What is “sexism” and “patriarchy”?
Sexism takes place when people of a certain gender are given preference or are stereotyped according to an unfair standard. These standards are often upheld by society as the ideal and often give us the false impression that one gender is better or more valuable than the other gender.
Patriarchy is the understanding of the world as dominated and centred around the interests of men. This implies that even on a subtle or unknowing level, the preferences and needs of men enjoy priority above those of women – women should be at the “beck and call” of men. These roots lie deep in the Christian tradition, especially the conviction that men should act as leaders and providers and women as carers and supporters. The challenge of this “division of roles” barring that it puts people in extremely restrictive boxes, is that it also supposes unequal power relations: One half of society may set the tone and the other half must merely follow.
Is there still inequality today?
Patriarchy and sexism are terms that can easily feel far from us – so far that we may wonder whether inequality between men and women still exist. The following questions may help us to understand better how gender roles, sexism and patriarchy still function in our society:
- Have you noticed sexism in your daily life (in the workplace, at home, at school, in the gym, etc.)?
- Are men and women regarded as equals in society?
- Are certain roles (domestic roles, specific types of occupations, specific kinds of sport) connected in society to a certain gender?
- Do you participate in, or laugh at, sexist jokes?
- Do you still hear that gender is used as an insult against people (e.g. “Typical man/woman”; “Women are after all overly emotional”)?
- Is manhood/womanhood often explained to children based on unjust standards?
- When undesirable behaviour or sexual violence against women is reported in the media, are women sometimes portrayed as those who give rise to this behaviour and crimes against them?
- Are men and women’s physical appearance and sexuality measured against the standards and photographs that appear in the Men’s Health or Cosmopolitan magazines?
- Was there an occasion when you experienced that there was being discriminated against you or someone close to you, based on your/their gender?
- Have you occasionally felt that you are not male/female enough?
Chris’ birthday party
We are all influenced, in different ways and to varying degrees, by gender roles, patriarchy and sexism. Read the following story and questions for discussion that follow on it.
It is your son Chris’ fourth birthday party. You and your spouse, together with Chris, decided the theme for this special party will be the “Cars” movie. Chris was very excited and you and your spouse went to trouble to ensure that all the blue paper plates and glasses with little red cars go together. Chris received the loveliest presents from his friends and family: different coloured cars, tiny army men, toy robots, plastic dinosaurs and also a beautiful doll that comes with its own milk bottle. Chris was delighted with the toys and couldn’t wait to get home so that he could unpack everything and start playing.
Questions for discussion:
- Why did you, your spouse and Chris decide on the Cars movie as the theme for his birthday party?
- How did you and your spouse feel about the fact that someone bought a doll for your four year old son?
- What did you think Chris’ response would be when he received the doll as a gift?
- How did you and your spouse feel about Chris’ response?
- What did you think the response of your friends and family would be about the doll as gift for Chris?
- Would you have felt uncomfortable about what the possible response of others would be, if they heard that your son received a doll for his fourth birthday?
In Jesus Christ we are all equal
The story about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the story of salvation: for all people, of all times, without restriction or conditions or limits. During the reign of the Roman Empire, death by crucifixion was reserved for those in society who had been convicted of the most gruesome acts. The purpose of a crucifixion was not only to impose the death penalty, but also to humiliate the offender publically and to make an example of him (or her): “Be warned, a person does not act in this way!”
For a man to be crucified was a humiliation deeply linked to his manhood: Good, honest men do not belong on a cross. A man on a cross is deprived of his honour and manhood and is therefore a travesty. And yet, Jesus died precisely in this way: An innocent, honest man who walked the way of a man stripped of manhood. When we see Jesus hanging on the cross, it is in defencelessness: naked, injured, in pain, without pomp or ceremony or fanfare of trumpets, deprived of physical power and a travesty.
And yet it is precisely these very events, this disempowering story that makes new life possible for all people. It is this defencelessness and brokenness of a male Redeemer who breaks through stereotypes and who directs an invitation to all men and women, girls and boys to follow him: and that in an equivalent manner. At the feet of the Crucified there are no man-made categories of superiors and inferiors, the powerful and subordinates, leaders and followers. In Jesus’ crucifixion his ministry to and calling of all people are fulfilled. And an alternative community is created, where God calls and uses men and women as peers in a multitude of creative ways.
To give shape to the image of God’s Kingdom asks of men and women to take ownership of the creation of a reality where all people are considered and treated as equals. A few practical tips for this are:
- Remind yourself that all people are created in the first place in the image of God (Gen 1:27): This is the first truth about ourselves and about others. This means that all people deserve the same treatment, respect and appreciation, precisely because everyone is created in the image of God.
- That is why we cannot remain silent when we see injustice, oppression or violence based on gender, especially in a society where so many girls and women suffer.
- Take a stand against remarks, jokes, assumptions or practices where girls and women are stereotyped or discriminated against – even if you are the only one who takes a stand against it.
- Know that gender-based violence – the extreme form of this stereotyping and discrimination – can happen in any home, neighbourhood and context. Be sensitive to danger signs of this and report it immediately to a professional counsellor or the police.
- Pay attention to the type of language you use when you talk about girls and boys, men and women – especially stereotypical expressions such as: “Typical of men!”, “Oh, you know, we women …”, “Men/Women is supposed to / not supposed to …”, “I can’t trust my wife with my credit card”, “You know my husband’s hands are tied when it comes to household chores”.
- Keep in mind that children are like sponges of what they see, hear and experience in the home. Consider together how you are going to do chores in the family and show children that men and women do not “automatically” do certain things based on their gender. Give different family members turn to cook, to garden, to put out the refuse container and to clean up. As parents model this flexibility, for example by cooking, discussing financial matters or taking important decisions together.
- Consciously apply efforts to equip children to see themselves as equal, regardless of their gender. Encourage boys and girls to, for example, consider any occupation, to participate in any after-school activity they enjoy, to choose the colour of their clothes by themselves and to also treat boys and girls as equals.
- Be careful of your own language and strengthening of stereotypes and gender roles when you talk, especially to small children. “Ag no man, boys don’t cry!”, “Little girls don’t play so rough”, “Boys hurt girls if they like someone”, “Little girls want to wear dresses.”