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Yashar Ali Headshot

On Women's Rights: Yeah, Yeah, Blah, Blah, Blah Whatever

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Last week, a friend told me something about a mutual friend who has been generally very supportive of my writing about women. She said he viewed my writing and advocacy on behalf of women as an "overreaction" -- that I was overly emotional about it and that my views on what women really face in our culture is overblown.

As much as I may be frustrated by my friend's opinion and angered that he is so dismissive of what women face, as a man, I don't deal with the same kind of dismissal that women are subject to.

In their case, it's personal.

Women who attempt to address or discuss concerns they have with the men who claim to love them too often get a wave of the hand, and hear "Yeah yeah, women's rights, it's important, I know, whatever."

The men who dismiss these women treat their desire for equality as if it were a hobby or a pet project. But in these moments, men are fundamentally dismissing these women as people.

While I wish my friend had the chutzpah to actually tell me his opinions himself, I understand, but don't accept why he thinks my work is an overreaction.

For men to really understand the obstacles women face on an everyday basis, they are going to have to come out of their comfort zone in order to break the seemingly equitable surface between the genders.

I've written about men and their understanding of what it's really like to be a woman in our culture before, in a piece entitled "Men Will Never Truly Understand A Day In the Life Of Women. But Shouldn't We Try?" In the piece, I write about how men will never truly understand what it's like to be a woman moving about in her day, but that we must make an effort to learn what it's like in order to better understand what they face in order to properly combat gender discrimination.

But I have never really examined why it is that men don't dig deeper into the gender inequality question.

Why is the discussion about gender inequality such an inconvenient and annoying bore to men, especially socially progressive men who would otherwise advocate on behalf of any other oppressed group or population?

What really frustrates me is my male friends' willingness to stand up for women only if the situation involves rape or domestic violence -- and even then, their support is at best tepid and never proactive.

I am not discounting the efforts of men who do advocate for women who are facing or have faced sexual and physical abuse, but if we think that we've done our part to balance the gender scales and can go home after fighting for women on these critical matters, we're fooling ourselves.

The same progressive male friends who accuse me of overreacting when it comes to advocating for women's rights or who say things like, "Oh god, here we go again," (in jest... but not really in jest) when I try to address an issue related to gender inequality, would not dare accuse me of overreaction if I were writing and talking about issues related to race or sexual orientation.

Why?

Because as much as we live in a racist, homophobic culture, gender inequity is a great equalizer in a way -- the hatred for women is universal and knows no race, sexual orientation... or sometimes gender.

Some men seem to believe that gender issues are no longer relevant because most of us are looking at the man/woman balance in terms of statistics, anecdotes and governmental change.

If we look only at statistics, there is lots of evidence that things are better for women (and lots of evidence that we're still in the gutter), especially since the women's movement of the 1960s and 70s. For example, the numbers show that in the United States, more women attend college than men. To be exact: 57 percent of women vs. 43 percent of men.

A recent TIME Magazine cover story outlined that over the past twenty years, the percentage of women who make more than their husbands has risen by 14 percent. This article also pointed out that since 1965, men have tripled their weekly domestic contributions. These are all positive numbers, despite both just being a start, but I fear cover stories such as this one will lead to a relaxation about the perception of gender imbalance.

So while we may have made a great deal of progress in those departments and many others, it doesn't change the fact that women still face a massive amount of discrimination. Despite the recent and very public war on women in America, gender discrimination has been moving deeper and deeper underground, no longer as publicly visible as it was in the past. However, the intensity of that discrimination has not changed at all, it's just become covert rather than overt.

We may look at the people near us as validation and proof that women no longer face any burdens beyond the big issues, but that's all circumstantial. A man can point to his wife or sister and note that she is a company executive as proof that women face no glass ceiling in the corporate world. He can point to the fact that at work, he reports to a woman, or in his particular position, there happens to be a female colleague who is paid more than him. And some men will say, "Well my wife (or girlfriend) tells me what to do, she controls everything"

As if that anecdote, if actually true, speaks to the fact that gender discrimination doesn't really exist.

Finally -- and this is the biggest way in which men misjudge gender imbalance -- we look at the issue of gender discrimination in terms of governmental change as a justification for pushing women's issues into the fog. We can point to many laws that balance the gender scales, from equal pay laws to pregnancy discrimination laws. Over the past 30 years, a great deal of progress has indeed been made in the U.S. and other countries. Besides the obvious, these laws are only useful when discrimination is reported and the laws are enforced.

We can't legislate to protect a woman against many of the nearly invisible issues they face today and have no means of reporting.

We can't make a law to protect women against horrible emotional abuse, we can't make a law that requires parents to instill their daughters with a healthy body image and we can't force a legislature to pass a law that demands husbands to support their wives during menopause.

