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The Objectification of Women

Meg Wallace

Women are objectified, stereotyped and fantasised, in an image very much created by men. They have little power over their lives, particularly in non-Western nations. The UN is concerned to increase the ‘empowerment' of women’ So what does it do? It appoints the cartoon character Wonder Woman as an Honorary UN Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women.The author writes that this latest project by the UN to increase the 'empowerment' of women  will do little to make this happen.

Women are expected to conform to stereotypes dictated by social culture and traditions that are dominated largely by the interests of men. They  are objectified, stereotyped and fantasised, and as a result many women have little power over their lives, particularly in non-Western nations. There, women are denied freedom of personal autonomy and freedom of physical integrity. They are denied education and involvement in ensuring their welfare. In the West their concerns are equal pay, access to reproductive rights and domestic security.

There would be very few women world-wide who have not experienced the mixed feeling of nausea, anger and frustration that results from being the subject of male objectification. Someone to be dominated or tolerated (oh, and ‘protected’) by men, whether well-meaning or not. This artificial image of what they should be, look like and do, apparently warrants such treatment. Treatment that — whatever the justification — so often amounts to demeaning, belittling, insulting  or infantilising them at best, and severely harming them at worst. In other words, they feel, and indeed are, disempowered.

But the UN has the answer. Women around the world, of all ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds don’t need a real woman to be their Ambassador for Empowerment . Someone who tackles and makes inroads into the real problems that face so many millions of women to inspire and guide them is not the point, it seems. For them appropriate example and inspiration will come from the young, white, Western, scantily-dressed, superpowered American-Flag-bearing, culturally inappropriate cartoon character who can leap tall buildings, wield guns and swords and soar across rivers.

Helen Razer comments, ‘Let’s pretend that this corporate, culturally inappropriate Wonder Woman sick was not upchucked just weeks after the UN did not, as per expectation, appoint its first woman secretary general’. (See  here)

Yes, it’s Wonder Woman who can show the way to ‘empowerment’! You are your own destiny: ‘get the power and there’s nothing you can’t do.’ How will this help girls and women disadvantaged by corruption, poverty and misogyny? Coincidentally, it happens that Wonder Woman: a Hollywood product of DC Comics, has just been revived for a blockbuster franchise due out next year (great publicity for them). Hurrah for Hollywood cultural imperialism!

How will this help women like Mariam Nassir Al Oteebi, subject to the Saudi male guardianship system. Unable to leave the house unaccompanied by a male relative, or participate in society without parental consent, she objected, was beaten by her brother and referred to the police by her family. She’s currently in jail, but can’t be released without permission from the family that put her there (see here).

The UN says Wonder Women highlights ‘what we can collectively achieve if women and girls are empowered’. The language is passive. You can do it all if you are somehow empowered, but how do you become empowered? (Oh, and don’t you want to look like that, too?).

Michelle Griffin, of The Age reports that over 1,000 UN staff members protested the announcement of the ‘appointment’: Girls and women don’t need Wonder Woman, they need real power (see here). Many thousands of women throughout the world have also signed a petition to the UN, pointing out there are many women who could fulfil the role. The petition is scathing:

At a time when issues such as gender parity in senior roles and the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls is at the top of the United Nation’s agenda... this appointment is more than surprising. It is alarming that the United Nations would consider using a character with an overtly sexualized image at a time when the headline news in United States and the world is the objectification of women and girls. The image that Wonder Woman projects (life-size cut outs of which have already appeared at UNHQ) is not culturally encompassing or sensitive....

....the United Nations cannot on the one hand claim that “providing women and girls with equal access to education, healthcare, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large,” and on the other, award this key ambassadorial role to Wonder Woman, relegating the importance of the issue of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls to the previous appointment of fictional characters for ambassadorial positions, such as Tinkerbell (Ambassador of Green) and Winnie the Pooh (Ambassador of Friendship).

