NOTE: This was written in November, 2011 for the college newspaper after a domestic violence awareness event in mid-October, 2011. Since I am not in a good enough emotional state to write new material, I thought I’d share this with everyone.
It has not yet been a month since it happened but “Walk a Mile in Your Sister’s Shoes (WAMIYSS)” has alerted me of how “women” are viewed generally by society. I am shocked to see how rampant male chauvinism is and how the majority of men consider it as nothing amiss and how a lot of women regard this as acceptable. Literally walking in a woman’s shoes did not help me have an epiphany but I can tell for sure those yellow heels I strutted in took me more than the mile I had walked on [campus]. The following are some incidents and reflections upon them that have opened my mind toward feminism –
Incident #1: I was in a basic French class back in Burma and we were learning some adjectives. We had an exercise where we had to describe the general qualities that each of us looks for in a partner (of opposite sex). I wrote this: “I like girls who are intelligent, independent and individualistic,” and read it out to class when my turn came.
I received a shocking comment from the teacher, “Gosh, Han Zaw, you will never find a woman like that!” And all I saw in class were heads of both guys and girls unanimously nodding in agreement. This was a confusing statement because the teacher is a woman herself, is 27 and unmarried and somewhat exhibits the aforementioned characteristics that I admire in a woman. To me, her comment meant either, “Han Zaw would never find the kind of girl he likes because such girls do not exist,” or “Han Zaw would never get the kind of girl he likes because such girls do not need a man.”
Sadly enough, however, the nodding heads of the class confirmed that everyone in general was referring to the former meaning. It did not make me happy because I know that many intelligent, independent and individualistic women exist. I have even had one as my girlfriend. And more importantly, they do not realize that Aung San Suu Kyi, the most active political figure leading our nation toward democracy, is a woman. She is recognized internationally as a hero for her outstanding endeavours for our country. Aung San Suu Kyi might be too exemplary as a woman but there are also heroines among the common folks. Take my own mother for an example. She has been crippled for all her life because of post-polio scoliosis deformity but she studied to become a medical doctor and is happily married and has, along with my father, raised me and my sister very well. Her physical disability and her intellectual and emotional strengths have made traditional gender roles exchangeable in our household. Both of my parents work. Both of them do the cooking, the dishes, the laundry, housekeeping and etc.
Incident #2: I was peer-editing a final paper from my Block 1 class and I got to read Audrey’s paper in which she discussed how seriously misogyny developed during the Middle Ages and how it looms in modern society. Reading and reviewing the paper, I was baffled by how the writing seems so deeply personal and emotionally intense – although I did not take anything personal as a “man”. She mentioned some obvious but rarely acknowledged facts about sexism in society:
– How it is considered less offensive for a man to be called any names than being equated to a woman;
– How stereotypically emotional and helpless women are considered normal while women who speak their minds and act freely and independently are considered freaks;
– How sexually active women become “sluts” or “whores” when sexually active men can be proudly “macho”;
– How women are expected to be submissive to men and their desires;
Although I took them in rather objectively, I could not appreciate the gravity or the validity of the context. After WAMIYSS, I have had time to rethink about her paper. All she said was strikingly true and most men just take for granted the status of the dominant sex. It also made me respect those feminists – most of whom are women – who have audaciously and continuously pointed out these facts and more despite the chauvinistic ignorance of the male population.
Incident #3: During my first Block Break, I went camping with a group of people from Cornell. It was my first camping trip ever and it involved hiking and canoing. One afternoon, I was hiking with Lindsay who was a feminist, and we decided to get off the trails and take a shortcut back to the cabin. On the way, we had to go over a fallen tree which was on the slope we were climbing up. I have always had weak hands, arms, and fingers and I had a hard time climbing. As she helped me get over the tree, I said, “I’m such a girl.”
I got a spontaneous response from Lindsay, “Please don’t say that; it’s offensive.” I quickly apologized – not because I personally felt it as something wrong but because she was a new friend and a nice person and I did not mean to be rude. We were over it and I never had any retrospective thoughts about it.
However, while I was “walking the mile” in the heels, the hiking encounter flashed through the mind. I just found out how hard it is walking in heels and how much harder it is to have grace and poise while walking in them. Snow, a girl friend of mine from Burma, told me, “We wear heels because the look makes us fall in love with ourselves.” It is not at all appropriate to associate with women what we fail to do as men.
Men and women are obviously different but those differences do not mean women are weaker. In some ways, men are stronger, and in others, women are. As highlight, women in general live longer than men because they are more comfortable with abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. They are the ones who cope with menstruation, pregnancy and child birth. Moreover, they also either live up to without complaints or defy blatantly the chauvinistic expectations that we have on them as a society. Women have more complicated lifestyles than men and I have come to appreciate that.
Incident #4: I often come across supposedly funny pictures like the one below and had had some laughs about them. But when I came across this picture in particular – and it was after WAMIYSS – I got into a Facebook commenting battle with some of my male friends.
I was the first to comment on the picture. What I said: “This picture is sexist. Women are not material things.” The responses I got from my “friends” revolved around the two following ideas:
– “No wonder you’re gay!”
– “You’re one of them (women).”
The conversation went on till the person who posted the picture finally removed it.
There are lots of pictures and comic strips that make good jokes about people’s materialistic values but this picture in particular includes women among materials to be possessed by men. It also refers to the “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” and “Material girl” ideas – which imply women do not need or want love but only care about material riches. This picture proves that women are regarded by men as lower-than-human life forms and the fact that pictures like these can be easily found online means how wrongly people feel comfortable such degradation of a gender.
Looking back in my life, I discover many instances when I myself and the people around me, including women themselves, had misogynistic ideals. I recall a middle school teacher encouraging boys to be more diligent in their studies by claiming that only men can make the best out of the world. I regret telling my own sister she could never be as artistic or aesthetic as I am just because she is a girl – when actually she, by her own nature, is not artistically inclined. I have seen female patients at my parents’ clinics who do not speak out against domestic violence just because they believe it is culturally incorrect for them to defend themselves against their husbands.
I have come to a conclusion that sexism still exists although there have been women’s rights movements in many corners of the world and there are women playing vital roles in many fields. More importantly, I have also realized that the oppression or discrimination of women is mainly due to the male perspective of what a woman is. The WAMIYSS event has given me new outlooks on women and their lives and has enabled me to examine an important aspect of my life which I had never paid attention to – the aspect of interacting with women and appreciating their identity. I still have a lot more to learn but what I have learned so far has made me a new person. And for this I shall always thank my sisters from [the student organization that held the event] and those yellow heels that I had the privilege to walk in.
P.S. I’m mentioning some names here because Audrey, Lindsay and Snow had given me permission to use their names when I was writing for the school newspaper.