Nesrine Malik’s We Need New Stories: Myth of Gender Equality | The Background

Monday, November 29, 2021

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Nesrine Malik’s We Need New Stories: Myth of Gender Equality

In British Journalism Review, journalist Peter Oborne described Malik as writing “with wit and punch about race, class, and gender, as well as Islam”.
The Sudanese born author is based in London. Her book We need New Stories was published in 2019, where she discussed toxic myths on matters such as gender equality, freedom of speech, political correctness, racial and identity politics and national myths. Professor Abu Siddik paraphrased and abridged the chapter on the myth of gender equality below. He will do so with some of the other chapters as well.

“In Britain, I began to see these tales being told on a cultural, not just individual, level, to justify the way things were and preserve the status quo. But they were not harmless self-comforting bedtime stories; they were toxic delusions that had a purpose, to stymie change.” Malik chose six most influential myths behind our age of discontent. These myths are ‘tools’ or argumentative techniques ‘spun by those who get to speak, who have the platforms, those who have historically accumulated the influence and power, who, culturally are defined as its vessels (Intro).’ They are spun out of several skillfully woven untruths favouring not only those who are in power but those who benefit from power.
Malik claims We Need New Stories (2019) is not a book about a ‘cultural war’ between conservative and liberal forces or the erosion of the ‘centre ground’. She affirms that there is no ‘cultural war’ as such with regard to the ‘fundamental beliefs that underpin the status quo and sow discontent. Both the political right and left exist within a flawed system that will periodically revert to its basest fears and hatreds, voiding all that went before it.’ The book does not suggest rewiring or denying human nature. It suggests that ‘we simply need to acknowledge that when perversions in our collective storytelling happen, they should, and can, be unwritten’. It is an attempt to ‘tackle specifically the very obvious ways in which history, race, gender, and liberal values are being leveraged to halt in its tracks any progression towards disrupting a centuries-old establishment of hierarchy which is paying dividends for fewer and fewer people.’ She shows the way myths work and the way the ‘most pernicious myths can be successfully challenged’ (Intro.).
Myth of Gender Equality:
Every day, women are giving up rights involuntarily to live in an order not optimized for their individual or collective happiness or their safety. As hard-worn abortion rights in the US are rolled back, as the gender pay gap continues to persist and even widen. And as cyber sexual harassment and online abuse becomes an everyday part of a woman’s life. But women are told not only those things are fine, but they have never been better. And even the liberals and the respectable media of US and UK take pride in this false scene of gender equality and women empowerment. A woman is told, through all the mediums of her socialization-family, popular culture, marketing and social interactions—what her value is. She is handed her currency and taught how to exchange it in the market place. To be a woman is akin to being a prisoner with something to trade—cigarettes, alcohol, sexual favours, anything you have at your disposal. The most powerful woman to the naked eye—financially independent, educated, fully employed and equally paid, living in a society with robust laws protecting her rights to freedom from gender discrimination—is not exempt from this barter economy.
The myth in the West claims that we are on our way to building a society in which women have secured all the rights, sexual freedom, contraception, maternity leave, marital choice, and so any inequality beyond that is just biology. This myth employs three arguments. The first is complementarity, a socio-biological determinism which holds that biology dictates social roles and behaviour. The second is progress, positing that any advances in women’s rights at any point in time are exhaustive. The third, meritocracy, argues that the reason for under-representation of women is because they just do not work hard enough, are just not good enough. These arguments are then reinforced by an argumentative tool ‘the set up’, a way of constantly killing the question for more rights by indulging in comparative deflection: Are things not better today? Don’t you see how others elsewhere are faring?
Both Eastern and Western societies have their own myths that preach women are protected from male predators, and that when they suffer sexual harassment or assault it is somewhat they have transgressed. In Sudan or Saudi Arabia I was told that if I followed the rules, dressed modestly and availed myself of the protection that society had provided for me in the form of male guardianship, then no harm would befall me. In the UK, I was told while working in finance that non-advancement of women was a burden of biology. Women, the weaker, the more vulnerable are not overburdened.
In Western societies, however, we can easily dismiss this determinism as backward when it is dictated by religion or mullah-led governments in countries that are ‘other’. But the very same fallacy runs the logic of female subordination everywhere. From Tehran to New York, women will be told that they are asking for it if they wear a short skirt in a bar or a loose than an acceptable burqua in the street. The preachers of the myth claim that bad male behavior is inevitable and thus excusable if women provoke it are not just restricted to religion. Sexual conservatism, and slut-shaming, rigid heteronormativity, and casual misogyny are quite natural in Western societies and their cultural capitals. The regressive gender roles are still alive in academia and science. The road of biological determinism is an easy way to discount bad male behavior and chastise women for demanding better. And it is promoted by not mullahs or clerics but by the scientific, progressive communities too.
