Sitting in the back of a taxi in southern Kazakhstan, I’m talking to a man who is in the taxi with me. He’s from Uzbekistan but is Kazakh in nationality. This is common in the ex-Soviet countries. During the Soviet times many ethnic groups were moved around into different parts of the Soviet Union as the Soviets attempted to create a single nation. So as an ethnic Kazakh, he had grown up in Uzbekistan.
He was explaining how in Central Asian culture, men were considered superior to women. He was smiling and didn’t appear to think that there was anything wrong with this. Nor did he seem to be concerned that as a woman, that this might offend me. Indeed, when I did inform him that I thought such attitudes were offensive, he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘well this is how we are here.’
The smile did not leave his face.
Our conversation then turned to him. I asked him what he did for a living and he explained that he was in finance. He had tried to get a job with the Ministry of Finance in Uzbekistan but, he explained, they would not hire him because he was not Uzbek in nationality, even though his parents and his grandparents had been born in Uzbekistan. They only employed people who were completely Uzbek in ethnicity.
The smile was no longer on his face.
I asked him how that felt, to be discriminated against.
He frowned, ‘oh its horrible,’ he said, ‘it’s really bad’.
I sat back and looked at him. I have had this experience with many men. They smile and joke about women being discriminated against but then, become very upset when they themselves are discriminated against.
‘So this is how it feels when men discriminate against women,’ I told him.
The smile slowly started to return to his face but this time, not so quickly. He nodded his head.
I have noticed that around the world there is a massive double standard when it comes to the topic of discrimination. It seems that men think that if the discrimination applies to them, then it’s a problem. But when it applies to women, then it doesn’t matter. It is instead something to be laughed about, to shrug one’s shoulders and say well that’s the way it is.
Many even go as far as blaming women for the discrimination perpetrated against them.
In a conversation with a Syrian man in a restaurant in Qatar, we were talking about about sexual harassment. He was claiming that only women who don’t wear the hijab get sexually harassed. He seemed to be specifically focusing on Western women and said that Western women are harassed because they don’t cover their hair. Muslim women who cover their hair, he claimed, don’t get sexually harassed.
Whilst this was obviously an incredibly ignorant statement about the realities of women in both Western and Islamic country’s, what the issue is here, is that this man and many men like him, was justifying very rude and disrespectful behaviour towards women, based on how they are dressed.
Considering that the absolute majority of women around the world do not wear the hijab, nor are Muslim, or are required to adhere to the very strict dress codes that women in many Islamic country’s are, his intolerance and lack of respect for other women’s cultural beliefs and choices of clothing, was nothing short of unbelievable.
I also couldn’t help but wonder, what would happen if it were the reverse, if he was told that not only could he not wear the clothes that he felt comfortable in and that he would be vilified and verbally and physically harassed for wearing them?
It seems that throughout the world not only are women expected to accept the many forms of discrimination that are perpetrated towards them, whether it is justifications of violence based on their choice of dress, not having rights to work, to have equal pay, to go to school, or to not be sexually harassed, but they’re expected to be quiet about them.
And all too often, they are expected to expect ramifications if they try to speak up against them.
During a recent trip to Iran I was sitting in the house of an Iranian family in Qom, one of the most religious cities in Iran. I was sat on the floor having breakfast and was telling the Iranian man sat with me, about some of the future projects that I would like to do in the Middle East with women. When I finished, he sat back, laughed and shaking his head said, ‘God bless you.’
He wanted God to bless me because he knew that just by asking women about the situation of women’s rights, could put me in danger.
It was a threat that as a woman, I was expected to accept but one that I know if was made the other way around, would spark outrage.
A few months later, I was sitting in a small bar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia telling a man from New Zealand about my travels in the Middle East. After listening for a moment he said,
‘Wow that must be really difficult for you to travel through there.’
He said it with a sort of half laugh and in a sort of very casual, dismissive way. It was a response that I was used to. It is said in a way that acknowledged that I would be discriminated against in the Middle East as a woman, but dismisses it as if it’s no big deal, as if it’s a joke and something that inevitably, I and other women, have to accept.
After spending years experiencing these kind of blatant double standards from men, from all around the world, I can’t help but think that it is just a little bit, unfair.
If we don’t like being discriminated against, then should we not discriminate against others? And if we do feel entitled to discriminate against others, do we then have the right to complain when others discriminate against us?
I would say the answer to this is, no.
If you don’t like to being discriminated against, don’t discriminate against others. And if you do want to discriminate against others, then don’t complain when others discriminate against you.