By Dr. AC Beyer
Women’s bodies are as oppressed as their minds. We torture our bodies with continual dieting, fasting, surgery, and many other procedures that are unnatural to fit a desired image of what a woman should be like. Our body represents our value for society, at least the male part, and we consider our bodies, and are considered, like a commodity that is taken to market for evaluation. Not only physically, though, we subscribe to the demands of a male dominated society. Also mentally and spiritually we conform with what is expected of us. Examples can be seen in girl’s choice of study and occupation, our consumption of popular culture, and the way we adapt different personalities from males to navigate our roles in the world, both private and public or professionally.
Freedom would mean something different. Freedom would imply that we accept our bodies, minds and personalities in the way they were given to us by nature and not pressed into form by men (in its neutral meaning). Freedom would allow us to play with stereotypes and adapt characteristics from both the male and female spectrum, as we please. Freedom would mean that this choice would go unpunished by society; in fact, society would welcome pluralism and variety in gender roles and representations.
This freedom is not yet given even in our Western societies. Women are still constantly reminded to be passive, caring and nurturing, not too demanding and not aggressive, ambitious or competitive. Women are still frowned upon when deciding freely on their choice of sexual and reproductive life outside of the norm, such as not having children, being lesbian or transgender or any other variation that comes to mind. Women still are reminded by society day in and out about the role they have to play, be it on television or in popular culture of any sort, be it in the economy, politics, or the professional environment. To just illustrate the point, I challenge you to find movies on the evening TV program or the recent cinema program that do not play to stereotypical gender roles and heterosexual norms (you know, where boy meets girl and in the end they marry and probably have kids). The exceptions are still scarce. I challenge you to adopt a gender role from another spectrum for a week in your daily life and not feel rejected, ridiculed or otherwise reminded of the inappropriateness of this behavior.
Freedom from these constraints will come from the body and the mind as well. Many women as well as men feel that these traditional stereotypes do not serve them well. They might be driven by sexual desire and orientation, or by discomfort with the social roles that are required from them according to their assigned gender, or any other reason. Disregarding if the motivation starts from the mind or body, the goal must be to loosen gender roles and stereotypes. We must create a society in which individuals can chose not only their religion, ideology, and nationality, but also their sexual partners, their occupation freely from all the professions, and from all the generally accepted character traits what they understand fits best their personality.
We still have a habit, for example, of pathologizing women (and men) who do not conform to societies expectations of demeanor: lesbians, gays and transgender individuals. The question that comes first - mental health as a cause for deviance or discrimination as a cause for poor mental health - has long been answered in favor of the second option. It is not sick to seek alternatives in life, it is society that makes those who wish to do so sick. Poor mental health is an outcome of wanting to live a live free from stereotypes and the struggles against social norms and oppression that comes along with it. This is but one indication that something has to change.
Some progress is made: Malala has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for her defense of education for women, a new female US President is possible, and many other positive changes might be happening. But much is left to be desired. I’m in favor of cultural avant-gardes. We need scientists, literature, science fiction, movies and other cultural products that enable us to see the possibilities and to dream of a future free of gender oppression and stereo-typisation. And here, the mind comes before the body. Because without being able to imagine a different future, it will be more difficult to achieve it for all the women and men who feel oppressed under the current system.
Dr. AC Beyer is Senior Lecturer at the University of Hull. Her main publications include: Inequality and Violence (2014 Ashgate) and Violent Globalisms (2010 Ashgate). More information at www.corneliabeyer.net.