Saturday, April 27, 2013

Gender hierarchy: a dangerous paradigm

"Every expression of male arrogance over women demeans the dignity of both sexes."

Have you heard about the Clothesline Project?  

A coalition of women's groups came up with the idea back in 1990. They were responding to a most alarming statistic: 58,000 American soldiers died in the Viet Nam war, and during that same period, 51,000 women in the United States were killed by their intimate partners. 

While the project initially focused on domestic abuse, the aim of the project is to heighten awareness regarding violence against women.  The Clothesline Project does this in a simple, but powerful way. Victims of violence paint a T-shirt to communicate their experience of abuse, and hang the T-shirt on the Clothesline. 

No community is exempt 
From the Clothesline Project, Trail BC
L. McEwan photo
We might like to think that our communities are exempt from the reality of violence against women and girls, but this reality is present in every community in every country on the planet. Some acts of violence against women and girls, like the 1989 Montreal Massacre, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, or the rape and subsequent suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, become part of the public domain.  Others remain private, occurring behind closed doors, hidden under clothing, and concealed in a web of lies.  The Clothesline draws our attention to these private acts of violence against women. When T-shirts flutter in the breeze outside the local supermarket, the presence of violence in our community becomes a harsh reality. 

Culturally and religiously conditioned, gender hierarchy distorts the fullness of our humanity

Gender hierarchy is one of the underlying causes of violence against women. Gender hierarchy is culturally, and religiously conditioned. Culturally accepted (think of  “honor killings”), and Biblically rationalized (think of “wives obey your husbands”), gender hierarchy reduces male/female interactions to domination and subordination.

Domination has many expressions. Some, like Muslim women walking around in tents because men perceive their bodies as sexually provocative, are blatantly obvious. Others, like North American men describing strong, talented women in the boardroom as “bitches”, are subtler. Every expression of male arrogance over women demeans the dignity of both sexes.

Gender hierarchy distorts our understanding of what it means to be fully human.  Over the millennia, this distortion reduced men and women to a series of stereotypical and opposing traits. The so-called male traits (strength, aggression, rationality and intelligence) were placed on a higher level than the so-called female traits (weakness, meekness, irrationality and emotion).  Instead of integrating strength with compassion, self-assurance with humility, and rationality with nurture, cultural assumptions diminished men and women to an “either/or” proposition. It is time to cast off this ratty, old mantle of distortion that fuels violence against women, and tears the soul apart.

Gender hierarchy crops up everywhere. We find it in myth, in literature, in the art forms, in our institutions, and in our places of worship.  It has inserted itself into this column in the conventional word order that places “male” before “female”. We incorporate it into our psyches, and propagate it unconsciously, passing it onto our children in a myriad of ways, including the repetition of nursery rhymes that appear innocuous:  “What are little boys made of?/ Slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails. /What are little girls made of? /Sugar and spice and everything nice.”  Men are supposed to be nasty, and women are supposed to be nice. It’s a dangerous paradigm.

The destructive results of this cultural paradigm hung on the Clothesline in my hometown for all to see. While I was talking with the organizers of the event, I observed that the majority of passers-by ignored the Clothesline. Were they too busy to stop, or was the subject matter too upsetting to ponder? 

Let the T-shirts speak
The Clothesline presents us with a choice. We can walk by or we can stop to discern its message. It was a message that surprised me with its optimism. Where I expected to see dark and disturbing images, I saw T-shirts that communicated healing and forgiveness. 

From the Clothesline, a challenge for human society
L McEwan photo

We can let the T-shirts accomplish their goal of opening our consciousness to violence against women.  We can change the cultural paradigm if we begin to challenge the assumptions that first created the problem so many centuries ago. However, if we persist in nurturing a false understanding of what it means for us to be human, gender hierarchy will continue to leave its sinful stamp on individual lives and on human history. 

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