 ‘I don’t want my empowerment through a cartoon super-heroine squeezed into Double-D corsets,’ says Griffin, ‘even if she does have weaponised accessories. And let’s throw that lasso of truth around that ugly word “empowerment” and drag out the two useful syllables. It’s time women were empowered through power, thanks.’ Maybe we need to start with access to education, fighting for positions in government and social enterprise. And yes, abolishing the powerful cultural and traditional phantasy straightjackets that oppresses us.

So we need real examples of real women who take up this tedious work, courageous women who fight real battles against physical confinement, denial of education, sexual slavery and personal violence.

As noted by a UN official, “For something that is this important, you need a woman or a man who can speak, somebody who can travel, somebody who can champion these rights, somebody who is able to have an opinion, somebody that can be interviewed, somebody that can stand up in front of 192 member states and say this is what we would like you to do,” It seems the UN could not find anyone who would fit these criteria, and in their words ‘reach new audiences and young people who do not follow UN news or read the organizations reports and resolutions’.

Where, then, are the examples of women who have realistically worked for political, social, legal change. Who courageously work to actually achieve empowerment?

Well, there are plenty of young women who are already de facto ambassadors for women, young and old who meet such standards. I will name three examples of those who are well-known from areas where women are least ‘empowered’.

Malala Yousafzai who as a Pakistani schoolgirl who in 209 began writing a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym detailing her life under Taliban occupation, advocating  education for girls in the Swat Valley where the local Taliban had banned girls from attending school. Her activism has since grown into an international movement. After being shot in the head and critically injured, Yousafzai became internationally known, giving interviews in print and on television.

As a result of her continuing activism, and courage, despite ongoing threats from the Taliban, Malala has  received countless awards (you can see the list under her name in Wikipedia). Here are some: Pakistan's first National Youth Peace Prize in 2011; the 2013 Sakharov Prize; nomination for the World Children's Prize in Sweden, and  the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, (the youngest ever recipient) along with Kailash Satyarthi, She was appointed United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, and inspired a perition demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015. This aided the ratification of Pakistan's first Right to Education Bill. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and nominated  by Time magazine as one of "The 100 Most Influential People in the World" in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 issues. Malala has spoken at the headquarters of the United Nations to call for worldwide access to education.

Nadia Murad Basee Taha and Lamiya Aji Bashar, two young Iraqis (see  here) who escaped sexual slavery when the Islamic State overran their home village, Kocho, near the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar. They have become became advocates for women’s rights, have been honoured with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union’s top human rights award, for “individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights across the globe.” 

Nadia was also awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize on 10 October. And has started a global campaign to draw attention to the plight of Yazidis, and was named a United Nations goodwill ambassador last month on behalf of victims of human trafficking.

Lamiya tried to flee several times before she managed to escape aided by people smugglers paid by her family. She was badly injured by a landmine, rendering her almost blind.

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, commented, “I cannot put into words the courage and the dignity they represent,” “Today, Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji Bashar have become the voice for the women victims of the Islamic State’s campaign of sexual violence and enslavement.”

That’s three. There are hundreds more. Young and not so young. Read Ida Lichter’s book Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression  for an account of over 60 inspirational stories of women, across 27 countries, dedicated to promoting women’s rights . That book was written in 2009. The list could be updated and any more women could be added to the list of possible ‘candidates’.

But, and here’s the point: as Helen Razer puts it pithily,‘[T]here’s just some shit we can’t change unless we do the tedious work of actually changing it. So long as they are ‘disempowered’, by male-dominated culture, this tedious work is necessary. Because ‘[T]he girl in Pakistan, so curiously charged with the responsibility of social equality, does not have an advocate among those who wish to serve her ‘empowerment’. She makes the point that ‘we cannot expect girls to do this work in the absence of an authorising environment.’

We need the UN to get real. Instead of insulting us by putting the onus solely on women, producing cardboard cutouts of a cartoon character, it should be putting more pressure on male-dominated governments and other instruments of power. Women should not need to be superhumanto achieve such basic things as education, autonomy, self-determination, as equality. Maybe some male ambassadors could be found to fight for an appropriate 'authorising environment' for womens' empowerment. 



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