The first time I noticed the observance of the International Women’s Day was in 1999. The streets of Dhanmondi, where I used to live back then, were decorated with many posters about the day, with the tagline “Imagine a world without women.” We were still in school back then, and did not approach anything in life with seriousness. So we laughed it off, accompanied with the standard “what good is one day” argument. I don’t know if this has anything to do with us being guys, or us being kids, or some combination of both.
All these years later, at least my feelings on the matter have changed. Today, a little more mature and lot more world-weary, I can appreciate the horror of a world without women. Why do I say this? In both sciences and history, there is enough evidence today of how women can and have been a force for peaceful, synergistic solutions in a world where men are more inclined towards imposing their wills on others or trying to solve problems through the use of strength. The famous popular science writer Carl Sagan, in his book The Demon-Haunted World, writes about a tribe in Africa where whenever the men are engaged in some argument, the women make it a point to stow away all the weapons and force the men to talk it out. Nor is this just an anecdote. Enough scientific foundation exists for us to claim that women tend to favour the pursuit of harmony and understanding, while men often tend to solve problems through competitions.
The pursuit of equality in all walks of life has been the eternal pursuit of women all around us. Everywhere we see, women have to fight for their rights. I am sure our female comrades do not mind the challenge. What becomes a problem is when they are not given a level playing field. A lot of potential employers still tend to shy away from recruiting female candidates, saying that they are not suited to the kind of work necessary. We are probably past the days when parents did not feel the need to get their daughters an education, but an attitude is prevalent where the daughters are not encouraged to study science or engineering because such fields are too demanding for women to be in. In some households, it is even tacit that the daughter is only getting an education to conform to social standards, and will not ever use her degree or skills in order to pursue a career in her field. As soon as her education is done, she will be married off to someone and become a housewife. As a university teacher, I have even had to hear this from the female students themselves, how they are not worried about grades since they will never use these classes anyway, and how their parents already have potential husbands lined up for as soon as they are done with the program. Of course, everyone has all the right in the world to choose how to live their life. But a pursuit for equality seems doomed to failure if such attitudes do not change, and there is actually much that women can do in order to expedite the process.
This is where I have to say a few things that may not be very popular or even acceptable to talk about. As already mentioned, a lot of potential employers do not want to recruit female candidates, citing that they are not suited for the work. This is particularly true for the kind of jobs where there is a lot of commuting, or keeping odd hours. Now it is true that a lot of women do tend to shy away from such occupations, but a good number of women are getting into such jobs now and are not lagging behind their male counterparts in any way whatsoever. However, if this perception is to change, a lot more women need to step up and accept these challenges. Over time, the prejudice will be taken care of. However, it can only be eliminated by conscious effort. There are a lot of reasons why a woman may not feel comfortable with odd working hours or commute times, but it seems to me that as long as women allow themselves to be limited by these, true equality will remain elusive.
However, men also have a lot to contribute to the movement for equality. First of all, men need to understand that the biggest reason why they should put in substantial effort into women empowerment is not that it is good for the women, but because it is honourable for the men. The history of humanity is full of many different types of discrimination, but most of them are motivated by the oppressors somehow feeling insecure about the people they oppress. One might even say that there is concentrated effort to make sure that the oppressed community never receives the same opportunities as the oppressors, perhaps out of fear of being outperformed. By this token, it is essential that all self-respecting men everywhere insist on equality, if only so that they can claim with a clear conscience that they are not somehow intimated by women getting the same opportunities and showing them up. I am not saying that this is the primary reason, or even one of the more prominent reasons why men should support women’s pursuits or equality. However, even in the absence of all higher calling, every man should insist on equality just so he cannot be accused of not giving women an equal shot lest he fail to match her in competence.
Lastly, let me mention a point that we often overlook. What women are demanding is equality. Equality might be a rough road, but we have to let them walk it. Often in the workplace and in academic institutions, there is this tendency to patronise women and demand less from them, at least implicitly if not explicitly. When a woman performs a task, she is complimented on it profusely while a man performing the same task would barely get a nod. In schools, a girl doing somewhat above average in class is heartily congratulated by everyone, including her teachers, but the same is not true for a boy. In case this is unclear, such behaviour is not conducive to equal rights. Equal rights must correlate with equal responsibilities, and there can be no true equality of opportunities without the equality of assessment. To patronise a woman, to express great satisfaction every time she completes some basic duties, is to indirectly imply that she is somehow deficient and thus needs constant approval and encouragement. She does not. What a woman needs is a level playing field, the same training and resources, and the same standards of performance. Only then can we claim to be moving towards equality. And in case anyone still doubts this, there is no way we can survive this new era in history if we are not even ready to grant half our population an equal status, equal rights and equal responsibilities.
Hammad Ali is a teacher of Computer Science and Engineering at BRAC University.