While it's important to look at the gender imbalance issue through these lenses, the most important and most often forgotten way is to see this issue through empathy. Empathy is about understanding, about being aware, about making attempts to feel what another person feels.

Men can selectively use the statistics, the laws and stories around us to explain away the gender imbalance and deny the subtlety of sexism as a serious issue. But when we work to understand, to empathize, to learn what women face, to ask them how it feels to be a woman... we will soon learn the secret world in which they live in.

It's not that men are less empathetic than women. It's just that we are conditioned not to feel comfortable showing empathy. Being empathetic, taking the energy to emerge from our perfectly comfortable reality is an exercise in exhaustion. Heeding the plight of women requires effort and expending of energy. Perhaps it's just too much work for us.

Looking at gender issues through governmental, statistical or anecdotal lenses is just about logistics. So often discrimination, of any form, does not get borne through these means. Rather, it's about what is felt by the individual being discriminated against. And often with gender discrimination, women simply don't share their feelings of frustration because their claims have been dismissed: "You're just overreacting. You're paranoid."

One shouldn't equate the empathy I speak of as related to pity or feeling sorry for women. Men aren't here to save women from themselves, empathy is something that women practice with men everyday... all I'm saying is, it's time for men to work to provide the same kind of empathy to women that they provide to us.

The question is, do we, as men, have to care about women enough to notice what they are facing, or do we first have to notice what they are dealing with in order to care about their burdens?

It's hard to say which scenario comes first.

I am reminded of a seminal moment that sparked my own awareness of gender imbalances. I was 21 and out with two women friends at an electronics store. As I explored the DVD section, they were seeking to have their questions answered by a male salesperson. After two minutes, they found me and explained their frustration and demanded to leave.

When I asked my friends why they were frustrated, both of them explained that the salesman (this was a store that didn't pay commissions to salespeople) was unhelpful, giving only short and clipped responses to their questions.

My friend Mychelle told me, "It's a woman thing."

I remarked that I was confused by what she meant.

"He doesn't want to deal with two women, he hates women."

To prove their point, they asked me to go up to the man and ask him the same questions they asked him. I did exactly as they suggested and found the man to be helpful and knowledgeable. He could have, seemingly, spent all day with me.

After that moment, I have been witness to many other similar subtle moments of discrimination, only because I was looking at the issue of discrimination through a new lens.

In the case of the salesman, he didn't say to my friends "I don't want to help you because you're women."

He just detached himself, he filtered their normal and pertinent questions through his conditioning and arrived at a point where he saw them as inconvenient, annoying women who knew nothing. But to him, I was a guy who wanted to learn more and make an informed decision.

These were moments that didn't hit me over the head like rape or domestic violence, but they were the discriminatory equivalent of a paper cut: annoying, painful, and persistent.

Our underlying fear and hatred of female equality lives, so often, in private. This space of privacy is largely occupied by women and the only way we are going to solve this problem is if we crack the door open and attempt to join them.

So in my case, through the help of my friends, I noticed, and began to care... much more deeply. But then again, I cared enough about my two friends and for women in general to not tell them that they were overreacting. I cared enough to explore their circumstance with them.

As much as some people want to portray the fight for gender equity/feminism as a niche issue, it's not. Women and gender inequality refer to a reality in which half the world's population faces a tremendous burden put upon them at birth.

And for those men who doubt the realities for women that I write about, I guess the question is, do you not believe your mother, your girlfriend, your sister, your wife, your women friends? If not, then you've got bigger problems.

Another central problem is men who are fundamentally good pretending as if there is no major gender imbalance. These men, like my friend, when asked if women deserve equality, resoundingly respond "yes." But when they are put in a position to support the women in their lives or when they are put in a place where they can directly react to discrimination, they lack any sort of action or assertion -- or, worst yet -- they only offer dismissal.

These men may see this dismissal as a matter of opinion -- almost as if a political issue is being discussed. But in reality, in that moment, they are committing wholesale dismissal of these women. They are failing to show empathy for the unique experience of all women and for the women in their lives, in particular. They are deciding what is valid based on the lens that feels most comfortable to them: one of male comfort and privilege.

But things won't be too comfortable for long, because as long as we leave half our population behind, things will continue to become more and more uncomfortable for all of us. We don't need to do anything but turn on the TV to notice that over the past two months, Rome is burning, and that the position many men hold on gender equality is receding, rather than advancing.

So, until the day comes when things change on the gender equality front, it's our responsibility, as men and human beings to care, and to care enough to ask. And wait and learn from the answer. And god forbid, try to understand what it's like for the women we claim to love.

And that, my friend, is not an overreaction.

It's just the right thing to do.

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This piece originally appeared on The Current Conscience.