Oppression of women

During my university days in the late 1980s, South Africa’s racist policies were a hot topic.

Students held protest rallies, passed around petitions demanding that our school divest from anything connected to South Africa, and the school paper published numerous anti-apartheid letters and essays.

Off campus, it was more of the same. Millions of people in many societies around the world recognized an obvious injustice and refused to look the other way.

Pressure from so many helped nudge South Africa toward the internal changes it needed to make.

It’s nice to know that the world cares about white people trampling on the rights of black people. But the compassion we saw on the South African apartheid issue 25 years ago seems to be restrained by odd limitations.

Where does this concern for justice retreat to when it comes to women?

There are serious conferences held, stern statements from politicians, and there is even the occasional flash of outrage from some small portion of the public. But all of it over the last few decades has been relatively quiet and mostly meaningless.

When is the last time you heard college students demand that universities and corporations divest from countries with gender apartheid? Seen any campus protests with thousands of students screaming for equal rights for women lately? Didn’t think so.

It’s time we recognize this bizarre disconnect between racial oppression and the oppression of females. Currently it is fashionable to reject racism and condemn anyone and any government that promotes it.

This is a good thing, obviously, but isn’t it equally distasteful and unacceptable for women and girls to by systematically held back and held down?

If it was wrong for dark-skinned people in South Africa to be kept out of the better schools, neighbourhoods, jobs, and so on, then it is no less wrong for women to be treated like that in too many nations today. Yet it continues with no end in sight and the response is mostly silence.

If you are having difficulty recognizing the staggering misalignment here, try a simple thought experiment. Imagine a country somewhere in the world today where light-skinned people hold virtually all power and own nearly everything.

They have even gone so far as to construct a legalized system of oppression for dark-skinned people that keeps them firmly locked into second-class status from birth to death. The oppression is not secret or subtle. It’s written into the laws for all to see.

Sounds terrible, right? Unacceptable, right? Let’s go make some signs and start protesting tomorrow morning! But first let’s change the characters.

Replace “light-skinned people” with “men” and replace “dark-skinned people” with “women”.

Here’s where imagination is no longer necessary. These societies exist today. There are many of them. I’m not suggesting that some societies have solved the problem of gender discrimination. Some are much further along than others but there is still work to be done everywhere.

However, this is no excuse. The United States, for example, certainly had not solved its own problems with racism in the 1970s and 1980s, but that did not prevent millions of Americans from fighting South African racial apartheid.

They saw the glaring injustice and went after it. I suppose the obvious question is why so many of us don’t see the same thing with women.

Few remember it today but the 1976 Summer Olympic Games were diminished by the absence of 25 African countries, including running powerhouses Kenya and Ethiopia. With the absence of elite athletes from those nations, many of the distance races were sadly diminished.

Why did they boycott? It was a protest against South Africa’s system of legalized racism and segregation. Contrast that bold stand with all the non-action taken over the issue of legalized sexism and segregation that continues today in many countries.

When it comes to women being made virtual slaves and little girls denied the basic education given to boys, the world never flinches and simply plays on. No one has ever boycotted the Olympics because one of the participating nations sanctioned the abuse of women.

Why not? FIFA allows countries that treat women as property to participate and even host World Cup qualifying matches. Interesting how racism sparks reaction while sexism does not. Why? Is it because racism’s victims include men but sexism’s victims do not?

What do you think the chances are that FIFA would allow a country to host a big match if that country didn’t allow dark-skinned people to drive cars, travel alone, or dress as they choose?

Imagine how future generations will look back on our time. They will note that some societies in 2011 had women earning doctorate degrees in subjects such as physics and mathematics while others discouraged or outright blocked females from education.

Here in our time, women command space shuttle missions in some societies, while in others they are not allowed to command Toyotas. I would hope that most of us recognize the injustice in this.

The question is: where is the outrage?

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