In August 2004, there was a statement issued by the Vatican in Rome that expressed its definition on the role of women in the society. Subtlely, it was also expressing some sort of weariness on the term Feminism has created in the society that the Vatican perceived as ‘divisive’. Perhaps the Vatican has been misinformed on the meaning of Feminism or perhaps there is more need to truefully reflect on the structures of domination and the imbalance of power relations that are still surrounding us?
A group of young women from different Christian NGOs in Hong Kong came together, in light of the statement issued by the Vatican, for a discussion on the role of a woman as defined in the statement. Some women came with frustrations as they questioned whose authority it is to defined the role of a woman, some women came with an enquiring mind hoping to have a deeper understanding on what is the role of a woman, and some women came with a short write-up on how they feel being a woman in this society.
Here is one of the short write-ups by Teresa who works for a catholic organisation in Hong Kong (the simplified version of the write-up was first published in Chinese in Kung Kao Pao, the newsletter of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. Translation into English was done by Teresa and the Editorial Team of Praxis).
Human beings have their own dignity, but most of the time, the dignity of women is another story. I will share here the ordinary experiences and myself and other women in this important human issue. I hope more people will care about the dignity of women.
Although God has created me as a female, I disliked myself for being a girl when I was young, because I saw the privileges and love that my elder brother enjoyed from my family. None of us, myself and my younger sisters, could ever enjoy them. Before his death, my maternal grandfather would only take my elder brother to the restaurant. My elder brother shared relatively little responsibility on household chores. During our younger days, he had the priority over me in everything. Till now, my brother does not need to do anything but get much more love and affection from our family and relatives. Theoretically, women should have inheritance rights but, in my father’s mind, the ‘ancestral house’ will eventually be given to my brother. As a small girl, I had thought that if I were to study hard, I would get the love and attention from my parents and to receive the privileges similar to those of my brother’s. But then I realised things were not as simple as what I thought to be, rights and privileges enjoyed by the eldest son and grandson did not come to me so easily. I was hopeless and began to realise something was wrong and had expressed my query and protest. That only brought cold shoulders and answers and I was even being criticized of being petty. I resented having been born in such a family.
I do not know if this is a great luck amidst misfortune: my mother encouraged me to acquire different skills and knowledge and participate in various extra-curricular activities because of her being the eldest daughter led to the obligation of supporting the family and excused her from completing secondary education though she was capable. Her younger brothers were sent overseas for college education. Therefore, my mother was a person who cherishes all the learning opportunities and often reads books. After getting married, she had to give up the notion of continual learning because she had to help with the family’s income and family caring responsibilities. She felt regretful and powerless over this.
When I grew up, I begin to realise that my mother’s fate concurred with the economic boom in Hong Kong in the late 1970s and early 1980s was also a reflection of many women then. Since the era of the 1990s, the sweeping economic reforms made by Mainland China brought women no job security as majority of the factories in Hong Kong began to move into Mainland China.. While factories have moved northward, many men and husbands also begin to move northward, and most of them begin the fashion of keeping lovers in Mainland China that have brought on failed marriages. No matter how many years of hard work for the society and their own families, many women have lost their jobs and marriages. Women with failed marriages have a lot of difficulties to look for other jobs for the reason that they had stopped their work to look after the family full-time, hence they are considered as lacking in work experience. Those who have no choice but to resort to social securities have been accused by the community of being lazy and useless. The society always calls for women to sacrifice for the family, to be carers of the family as it is in their ‘nature’, but when difficulties happen, the society is the first one to turn women away.
Women of my mother’s generation used to lament: “oh the fate of women is real bitter!” (a Cantonese exclamation for a hard life). But I question on the kind of life that women experience because of their gender. Is this ‘misfortune’ unchangeable or is this the weakness of the human race? If the age-old Chinese traditional saying: “Superiority in Man, Inferiority in Woman” that promotes inequality does not exist, perhaps men will not have the privilege to dump their own wives and families mercilessly, and yet experience less social pressure for doing so?
While I pointed out the unequal relations between women and men, I do not mean to portray all men to be in a negative light and all women in a positive light. There are undoubtedly men whom I know that do respect the significance of women and women who oppress other women. Women are not the only victims. I hope to highlight the inequalities between women and men that violate the very dignity of both genders. The unequal relationship has a backdrop of pain, tears and struggles of women that needs concern and understanding. The dream to achieve gender equality is not a mere empty dream but needs to be transformed into a concrete action starting from the women’s consciousness of their own experience of oppressions, to men’s consciousness of their un-questioned rights and privileges.
In fact, many women share similarities with me in acknowledging the importance of equal rights to education because it is an instrument or condition to become independent. Yet, a full realisation of equal dignity of women with men and of the capacity for independence demands for all other rights to be enjoyed by women as by men, such as right to employment, right to social participation, freedom of mobility and freedom of thought. Today, women can enjoy some basic human rights. This is to the credit of those seniors who had struggled hard for equal rights, of feminism and feminist movement which make efforts for gender justice.
Recently, the Vatican has made a statement on the role of the woman and the importance of women and men in collaboration. The statement confirms the dignity of women in line with the previous stance. In view of the current situation of gender inequality, this deserves appreciation. However, I find that the statement is full of fear towards the struggles of Feminism. The statement recognises women’s right to equal job, participation in society and uptake of leadership positions, aid to working women in fulfilling family and job burdens, the need to eliminate gender discrimination. These are the same struggles of Feminism. However, the statement fears that some Feminisms have over-emphasised on the disadvantaged or subordinate position of women which could lead to strong opposition between women and men and this eventually collapses the family system.
Such fear seems to be a failure to understand or respond to the relationship of violations to women’s human rights and to the unequal powers between women and men. Changing the power relations between women and men would definitely question men’s privileges and rights and leads to building a new relationship, (definitely not aiming at opposition), will these pit women against men? Once I had a discussion with some women who have been in abusive relationships, their experience told them vividly the hazards of gender inequality. But the society takes lightly of what they have been through, denying them of human rights and dignity. How can these women struggle through the nightmare caused by inequality? Who would pay attention to and support these women if they do not even take up concrete actions by themselves to struggle for the rights they should be having? They reiterated the fact that the abusive relationships which they once had were hugely due to the power that the men presumed to possess over them. These women denounce the abuse of power by men in a way to build a just and healthy relationship, could the society make a reasonable response to this struggle? Hence, I believe that since women’s rights have not been fully recognised and given respect, and that the unequal relations between women and men have not been changed, those are the true reasons for unhealthy relationships in the family that cause disharmony and brokenness.