The Malta Independent 13 November 2018, Tuesday

I exist

Jenny Pullicino Orlando Sunday, 8 March 2015, 10:14 Last update: about 5 years ago

A Valentine's Day ago I was gifted a particularly compelling biography of Sylvia Plath. After questioning whether there was subversive meaning behind the gift, I recognised why this was a particularly astute present to give to a woman on this day.

You see, I had read other biographies of hers but I had never really come across what was almost a compendium of her life before Ted Hughes, with whom she had a short-lived tumultuous marriage. What struck me about this book (Mad Girl's Love Song) was that it is the first that really framed her as a complex woman with a history. She was not portrayed as an extension of her husband, but as a veritable force. Plath was a Cambridge-educated Fulbright scholar, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, a promising artist, and an insightful, powerful writer. She was a lover, wife, mother, daughter and sister. She was a million other things too - a human constellation - as we all are. Yet, a cursory Wikipedia search of her work sub-titles the narrative of her accomplishments under 'Career and Marriage', or engages in a lengthy and detailed discussion regarding her suicide.

It is clear, to quote Plath, that society found it too difficult to accept the idea of a woman "not merely as feeling, not merely as thinking, but as managing a complex, vital interweaving of both".  

Achieving gender equality for women is not simply about combating external sources of inequity; it is also about allowing ourselves the space to build our own identities as individuals. It is about establishing our wants, making our own choices and fighting for our futures. This is the process of not defining ourselves by what others think of us but freeing ourselves from the dependencies, emotional or otherwise, that often overwhelmingly characterise our self-perceptions. This too is a form of emancipation.

So, today, on International Women's Day, I want to remember that I am person in my own right. I want to remind everyone, women in particular, to always remember that too.

 

I exist. You exist. We exist.

I am soon-to-be a 26-year old individual. I have my own thoughts and opinions, achievements and failings, likes and dislikes, loves and hates. I worry about particular things and get inordinately excited about others. I see things through a pair of eyes (that belong to me) and persistently lopsided spectacles (that also belong to me). I have my own history and burgeoning identity that have been shaped by my own independent experiences and reactions to my environment.

Today, like you, I will have my struggles and doubts and I will share in joy and happiness. I might also fail to see things for what they are or successfully discern what I am capable of. I will be self-deprecating. Like you, I imagine, I will also at some point fret about my present and my future. I will probably closely watch what I eat and analyse any unsightly changes in my body, or maybe I'll devour everything in my fridge and not give a crap. I will talk about a boy I fancy or I will have a heated discussion in a common room about the future of European politics. I'm sure that today I will, like every other day, be anxious about what people - strangers or friends - think of me, or expect from me. It is bound to make me question whether I am the sum total of those expectations and empty portrayals. Hopefully, today, I will remember that there is far more to life, to me, than that.

Today in particular, I, a young woman, a person, will try especially hard to remember that I am not an extension of anyone else or a footnote to another's life. I am not letters after my name, a comment in a relatively obscure blog, certificates on my wall, his or hers. I am not a body part. I am not simply a sister, daughter, relation, friend, lover or girlfriend or even just a woman. I am, unequivocally, me. I want to be the best possible me, just like, I hope, you want to be the best possible you.

I exist. You exist. We all, individually, exist. I hope you, all of you, find strength in that knowledge, continuously seek to assert your existence and never try to extinguish another's.

 

Gender inequality is not a myth

Today, I also want to remind you all, men and women, that many women do not have the luxury to seek out their own futures. We should recall that gender inequality and gender based violence are not a myths, they are fact.

Here are some stark reminders -

In Malta, 26 per cent of currently or formerly partnered women have experienced one or more acts of physical, sexual or emotional violence at the hands of a partner in their lifetime.

In Germany, a group of young women and men are directly challenging sexist media practices that have persistently depicted women as little more than a pair of tits. The Stop Bild Sexism (@StopBildSexism) campaign in Germany echoes the sentiments of the highly successful No More Page 3 movement in the UK.

While in America, statistics published this week showed that there are fewer women running big companies than there are CEOs who are named John.

In India, India's Daughter, a powerful documentary about Jyoti Singh, a young medical student who, on a bus back home, was gang raped and eviscerated, might be banned. The film shows defence lawyers, police officials, members of the political class, talking about the inevitability of her rape. What happened to Jyoti, they state, was her own fault; she was out with a boy and, after all, she shouldn't have tried to fight off her murderers.

The largest proportion of people in poverty, according to recent statistics collected by Oxfam International, are women. Seventy-two million children - the vast majority of them girls - are routinely denied an education. Many are facing death for raising their voice about it. It is their education that will give them the space to thrive as human beings and agency over their futures free from subordination.  

These people have their universes, histories, differences, thoughts and feelings. We women are equal in our differences - there is no hierarchy of 'woman'. We are, regardless of our sex or geographical location, equal to each other and equal to men.

Of course, it is important to empower all men to challenge this state of affairs, but in doing so we must not forget that there are other hurdles to overcome in the fight for gender equality. The damaging characterisations of women towards other women are also obstacles that we must overcome. It is important that today and everyday we do not forget to build and strengthen our own identities as people, not just as members of a sex. Empowering men to do this as well as giving ourselves the space to seek out who we are as individuals are mutually dependent facets of this struggle.

 

A person, not a...

Today I question whether it is because Plath was a woman. Yes, her gender made it much easier for society to see past whom she really was. It made it simpler to depict her as just part of someone's ill-fated love story. However, her perception of her husband as the only colossus, at times also led her to frame herself as a mere extension, the sum-total of someone else.

It is this persistent inability of us all to see women as people, to measure each other as individuals in our own right, not by virtue of our sex, but our potential as human beings, that will also determine the outcome of this continued struggle. Gender inequality is exacerbated by reductionism and the mutual-objectification of both sexes. Let us, on this day, understand what true equality would imply: not the diminishing of one gender, but the recognition of our individuality and collective humanity.

 

 

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