March 8 is International Women’s Day and we should all ask ourselves whether we are making any progress.
Words like “education”, “progress”, and “liberal” are often used in our Bhutanese patriarchal society. They are used as signs of progress towards gender equality in our male-dominated society while the women are kept in a psychological prison.
As a society we have changed to some extent, but not as much as we claim. We brag about how progressive we are while falling short in our actions.
For generations society has made women taraju (weighing scale). They were told to do things perfectly at all times, including how they talk, walk, and even laugh. Women were put in a box. Those who refused were labeled as uncultured and mannerless. Women were denied formal education. Their voices and their control over their own bodies were taken away from them.
Compared to the past, today’s society has definitely changed. But gender equality is welcomed only when it’s for us and not others. Our thoughts have changed but only for those closest to us.
We want our daughters to be well-educated, independent, fearless, and able to advocate for themselves as long as they don’t cross our boundaries. We’re not receptive when women challenge our beliefs. We are quick to judge a woman if she drinks, goes out often, and wears short clothes, unless that woman is our own sister or daughter.
We still struggle to see women as equals to men. If a girl gets raped we ask her what she was wearing, as if her outfit is an invitation for men to violate her. Men say they don’t like to be told what to do but they don’t give the same regard when it comes to women. Does this notion suddenly disappear when it comes to rape?
This is worth thinking about before we blame a girl’s clothes. Women are afraid to share their stories about sexual assault and domestic violence because it is considered a taboo. When they do, we question them or make them feel that they’re being judged. It is mentally draining.
My male friends say they will do anything to protect their sisters and mothers. They tell their sisters to be careful “because guys will be guys and men are trash”. They say that guys talk about girls in the group and circulate nude pictures of bigreka keti haru (spoiled girls).
I ask them why men are like that and what makes a girl a bad girl. Often I am told I am too innocent. This patronizing answer lets me know that I live in a man’s world. It makes me question whether asking was stupid. It is telling me that it’s okay for men to treat women as they please. It tells us women to normalize their sexist behaviors and keep our mouths shut.
It is these conversations that make me wonder if we are really progressive in our actions.
In many ways, we adopt the ideas of womanhood from other women in our lives, from our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and friends.
If we look closely at the past, we will often find mother-in-laws disciplining their daughter-in-laws. So, oppression against women isn’t always carried out by men but also by women. Pausing and asking how this came to be is a sign of the solution to the deep rooted gender inequality in our community.
When we talk about sexism in our culture, some of my friends say we should demolish the culture altogether, but I argue there are parts that are worth preserving.
Telling women that they should talk quietly, walk lightly, and work silently is utterly wrong. Instead we should encourage both males and females to do everything mindfully.
You don’t have to look far to see that our community leaders are mostly men while women are still regarded as caretakers of the home. Today, we see some of our leaders trying to involve women in various discussions regarding the issues in our community. Although the ratio of involvement of men to women is uneven, I think we are on the right path.
Bhutanese women are breaking the glass ceilings. Nowadays, they are not only pursuing higher education but they are also going into male-dominated fields such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and entrepreneurship.
There is still a lot to be done and it won’t be easy. However, I believe we can make our society fairer by continuing to have this conversation and checking ourselves.
The author has a bachelor’s degree in International Politics from the Wesleyan University in Connecticut. BNS welcomes diversity of opinions.