Last year, my daughter, now 9, asked me to explain the meaning of “gender equality.” As I explained the meaning of this phrase she had encountered while reading a paper that I was writing, she asked me yet another question: “so why aren’t things this way, mommy?” My daughter was surprised and could not fathom the idea that “gender equality” does not exist in some places, including Kenya. In her view, it seemed obvious that women and men are equal. This conversation with my daughter reaffirmed to me that we are not born with the frame of reference that men have more “human value” over women (or vice versa) and are, therefore, not equal.
I am also reminded of the movie Half the Sky, which highlights many challenges girls and women around the world undergo on a daily basis. I recall what Rebecca Lolosoli, matriarch of the Umoja Women’s Village in Kenya who is also an advocate for women’s rights, in the film concerning the rights Kenyan women want: “We want to choose our husbands. We want to own land. We want to go to school. We don’t want to be cut anymore. We want also to make decisions. We want to participate in politics and be leaders. We want to be equal.”
Lolosoli’s repeated use of the phrase “we want” powerfully demonstrates that she has made a choice and taken a stand on what she and her fellow women want. Her statement points out that all of the things she outlines are lacking and are desired, such as human rights that are culturally inaccessible to many girls and women around the world just because they were born female.
Earlier this month, I initiated a conversation with the friend of one of my Facebook friends in response to a comment he wrote, claiming “men and women are not and can never be equal.” I knew that this was a very sensitive subject and, as we engaged each other in what was initially a very intense exchange, it is humbling to note that by the end of our conversation that day we had respectfully come to a mutual understanding and agreement that, indeed, men and women are equal in human value and dignity.
Unfortunately, the conversation did not end in the same manner with another individual who had joined this conversation. This person, who happened to be female, made a great effort to prove that men and women are not equal by quoting the Bible and punctuating her responses with insults and accusations directed at me for not agreeing with her views. I eventually had to respectfully end this conversation with her, but was again reminded that “gender equality” is a very sensitive subject that can lead to emotionally-charged conversations.
I have since had the same conversation with a few other people and something interesting emerged from these experiences. It occurred to me that sometimes some people interpret “gender equality” as meaning “gender sameness” in the sense of being identical. During some of these conversations it was pointed out that men can do this and the other while women cannot, which is what makes “men superior to women.” In my contribution to these conversations, I agreed that, indeed, men and women are not the same, noting that this is also demonstrated by the fact that men are referred to as “men” and women are referred to as “women.” So, by default, we have already acknowledged that we are different physiologically and in many other beautiful ways that complement us and that should be celebrated.
I felt that it was very important to further explore the term “equality” in relation to the statement that “men and women are not and can never be equal.” What stood out for me was the word “equal,” which introduces the element of value. In contextualizing this term, I noted that we are talking about “human value” as opposed to the “sameness” of men and women since the difference is already acknowledged in the lexicon.
I took the position that women and men are equal in “human value” in terms of our “humanness” and “humanity” and, as human beings, are equal in “human value” and “human dignity.” This seemed to also translate into the concept that in real life there are no “lesser human beings,” or a “half humans”. Challenging the validity of the implied concept of “lesser human beings,” or “half humans,” I questioned the claim that one half of humanity was superior to another in terms of “human value” for when we say “not equal” we mean that one entity has less value and, in this case, human value. I wondered about the unit of measure that could be used to measure “human value.” The concept of “lesser human beings” and/or “half humans” disintegrated. Since the context of this conversation was grounded in the idea that women were the lesser valuable half of humanity (and perhaps less human or half human), the burning question that emerged was: how is it possible that women, as “lesser human beings” or “half humans,” through the pro-creation process are capable of bringing forth full and legitimate human beings, or sons? This was only meant to be food for thought.
Another participant in this conversation, Cyprian Nyamwamu, a Kenyan gender equality and human rights advocate, noted that it is through socialization that “human value” is assigned. I could not agree more with Nyamwamu—it is through the cultural socialization processes of systems, like patriarchy, where people are taught that men are more valuable than women (or vice versa for matriarchal societies). It was humbling to note the understanding that emerged from the conversation with this gentleman that had helped us challenge certain cultural assumptions on the concept of “human value” and “gender equality.”
In his 2005 book, The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, Allan G. Johnson pointed out that “we are trapped in a legacy and its core is patriarchal. To understand it and take part in the journey out, we have to find ways to unravel the knot, and this begins with getting clear about what it means to be inside a patriarchal legacy.” Johnson asserted,
“Patriarchy is not simply another way of saying ‘men.’ Patriarchy is a kind of society and a society is more than a collection of people. As such, ‘patriarchy’ doesn’t refer to me or any other man or collection of men, but to a kind of society in which men and women participate.”
He further explained that “a society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It is also organized around an obsession with control and involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women.”
Since we were engaging in this conversation within an African cultural context, it was also important for me to point out that the concept of acknowledging and upholding “human value and dignity” is not a foreign or western idea because African philosophies and concepts, like Ubuntu which has been defined by Chiku Malunga as the “essence of being human” or “personhood,” accommodate this thinking. Ubuntu acknowledges our collective humanity as women and men. The term “Utu” in Swahili describes our ability to be humane and describes those who acknowledge and recognize our collective humanness and humanity as having “Utu,” or being humane.
After following and participating in our Facebook coversation, Nyamwamu posted a follow-up comment saying, “men and women are equal in human value. It is our socialization which assigns different value to different gender roles, especially in patriarchal societies, like ours. Various deliberate steps must be taken by each society to ensure that gender equity is realized. The discrimination and marginalization of women in governance, political, economic, social or cultural spheres is a phenomenon that we must defeat.”
It is my hope and deep desire that as stewards our cultures within the diverse social settings and institutions starting with our families, schools, religious organizations and others that embody the socialization machinery for current and future generations, we take the “deliberate steps” Nyamwamu talks about to initiate and sustain this important conversation on “gender equality” that can help us celebrate our differences as well as embrace our collective humanity by recognizing that girls, boys, women and men are indeed all human and therefore equal in “human value” and “human dignity” and that we all deserve to be treated as such.
We must point out that there are no “half-humans” or “lesser human beings” even as sometimes implied by certain cultural orientations and thinking. We are all equal in our humanness, humanity and human dignity and are, therefore, entitled to and deserving of the full realization of all of the human rights that are outlined in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It was deeply refreshing to hear President Barack Obama during his second inauguration address today note that “we are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.” If adapted and implemented by leaders around the world, Obama’s frame of reference would greatly enable our collective efforts to advance the realization of female human rights.