They were speaking in hushed tones but I could hear them because the walls were thin and because I was an avid eavesdropper. The Mothers’ Union group that met at home on Sunday afternoons was counseling a woman who seemed set on leaving her violent husband.
“Don’t leave him,” they chorused. As a good godly woman, they said, she needed to examine herself and then rid herself of the habits that were likely to make her husband angry enough to beat her.
Don’t burn the food. Don’t be late from doing anything. Don’t go anywhere without his permission. Don’t retaliate when he lashes out. Don’t get tired. “Don’t be an actual human being,” I remember thinking to myself when they were done making lists.
But this woman, our neighbor, was married to a public nuisance. The man spent his days using his wife’s hard earned money to drink himself to a stupor. He spewed senselessness at every passer-by, be it man, woman or child.
My twelve-year-old mind couldn’t understand why he was allowed the luxury of being flawed and she wasn’t. Why wasn’t there any retribution for his unproductivity? Why the double standards?
The answer came to me almost a decade later. Sexism. Sexism is the reason why the entire village would have been scandalized if she had beaten him for taking money meant for their children’s fees and spending it with his friends at the local bar.
No one would have told him to stop drinking to avoid getting a beating from his wife. Instead, a village meeting would have been convened to find a way to return this ‘uncultured’ woman to her people.
Sexism is the reason why a man will confidently say that if a woman is dressed in a way that he deems inappropriate, it is well within his rights to subject her to sexual assault.
It is because of sexism that girls are trained to behave while boys are left to run wild and free. Girls are admonished for being unemotional and boys are ridiculed for expressing their feelings. Girls are told not to fight but boys are told that fighting is manly. In the end, these boys turn into men with fragile egos, men who have no healthy outlet for their emotions. So of course they are more prone to violence.
Sexism is the reason why spousal abuse is discussed in hushed tones. It is treated as a sensitive family matter instead of being intolerably punished for the gross violation of human rights that it is.
It should be over by now. Sexism should not have a place in the 21st century. There are countless laws that put emphasis on the equality of men and women. But for every law on equality, there is a cultural or religious norm which ensures that women are kept in ‘their place.’
There is a bible verse telling women to submit to their husbands. There is a cultural ceremony in which a girl is ‘given away’ by her parents to a boy’s family in exchange for a few ‘gifts.’
Today marks the end of this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign and my takeaway is that as long as sexist societal constructs continue to exist, there will be no end to gender based violence.