As I’ve celebrated women this month, I have had occasion to think about what it means to be female in different parts of the world, and what a woman is worth.
I was born to a father who adored his children, male and female alike. His stance opened doors for me that would have remained shut had I been born into a household where girls were not valued, or where they were valued less than boys. I just read an article by Indian journalist Nita Bhalla, in which she tells about her experience as a recent victim of gender violence. I find it incredibly sad that a man close to her resorted to violence against her instead of seeking to resolve his issues in a decent way. Could this happen to even me–I, who have escaped much of this kind of bias because my Dad chose to value me?
I was born and raised in Kenya, a country which still has very decided ideas about gender roles. However, Dad didn’t subscribe to them, despite the fact that Mom tended to lean towards them. It was a good thing, too, because we were a household of mostly girls, and I observed that other girls and women shouldered an unfair proportion of responsibility in and for their households.
In our home, responsibilities were fairly divided between us all based on age and ability, rather than gender. We rotated chores every Saturday, except Dad–who almost always made breakfast (in a society where the kitchen is considered a woman’s domain)–and Mom, who often did the laundry. As we got older, each of us children figured out what we absolutely loathed and traded chores with each other based on preference.
The first time I realized that the functioning of our household wasn’t the norm, my brother had come home complaining that his closest friends, who were also only sons in their families, didn’t have to do any household chores. Dad immediately advised him that our home would never be run that way. So, not only can my brother mow the lawn and change a flat tire, he can also cook and clean. And guess what, his sisters can change a flat tire and mow the lawn, too, but in distinctly feminine ways.
Dad encouraged all of us to become people of substance, to pursue the dreams of our hearts and to not let gender hold us back, even when society sent us a contrary message. He empowered us girls to value ourselves and taught our brother to value us and, by extension, all women. He never chided us for thinking outside the box, even when some of our ideas challenged his own conventional ways of thinking. He made room for us girls to fly where so many women’s wings were clipped. When other fathers felt cheated if their wives gave birth to daughters, Dad rejoiced in each child being a gift to him, gender notwithstanding.
Many nations and communities have made strides forward in acknowledging a woman’s worth, however, there is still much room for growth. While it is true that women generally have it better now than they did in the past few thousand years, women stepping into arenas that have traditionally been male-dominated are still not accorded much respect, unless they inhabit those spaces in the same ways that men do.
Take political leadership, for example. If a woman runs for or occupies office as the leader of a nation, perhaps, she tends to wield power in a way that is similar to the way men wield power. Former British Prime Minister,, and current Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, have both been referred to as “Iron Ladies” because of the tough stance they have had to take, in order for the men around them to take them seriously. I believe that a woman can bring powerful transformation to the world around her without having to trade in her femininity. This hasn’t always been possible, but we are walking into a new era where women can be simultaneously feminine and powerful.
A woman can bring beauty (which is her essence) to everything that she touches–something that a man can’t do. Her worth does not lie in being able to do the same things a man can do, rather, in doing the same things differently. Women are neither more valuable nor less valuable than men; they are just as equally valuable. I dream of a world where this truth is fully lived out. This will, partly, be made possible by strong men who are not afraid to honor women, both privately and publicly, and who make room for them to fly in unmistakably feminine ways.
A woman’s true worth will never be known where she is denigrated.