I owe my earliest introduction to the idea of gender equality to a popular pair of lovestruck ducks.
The Gendered Duck Discrimination
Ten-year old me sat patiently at a small wooden desk during Chinese class on a Saturday morning, eagerly waiting for the teacher to finally make her way to me with my prize. Actually, everyone in my class was getting one. We were given regular pop quizzes and good Asians, of course, hardly ever fail those.
The prize? An awesome pencil on top of which a plastic smiling Donald or Daisy Duck perched. Prior to coming around with her stash of pencils, the teacher had announced that the boys in the class would get a Donald Duck pencil, and the girls would get a Daisy Duck pencil. God forbid any child receive a toy duck that didn’t match their gender!
At the time, I didn’t think much of this. I was just excited about getting a Disney pencil. That is, until my teacher handed one to me. I took it and closely inspected a pink-frocked Daisy Duck batting her eyelashes and pressing her hands (fingered wings?) to her face bashfully. Spotting the far more handsome Donald Duck, I asked her if I could please have him instead.
“Donald Duck is for boys only, Fiona,” my teacher said.
I persisted. “But I want a Donald Duck pencil. It looks so much better.”
“Here, just take Daisy Duck – see, she’s wearing a pretty pink dress!”
Being the tomboy that I was, I have no idea why she thought that would convince me to change my mind. What was even less understandable was why being a girl meant that I had to have a Daisy Duck pencil. It wasn’t fair that the boys got the better looking pencil simply because they were boys. I had studied just as hard and gotten the same, if not better, marks.
Incensed by the injustice of it, I dug in my heels and refused to accept my lot. In the end, my teacher gave up and swapped the pencil in my hand for a Donald Duck one. I felt a satisfying sense of vindication, but this was quickly marred by my classmates’ laughter and jeers of “Fiona thinks she’s a boy!” ringing in my ears. I couldn’t wait for class to end that day.
Women Hold Up Half The Sky
The impact of that particular lesson resonates with me to this day because it was my first exposure to gender discrimination. Not that I thought about the incident in those exact terms back then. But that’s what it was – someone had determined that girls (and boys) should think and act in a certain way, and anyone who challenged that didn’t know their proper place.
My childhood experience of gender discrimination is abysmally trivial compared to the rampant and sometimes deadly discrimination against women and girls that occurs in the world today. For an eye-opening account of the horrible conditions millions are subject to simply because they are female, I highly recommend you read Half the Sky or watch the documentary it inspired.
In Half the Sky, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, herself a former journalist, document how girls struggle to get quality education; how girls are trafficked into brothels against their will and suffer horrific violence and rape; how girls often can’t choose when to marry, who to marry and how many children to have; how girls are subjected to female genital mutilation; how girls are economically disempowered. In other words, girls are deemed worthless and expendable.
As far as I know, gender equality is not about dismissing the differences between men and women. Rather, it’s about recognising the inherent dignity of each woman and girl and their right to be treated as equally valuable human beings. It’s about acknowledging that they have the same (and in some cases, more) talent and drive to succeed and contribute to society as men. Both men and women everywhere are worse off so long as cultural and political institutions fail to see this.
The good news is that there are viable solutions for achieving gender equality. Half the Sky will uplift you with incredibly courageous examples of people already making a tangible difference. You will be confronted with the realisation that we all have a stake in the fight against the cruel oppression of women and girls. Gender equality is not a lofty ideal solely for women to worry about. It is a pressing human rights issue that affects us all.
“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”
~ Nicholas Kristof, Half the Sky
Visit Half The Sky Movement to see how you can help right from where you are.
Fiona is an impulsive collector of moments. People, places and their stories fascinate her. Having lived, worked and/or travelled on every continent except Antarctica before breathing the last of her first quarter century, she is now chasing the tails of a law degree, some ethereal notion of justice and, above all, the words to make sense of it all.