Why is it okay to discriminate against women?
I teach at an international high school in Japan. This term I’m in charge of an elective on contemporary events as seen through media studies and literary theory. I’ve opened the term by exploring stereotypes. I want to share with you what they’ve been teaching me, starting with the fact that it is natural and good to discriminate against women.
A few weeks ago I assigned two readings, one on ultra orthodox Jews who have been refusing to sit next to women on International flights and another on women who are snubbed on the pretext of religion. I started the class by calling one young lady to the front. She extended her hand in greeting to which I smiled and said, “my religion forbids me to touch women”. She instinctively apologized. By a show of hands everyone agreed that was the correct response, as we need to respect religious preferences. This played out exactly the same in all four classes.
I called another young woman up; she extended her hand and I refused to take it because she was Japanese and “(her) people did horrible things during the second world to Koreans and Chinese.” Was I justified to refuse a common courtesy? Four classes said no.
A young woman came up and I refused to shake hands with a lesbian because she offends my religious beliefs and every class said that was wrong.
I refused another young lady because she was Muslim without further pretext and our discussions confirmed that no matter the reason that is unacceptable behavior.
This is how deep sexism is ingrained in young peoples minds: Everyone, male or female, felt it was not only acceptable to discriminate against women in the first example, but that it was necessary for women to apologize. How can young people think this?
We spent several classes looking for evidence in commercials and animation that show the creation of gender roles. They noticed for the first time that toys, breakfast foods, movie trailers tend to reinforce gender stereotypes (an example if you’re interested). The most lively discussion came from exploring films such as The Little Mermaid, which is about a young girl who gives up her family, leaves her world, and transforms her body to win a man’s love. These ideas that women are expected to change their names, move into their husband’s home, and maintain their appearance has been so ingrained into our shared cultures that media naturally emulate them.
I should tell you that on that first day all jaws were on the floor when I pointed out the contradiction that it was okay to discriminate against women to show respect towards another’s religion but it was unacceptable to them that people can use religion to discriminate against another’s sexual orientation, or another persons religious beliefs. Everyone changed their mind by the end of that class.
I am very interested to read what you all think: When is it acceptable to treat another differently? How do you navigate sticky situations about personal belief? What do you think of gender bias in the media where you are and do you have any examples to share or solutions?