Women of the world: there’s nowhere to go but up!
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told “Fatima, you can become whoever you want”. What was left unsaid, however, is that I could only truly aspire to become something that was traditionally “feminine”. On the surface, my country, Canada, gives women the freedom to pursue their hearts’ desires. Yet, in reality, subtle and explicit sexism, like a great big wall, is stopping so many young girls from becoming who they really want.
The older I grew, the more often the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” would arise. I distinctly remember one occasion when it was asked. I was in the eighth grade and our teacher had been sick, so my class was stuck with a substitute. The class was rowdy, taking advantage of our regular teacher’s absence. Her idea of subduing us was asking us what we’d like to become when we are older. The typical “doctor” and “lawyer” were thrown out with some “astronauts” and “chef” also in the mix. As I remember the moment, I can't help but notice that most of the boys were the ones shouting those jobs, whereas my fellow female classmates went with the stereotypical “nurses” and “librarians” response. When it was my turn, I proudly said “I want to become a professor”, hoping the synonym for teacher would make me sound smarter. From playing “teacher” with my siblings to unofficially tutoring my classmates, I’d always been interested in education. The pride I felt was quickly dashed, with the teacher remarking “Is that because you are a girl?’. My brain couldn't really comprehend what she was saying. What did my gender have to do with anything? Was teaching inherently feminine?
The moment impacted me a lot more than I’d like to admit. I quickly expelled the idea of teacher-hood and actively rebelled against subjects I deemed too “girly”. Math and science became my favourite disciplines, not out of true enjoyment, but because I was determined to not become just a stereotype. However, as I’ve gotten older and come to terms with the fact that I actually really do enjoy reading and writing, no amount of shame can stop me from doing what I love. I value my happiness and self-fulfillment more than I value conforming to societal norms.
But this isn’t the case when it comes to society as a whole.
If you do go into a field that is coded as “feminine”, you are fulfilling a stereotype. Though trailblazing women from Marie Curie to Wangari Maathai and everyone in between, have created a space where women have a fighting chance to pursue what they want, it often feels as though the obstacles they fought to remove have only transformed as the years go by. We might not be dealing with as much societal stigma when it comes to women working but adequate childcare and income inequality now drive the conversation. The glass ceiling seems to keep rising, with no end in sight.
At the end of the day, girls around the world face the same problems, whether they are in Canada or Somalia. Oppressive stereotypes and stifling traditions are preventing over half of the world’s population from achieving their true potential! Sometimes, I just sit and wonder how different the world would be if everyone had access to the same resources and the same opportunities, regardless of gender. Would we still have war? Would climate change be less severe?
We may not know the answers to these questions but that doesn't mean that we should just give up. The goal of gender equality is a daunting one when you realize how entrenched sexism and gender roles are - but it’s worth fighting for. There’s nothing more rewarding than knowing a generation of girls’ faces will light up knowing that the world is their oyster … and knowing it’s true!