I 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.
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?