance and, even to this day, affects how we live our lives. From a young age, we are exposed to discrimination and sexually inappropriate behaviour and there is no one to tell us it is despicable. Instead, we are told to change and diminish ourselves to avoid a violent or aggressive response.

      It’s really upsetting to know you’ve had a terrible experience in your working life, and I appreciate you sharing an alternative perspective. It would be interesting to see your take on the book – Beard explains things better than I ever could!

      p.s. I think I matched you on the lengthiness of my reply!

  3. literarylad says:

    OK, thanks for a very considered (and lengthy!) reply. I can’t answer all of your points without taking too long (and in any case, I wouldn’t negate them all) so I’ll concentrate on one – the gender pay gap.

    The BBC, in common with most news channels. are very good at taking a bald statistic and making non-evidenced assumptions to explain it. If you look into the details of the figures, something they never bother to do, things look a little different. The last set of figures I analysed was the 2014 ONS annual survey, which covered full-time workers only, and showed that women actually earned more than men between the ages of 22 and 39. The most recent study:
    https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/annualsurveyofhoursandearnings/2017provisionaland2016revisedresults

    seems to contradict this, but does show the gap being small until the age of 39, when it begins to increase substantially.

    It’s easy for feminists to jump to the conclusion that any difference in earnings must be down to discrimination. The study suggests two other possible explanations. The first is that men and women often work in different occupational areas. Easy again to assume that means women are excluded from the best jobs, but as an example, how many women do you know who would be happy to do hard labour, outside in the cold and the dirt – these jobs tend mostly to be taken by (or forced on?) men.

    The second reason, given in response to the increasing gap after age 39, is that it’s ‘connected with patterns of return to work after having children’. Perhaps we should consider that a large part of the gender pay gap is down to a simple lack of experience and commitment? We live (supposedly) in a meritocracy. Not having kids, both myself and my wife have worked full time since leaving school, without any breaks (not that it’s done either of us much good – we’re both low earners). We’ve both worked alongside people who have taken long breaks to look after children. Many of these, when they do return to work, don’t do as many hours or show the same commitment as those who don’t have child care responsibilities. So should they really earn as much (after all, it was their choice to have children)?

    Things are changing now, but so far, it’s been mostly women who have taken on the responsibility of child care. I would suggest that accounts for a large part of the GPG. If we want to close the GPG, the answer is therefore to equalise child care between the sexes, not to scream ‘discrimination!’ And I would also say it’s wrong to blame men for pushing the responsibility for child care onto women. In my experience, it’s largely been the woman’s choice. Perhaps some women have felt that was expected of them. But consider also, perhaps men have felt they were expected to go out to work, and didn’t have a choice about that.

    It’s time we all started working together to address equal opportunities, rather than blaming one group or another.

    • parastoukhiaban88 says:

      I think we could discuss this for hours, which is the best thing about debate!
      I will say a few quick things in response. I agree the GPG can be skewed, it looks at the median pay gap on average in any one industry. And yes, there are some careers that are naturally tended towards the strengths of each gender (though I disagree with your comment on female labourers. I love DIY and wouldn’t actually mind the hard graft if it paid more!).
      I disagree with the notion that mothers should earn less because they’re not as committed (why would it not be the same case for a father?). And especially that it’s their choice to have children (I would hope the ‘choice’ would be undertaken by both parents – it does take two, you know!). I also think you misunderstood, I’m not man-hating here, I don’t think men are ‘pushing’ parenting on women. But you cannot deny that, historically, the onus is on the mother to care for the child. Society and centuries of practising the same gender roles still have a knock on effect today. Though things are slowly improving (shared maternity as an example) the pressure is still on. Girls are given toy babies and prams to play with as kids, what better way to put us on our place! From a young age we’re taught that the mother’s role comes first. I’m turning 30 and I can’t count the number of times I’m asked when I’ll settle down and start a family (by Iranians and non-Iranians alike!).
      Things are slowly changing, and the focus shouldn’t be on ‘fixing it for females’. The system should change. We need a system that allows freedom of choice for all genders, where you don’t need to force the notion of equality with laws and quotas and mentor groups. But we are a long way away yet and that’s why I chose to write the post. We need to encourage discussion and debate so change, however small, can start. It’s everyday decisions to judge men or women based on their gender that hinder change. If each person was a little more mindful of what they said and whether it is sexist (in either direction), racist, or prejudiced in general, the world would already be a much better place. For example, instead of saying ‘you p*$$y!’ or ‘you d!*k’, one could say ‘you coward’. Even small differences can change negative connotations over time. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

  4. literarylad says:

    I’m suggesting anyone should earn less for less commitment & experience – male or female. Historically child care has been undertaken by women. I’m not saying that’s how it should be, just positing it as a reason why women have less experience, less commitment, and therefore earn less. I would certainly support the idea that child care should be shared more evenly between the sexes (although it surely must be down to what individual couples want, rather than an imposition on them by government).

    And yes, the choice is by couple (except in the case of single parents). I’m saying that whichever of the couple, male or female (or both) commit more to child care and less to work, should expect to earn less. People choose to have children – I don’t see why those of us who don’t (male & female) should be disadvantaged.

    You’re so right – we do all need to work together. It saddens me that feminist commentators so often seem to treat men as the whole of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

    And yes, we could debate this for hours – and wouldn’t that be great? I really think that the honest and open exchange of ideas and experiences in a safe and respectful way is the way to create a fairer, more equal society.

    :¬]

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