Women should stop putting up with the casual put-down
Alice Wu says women should speak up against being talked about – or talked to – in a way that is discriminatory. Words are important as they reflect our character
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 gender gap index, we will be long dead before the gender gap closes entirely, in 2186. The index also found that progress has decelerated, stalled or reversed in nations around the world. Perhaps most worrying is that the gap in political empowerment was particularly pronounced in the United States, which ranked 73rd in that category – and this was before Donald Trump was elected president.
There are still places where women are not allowed to testify in court, not even when they have been assaulted and raped. The cruel and harmful practice of female genital mutilation continues in the world today. Words that demean women as fat, ugly or nasty, or those dehumanising women and reducing them to an animal, an object or a mere body part may seem trivial, but they’re not. And any suggestion about grabbing women by their private body parts is definitely not OK. As long as such talk is deemed excusable, or even encouraged in any way, women are in harm’s way.
There is a lot of work to be done, and as we – men and women – celebrate International Women’s Day on Wednesday, I hope we will all aspire to be better people, beginning with the way we talk about and to women. This is not about political correctness, but about respect. The words we choose are reflections of character.
After former Security Bureau chief and current lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee announced that she was pulling out of the chief executive race because she did not secure enough votes to be nominated (a process made much more difficult this time around), I was distraught to read the many jokes made about her. One stood out for me. It connected Ip to the negative stereotype of the “female boss”. I have actually heard that Ip is very respected as a boss. It was a swipe at Ip, masked in a gender stereotype. We do not need to agree with Ip’s politics, but to fault her for being a woman is just ignorant.
Perhaps we have become desensitised to these insensitive comments made casually, and the time has come to be sensitive to them. We have to be more aware of the words we use, often without much thinking, precisely because they shed light on our subconscious.
Since author Rebecca Solnit penned the essay “Men Explain Things to Me” in 2008, “mansplaining” has taken on a life of its own. In the essay, Solnit wrote: “Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence … It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
It is pretty prevalent – the condescending and sometimes completely false explanations (“alternative facts”) offered as a way of belittling, discrediting and, ultimately, silencing women. Solnit wrote that “a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening and progressing – though too much is parlaying and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots”.
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A few weeks ago, I had a most surreal conversation about Lent. I had voiced my objection to the church holding carnivals during Lent, and as a result I was “mansplained” by a priest who said that my understanding of the word carnival is not the same as the Chinese word for carnival (classic gaslighting). Granted, the mansplaining priest isn’t known for his women-empowering ways or intellectual pursuits, but his overconfidence is pitiful. For the record, the Chinese word for carnival is a transliteration of the word “carnival”, much like the Cantonese word for “taxi”. Carnival is actually a Western Christian festive season that occurs before, and definitely not during, the liturgical season of Lent.
The theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is #BeBoldForChange. One thing we can do in our everyday life is to start being bold about speaking up against the “little” things, against every attempt to gaslight and belittle women.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA