To be honest, it’s really not that big of a deal. The view is very nice from where I sit–lots of powerful men in suits.
I went into undergrad thinking that I was going to be an engineer; that dream was squashed by the realization that I have a personality. Maybe it was my personality that got me in trouble with the professors–the world may never know. What I do know is that I was the victim (/clutches pearls) of misogyny and sex discrimination for the first time at the tender age of 18. I’m not saying it wasn’t understandable; it’s got to be weird for these lifetime engineers to all of a sudden be dealing with an increased concentration of female brain power. But what wasn’t understandable was for me to be sent out of a professor’s office not because our conference was over, but because there was a male student waiting. What wasn’t understandable was being blatantly–we’re talking, the “make eyecontact and pointedly look away” type of blatantly–ignored in class while the male students were favored. The assignments turned in by female students were graded more harshly, and the grades of female students trended lower than those of male students.
It sucked. I dealt with it because I thought I wanted to be an engineer. Nobody ever died of chauvenism, right?
In law school, I discovered a different brand of misogyny. It’s quieter. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to modify my personality both in the courtroom and the negotiation table; the first advice I was given when I was selected for membership on the moot court board was, “don’t come across as a bitch.” At an interview, I would never be caught dead in pants, much less shoes without at least a two inch heel–and that’s pushing the envelope. Wear a skirt, but not too short. But not too long. Wear heels–height matters. Be assertive, but not too aggressive–you might come across as a rabid feminist. That’s okay behavior for your worthless (yes, worthless) “Gender in the Law” class, but not for a true professional setting.
Also sucky? I guess it depends on how you look at it. I don’t particularly mind playing the part. When it comes to percentage of female partners, comparative income between male and female associates, and other statistics like that, though, things look bleak. Having to stack my resume has been exhausting. And yes, it is annoying to know that I will potentially make 73% (or whatever the latest statistic is) of what my male colleague makes; but all of that pales in comparison to what happens to women in the other three corners of the globe:
Women in Saudi Arabia won a small but promising victory this year. No, they aren’t being allowed to drive; that’s still forbidden. Most of the time, they still can’t work, travel or even open bank accounts without the approval of a male guardian. But they do have this: Saudi women can now buy lingerie in stores from female salesclerks, instead of the sometimes leering men who used to staff the counters. If this modest wave of liberalization continues, they may even get fitting rooms.
It doesn’t sound like much, but in the glacial process of modernization in the tradition-bound kingdom, it’s an important step. “This is the beginning of a real social change,” Eman Nafjian, one of the new generation of Saudi women’s activists, told me over coffee in Riyadh, the capital, last week. “It will allow more women to work in shopping malls. And that’s a step toward more opportunities for women’s employment in general.”
…and then I thought about how many stupid times a day women in America bitch and moan and complain about “equal rights.”
That’s not to say that income disparity between men and women is right, or that men should be able to discriminate against the women they work with. I’m not saying that at all, so read the rest of this post before you scroll down to the comments and start making asinine accusations. What I’m saying is that America at large should be appalled at the attitude regarding gender disparity in the west, because it is nothing–nothing–compared to what women in Saudi Arabia are put through on a daily basis.
At least in America, women have certain rights. We have the right to choose to use birth control. We have the right to choose an abortion. We are a suspect class. When these rights are unconstitutionally violated, I fully support a woman’s right to protest that violation–even when it comes to contentious issues like abortion. (If you want to get rid of a thing, you have to get rid of it within the confines of the law.) It’s wrong for an employer to pay a woman less than he would pay a man. It’s wrong for someone to treat people differently based on gender. It’s wrong for a man to feel justified in slapping me on the ass when we’re on our way into the courtroom.
But it’s also wrong for women in this country to act like lives are lost on a daily basis due to the sexism of our patriarchal overlords. There is a great difference between legitimate sex discrimination, and legitimate idiocy. There is a difference between sexual harassment, and men behaving like boys. There is a difference between traditional gender roles and gender repression. If you have to look for the injustice, it probably isn’t there–and that’s what I’m seeing in today’s society. Women–and some men, for God only knows what reason–looking for injustice. Looking for unfair treatment. Looking for a reason to point the finger and cry foul.
Looking for a reason to play the victim.
Women in Saudi Arabia don’t have to look for a reason to play the victim; they don’t have to sift through the evidence to find injustice–it’s all around. They wear it over their faces; it comes with them when they want to venture out into public. It is ingrained into their collective psyche. That ingrained, inherent injustice gives me perspective. The next time I cuss (not under my breath) about how uncomfortable my Spanx are, or how annoying it is to have to flirt without flirting just to insert myself into a conversation at a professional event (most of which feel like very a very vanilla version of Henry VIII’s court), I’m going to keep those women in mind. I’ll keep them in mind the next time I’m tempted to not force myself to go to an event on “raising awareness” about “women’s issues”; “raising awareness” is fine, but the women of Saudi Arabia who have decided to fight repression have inspired me to not only attend those events, but to stand up and ask these feminists what “raising awareness” really means. We all know about gender inequality–anyone who denies its existence either lives under a rock, or in a state of complete pigheaded denial–so what good does “raising awareness” do when we already know all about the thing we’re supposedly being made aware of?
It’s pointless, really.
American women–especially highly educated American women–who sit around with the goals of “raising awareness” and “exacting change” should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. How ridiculous we must look to the women of Saudi Arabia, whose only method of “raising awareness” is to do something brave, something that could end in arrest or public humiliation. Our enthusiasm for and embrace of the power of mental masturbation not only wastes time, it cheapens the movement. Protesting a simple request to not whip out a breast in public is not brave. Protesting a minor’s inability to pump unnatural levels of hormones into her system unsupervised is not brave. Staging estrogen-infused freakouts over nonissues is not brave–it is shallow, attention-seeking blog fodder.
Women in America fight over these issues because they are women. Womanhood is a very big deal to these people; you’d think having a vagina and a pair of breasts was something inherently special and rare. We fight because we are women, we argue because we are women, we go to work on “the issues” because we are women. Women women women. WOMEN. Sacred feminine. We are strong, we are equal, and we need special rules!
I’d like to challenge the women of America to take a look at the women of Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain, or Afghanistan, and do something truly brave. If you’re going to fight injustice and expose inequality, don’t do it because you’re a woman. Do it because you’re a person. Do it because the woman behind the veil is a person. Do it because the junior associate working late again is a person. Do it believing that personhood for all is more important than an overarching liberal agenda, or don’t do it at all.