The fondness of measuring the present in terms of how much better it is than the past, rather than how bad it is objectively, is not merely a feature of conservative thinking. It is also beloved of a certain type of neo-liberal intellectual. The West was ‘born’ at some point; then its DNA or moral blueprint came during the Enlightenment and then the West grew into the adult success that it is today. It would see progress as a function of a set of values—rationalism, humanism, commitment to scientific inquiry, individualism, than the toil and the struggle of the weak and the disenfranchised throwing themselves into activism and martyrdom against the institutions that work to exclude them. With this exceptionalism comes a myopia that can only see prosperity as a function of a benign capitalism leveraged to the good of man, rather than local and global exploitation of free and cheap labour. Enlightenment fetishisation is an ahistorical perspective, and if it was applied to gender equality in particular, it would suggest that the state of women before then was uniformly awful. It does not take into account , for instance, how the laws of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who encoded one of the earliest and most complete written codes circa 1800 BC, gave women some divorce and alimony rights, introduced death penalty for some forms of rape, and upgraded women’s business and property ownership rights. Most of Hammurabi’s code vis-à-vis women saw their rights a s derivative of men’s, but nevertheless the new laws were also ‘progress’, and did not need the cloak of European Enlightenment. When Islam was introduced to the Arabia peninsula, it eradicated the custom of burying female babies, gave women inheritance and divorce rights, and limited polygamy. You are certainly scoffing at these three examples as evidence of progress, but if you do, you must also be prepared to reassess what counts as progress today.
The fixation with progress overlooks the real danger of backsliding. Trump’s 2014 revocation of Fair Pay and Safe Workplace order, his reversal of a directive that forced universities to quickly investigate on-campus sexual assault, his proposal for withholding federal funding from healthcare schemes such as Planned Parenthood are cases to be seriously considered. A 2017 study found progress towards gender parity shifted into reverse. So even if one were to cite inexorable improvement in the world’s only super power and the land of the free, one must concede that ‘progress’ was not fuelled by the principles of Enlightenment and oiled by the invisible hand of capitalism. It is a tentative and fragile state which is sustained by the efforts of constant activism and vigilance, both on the ground and on the ideological battlefield. And the quietism of progress does not account for the reactionary backlash that progress often triggers, which makes it doubly difficult for the dermal layer to be treated, for ‘the wound to heal’.
The fixation of meritocracy upholds the belief that people’s chances of life are influenced only by their ability and work ethic, rather than gender, class, race or sexual orientation. But the assumption that everyone has the same starting points in life, as well as equal opportunities on the way, is one that can be easily disproved by how income and opportunities are limited or boosted by one’s class [caste in Indian context] and identity profile. It suggests that gender disparity is a natural corollary of biological determinism and death of meritocracy. These two argumentative tools suggest that women are actually supposed to have different jobs that pay les, depressing their numbers in the rank of decision makers or their meritocracy has failed. Are not women’s performances being artificially depressed?
Clinging to meritocracy by both men and women can be interpreted less as a commitment to ensuring that all are compensated commensurately for their effort, but as a protection of the inherent natural advantages that an unregulated market meritocracy affords those who have a head start by virtue of their class, gender or race. There is an interesting synergy between those who believe biology as destiny and those who believe in a neoliberalism that holds that individual autonomy free of state intervention is the best way to achieve social harmony. They both posit that at heart, the law of the jungle and the brutal order that maintains order and status quo. Even the world’s most progressive company Google is not friendly to diversity and change that challenges Eurocentric sense of complacency.
The women’s bargain is not just a quotidian feature of a woman’s life. It is a fundamental structural fault that is hardwired into the patriarchy. What is required is policing of cultures that do not stigmatize bad male behavior. Of all toxic myths, the myth of gender parity is needs a thorough overhauling. The myth based on three popular arguments, supported by both male and female—complementarity, progress, and meritocracy thwarts any attempt to heal the wounds of gender jeopardy at home, in workplace or elsewhere. But there is a silver lining: the move towards justice happened slowly and cumulatively, via the compound effort of women who refused to believe that the sanctity of their bodies should be traded for their professional success, those who refused to be grateful and those who did not accept the stale logic of biology.

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