As a woman living in the United States, I cannot begin to understand how women in other parts of the world feel when they are subjected to the genital mutilation, rape, and constant oppression they experience from men. However, I do know how it feels to hear the derogatory names and sexually abusive call-outs directed towards so many American women on a daily basis. I am not equating these experiences, but rather recognizing the seriousness of both.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins recently sparked a cyber debate when he commented on an article written by the prominent feminist Rebecca Watson. In the article, Watson describes an experience in which a male attendee of her women’s rights conference “creepily” propositioned her for sex in the hotel elevator. Watson obviously felt uncomfortable, but Dawkins didn’t sympathize. He sarcastically commented, “… I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car and can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery, but stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with." This dismissal sparked a forceful counter-attack led by Watson's supporters against Dawkins’ disregard for the problems facing women in America. Dawkins tried to explain, but only perpetuated the problem, until Watson responded in another comment and dismissed Dawkins’ credibility entirely.
What Dawkins and many other men do not realize is that harassing a woman in any way, whether it is verbally or physically, creates an unspoken undercurrent in society that prevents true gender equality. In modern America, it has become normal and even playful for a woman to be called a “slut” or a “whore” by men and even other women. While he never uses these words, Dawkins is dismissive of Watson’s anger in his comments, saying, “She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum.”
This kind of perception lays the foundation for more serious problems, such as oppression, physical abuse, and even rape. What women in other countries, such as the Middle East, go through every day is abominable and disgusting. But if we want to combat this behavior in other societies we must first focus on eliminating the obvious double standard that exists in our own. The man attending Watson’s feminist conference had no problem explicitly asking her to have sex with him. Did he even realize how inappropriate his advancements were and how uncomfortable he could make her feel? Probably not. Ironic because he had just heard Watson's talk about women’s rights.
Unfortunately, many men either don’t understand or don’t care about how their words and actions can negatively impact women. The Watson/Dawkins incident is just one small reflection of a much larger problem that still exists in our society and many other countries around the world. It is about time that both men and women acknowledge the issues and work to move us past gender inequality.
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