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Equity, not equality, for women and girls

(Illustration: Shutterstock)
One of the basic problems in advancing women’s rights in Jordan (and the world) comes from language. Are we looking to achieve “equality” or “equity” for women? The language we use is the first step toward drawing a roadmap for what we want to achieve, and that is precisely where feminists have failed across four waves of feminism.اضافة اعلان

In Jordan, feminism is multifaceted and reflects a wide spectrum of ideas and concepts about women’s role in society, economy, and politics. If you interview women from various backgrounds in Amman and across Jordan, you will arrive to the conclusion there is no one reading on what “feminism” or “women’s rights” (which are not synonyms) mean to them. It usually is up for personal interpretation and can vary from generation to generation and from locality to locality.

Many Jordanian women prefer not to label themselves as “feminists” and have their own unique way of marrying their conservative upbringing (and learned skills at maneuvering societal restraints) with more progressive ideas about women’s right to work, freedom of movement, and economic independence.

In light of this, the problem with local women’s rights movements has historically been about their lack of inclusion. The earlier generation of leading local feminists were known for a specific understanding of what women’s rights should be, believing they had the right to impose their vision on the rest of society, without ever bothering to ask women from different socio-economic backgrounds about what they truly wanted for themselves and their daughters.

In the 1990s, Arab and Jordanian feminists started adopting language popularized by second-wave Western-style feminism that hit the US around 30 years earlier. Back in the 1960s, “women’s lib” (short for “Women’s liberation movement”) introduced a more combative era for women’s rights in the US, with a type of lingo that became a favorite among non-Western feminists across the world.

The (late) arrival of “women liberation” attitudes to the Arab world was thanks mostly to Egyptian activist and writer Nawal Saadawi, who passed away at age 90 in March 2021. A whole generation of feminists was fueled by Saadawi’s combative language, which in many ways reflected the 60s brand of feminism in the West.

As a result, Jordan’s feminist pioneers adopted the term “equality” as the backbone of their movement, often clashing with conservative views regarding women’s role in society. In turn, conservatives, and Islamists in particular, ended up demonizing ultra-liberal Jordanian feminists and their libertarian tendencies, accusing them of wrecking all social contracts in favor of a Western version of feminism that fails to factor in local contexts like history, religion, and social makeup.

Whereas over the years Jordanian women have been able to evolve in ways that consolidated conservatism with liberalism, language, too, needs to evolve to reflect the reality of their context.

A case in point is in how the word “equality” has started unfolding as a seriously problematic concept four years ago, when the #MeToo movement (and hashtag) took the US and the world by storm.

Following decades of self-imposed blindness to women’s real work conditions at workplaces, from Hollywood to less glamorous offices and factories, present-day fourth-wave American feminism has made it possible for the world to see the reality of women’s professional lives: women have for decades been suffering from predatory behavior by their male bosses and peers, while keeping silent about it.

Although not yet scrutinized as it should be, the term “equality” has acted like a blindfold preventing women rights movements and society at large from seeing the reality of womankind’s strife in real life. Due to #MeToo, story after story came out of women being sexually harassed, manipulated, and raped in environments where they should have been safe.

Worst of all, women have been misleadingly celebrated for “conquering” new work frontiers, with the high price tag of silently enduring inhumane levels of discrimination and harassment, only to keep a faux image of equality and to keep their jobs.

Because of language, women’s role in society, economy and political life has been marred by an under-reported culture of sexual predation that has been systematically ignored – in a naïve attempt by second and third-wave women rights activists to gloss over the serious challenges facing women.

“Equality” has in effect denied women a fair chance at creating safeguards, like sound laws and legislation, to protect them from the “male gaze”, a phrase used by American actress Meryl Streep at the onset of the #MeToo movement.

A couple of decades ago, confessing to the truth about the male-female dynamic would have subjected the actress to the unchecked wrath of earlier feminists, who wanted to cancel the 1950s stereotype women were the “weaker sex”.

Putting a delusional blindfold on our eyes in the name of “equality” is plain wrong and counterproductive. It is about time we understood the dynamics between men and women in realistic terms to, yes, “protect” women. This by no means implies that all men are predators, but let us face it, a culture of male predation is indeed rife across the planet.

That is why “equity” is a better word to describe what many women are trying to achieve. Another concept to think of is “contextual equity”, where women’s rights are advanced against the backdrop of their societies, especially that we need to start coming to terms with the fact that there is no blueprint that fits all women in every society.

This kind of one-dimensional thinking is one of the main problems plaguing international think tanks and policy hubs, like UN Women (whose newly appointed executive director is Jordanian compatriot Sima Bahous).

For years, UN Women have come up with social media campaigns developed (or at least approved) by their New York team, who seems to have a very poor understanding of cultural trends outside of the US. Some of these campaigns have carried ultra-progressive messaging that works for a left-leaning US audience, but sounds offensive and inappropriate to an Arab one.

With no cultural sensitivity and a complete absence of respect for social codes in non-US contexts, such as the Jordanian society, the organization has launched those same campaigns across every one of their social media channels to target women from all countries, regardless of their religious and social backgrounds.

Like many other women policy hubs, UN Women’s continued tendency to flatten context has worked against women empowerment, subjecting multi-cultural females to “imported” notions about women’s rights and freedoms. Once tested in real life, culturally insensitive activism will continue to breed more discrimination, sexual harassment and objectification – in the absence of context.

That is why “equity” can help us rethink policies that aim to achieve two things at once: Women “empowerment” and “protection”. An attitude of equity and fairness will help us see that harassed women need hotlines to seek help when a boss or coworker insults them with unwanted advances. Women and girls need effective laws to help them end verbal and physical gender-based violence at home and at work. And battered women need safe houses to run to when brothers and husbands decide to break them just because they have less muscle.

That is why, it truly is time to call for equity, not equality, for women and girls.

Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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