How do we begin to understand equality in a world where there are too few examples of what equality looks like? Too often, men and women would misunderstand “equality” as “equal treatment”, such as below:
It is very important to bear in mind that the left image above does not show “equality” but “equal treatment” vs the image on the right which shows “equitable treatment”. In fact, under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) of the United Nations, the image on the right actually shows what we must do in order to achieve “substantive equality”, that is, the resulting benefits are equally enjoyed and made a reality equally for all. This is what we mean when we say “equality”, that the resulting privileges and benefits must be equally accessible to all, without any form of hindrance—structural, procedural, and so on.
So it is no surprise that many people misunderstand “equality” to mean “equal treatment” and the immediate response to the demand for gender equality would be to take the worst case scenarios of the cisgender male, and pose the question if women would like to experience the same. Like carrying heavy things as labourers or working under the sun as construction workers, not realising that women do work as construction workers under the sun in many countries as well as carry heavy things. There are men too who would start to accuse women of not conforming to their “God-given” gender stereotyped roles of home maker — wife, mother and caregiver — and in trying to grab men’s status of importance which in effect brings a lot of privileges because of how men are valued more than women in a patriarchal society. Yet, in reality there are many women who have become heads of households because they are widowed, divorced, or because their husbands have married younger wives and/or abandoned their families. They play the role but their status is not elevated in society. In fact, some may be stereotyped and stigmatised as not being able to “keep a man happy”, especially for divorcees. This perception of “equal treatment” is also used when it comes to perpetrating sexual abuse and harassment of women and girls. Yet, none of the same men and women who oppose the idea of gender equality would ask women if they wanted the same privileges as men, if they wanted to have the same salaries as men, the same right to go out at night and be with whomever they want, the same right to divorce, the same right to dress as however they wanted, the same privilege of being believed, the same privilege of being valued, etc.
I remember one conversation I had with a friend of mine during lunch, where she mentioned that her cisgender male friend had said that he wouldn’t mind it if a woman sexually harassed him. I said to her, that’s because, in his mind, his sexual harasser is a woman who’s beautiful and sexy. What if the woman was someone he’s not sexually attracted to, who grosses him out in every way, who is married yet wants to keep another man as her toyboy, whose touch makes him cringe because it’s invasive and removes his right to his bodily autonomy? What if he has a penile erection when he really doesn’t want it to happen, and it makes him extremely embarassed, guilty, angry that his body betrayed him, and uncomfortable? My friend went into deep thought.
It is interesting to observe that how we unconsciously understand and process “equality” can be different at different stages of our lives. We had the opportunity to run a focus group discussion on the graphic novel, REVOLUSIS, with students of SJK(T) Bayan Lepas on 18 February 2020. We were fortunate to have the support of the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives to do this activity. The children were between the ages of 10 and 12 years old. Both boys and girls were equally rejecting the idea of an adult like DJ Koko, a sleazy character in the graphic novel, marrying a teenager who’s suppose to be in school.
Both boys and girls said they would hit out at DJ Koko and would not let him touch them.
Interestingly, there was no bravado among the boys. There was no assumption that sexual harassment would never happen to them. They somehow knew that they were equally vulnerable to the issue of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, although they may not have articulated it as such.
Angela M. Kuga Thas, 27 March 2020