We can chose to color our ideas any way we wish.

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.

Historically women have been compared to the cherry blossom and men to the evergreen.

Historically women have been compared to the cherry blossom and men to the evergreen.

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.

Fragile pink blossoms and fertile earth are metaphors for women; the vast blue sky was the male counter to the Earth while we speak of all the things we build as man-made.

Fragile pink blossoms and fertile earth are metaphors for women; the vast blue sky was the male counter to the Earth in myth while we still speak of all the things we build as man-made.

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?

When we speak broadly about ourselves as a people or a group it is human nature to enclose ourselves within predefined ideas.

When we speak broadly about ourselves as a people or a group it is human nature to enclose ourselves within predefined ideas.

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.

These ideas about who we are deeply ingrained within us and the symbols we use -- but they evolve, too.

These ideas about who we are deeply ingrained within us and the symbols we use — but they evolve.

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.

Technologies have connected us to a wider world outside our cultural norms so that discussions on who we are and how we represent ourselves are broadening the perspectives of us all.

Technologies have connected us to a wider world outside our cultural norms so that discussions on who we are and how we represent ourselves are broadening the perspectives of us all.

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?

Japanese cherry blossoms

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11 Comments on “Why is it okay to discriminate against women?

  1. It’s NEVER okay to discriminate against ANYONE. I am so sick of job discrimination based on the fact that I’m a woman. Being female is not a mental or physical handicap. HELLO !!!

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  2. I just wandered across this blog because I was reading about candied oranges (https://madebyyouandi.com/2014/03/21/cirtrus-syrup/) but I clicked on the title banner because I was curious to see who you were. I’m shocked by the nuance, beauty, and power in your writing. Thank you for this post. I realize you wrote this over a year ago, but in our current political climate, examining the acceptability of misogyny in culture is vitally necessary. Your social experiment is really compelling.
    I also work in higher education. I’m one of the faculty advisors to the Gender Forum on campus. I’m going to share this with the student leaders to see if we can’t incorporate these ideas into the upcoming events or campus dialogue in some way. Thank you Steven!

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  3. Sometimes someone saying sorry isn’t really an apology. If your religion really did forbid you from touching a woman’s hand then how would you expect a woman to react to that? Or indeed if your religion forbade you from touching anyone? Most people are taught to be polite to strangers, so I would probably apologise not because I felt I was on the wrong but out of a kind of reflex to cover an awkward situation. I don;t know if that’s the case in this situation, and I’m certainly not arguing that women are not discriminated against, I’m just not sure if it’s as cut and dried as all that.

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    • Historically women were considered unclean because they bled once a month. In a time long before science, ancient religions most often saw menses as a curse. That’s where the prohibition comes from. As humanity came to understand biology these prohibitions began to drop off or be amended.

      The sticky part of the problem is when do you allow something to remain unchanged just because it’s established tradition. When do you push for things to change when these beliefs cause discord? The case of these ultra orthodox Jews brings to light real problems in modernity.

      One trend is to call people out on (what they perceive as) outdated beliefs and attitudes. In this context, conflict has the potential to bring about a examination of what rules we chose to follow in public spaces. A quick apology ignores the real underlying problem allowing attitudes to continue unchecked and unchallenged.

      I think there is a good argument for this case to be cut and dry, but I certainly understand the need to chose your battles by place and context.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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  4. Wow ! – what a post, Steven ! Congratulations, my dear.
    I can say only that I suspect Japan might be the only country you could teach in where these deeply-ingrained attitudes could be changed in the duration of a single lesson: everywhere else you would be pushing shit uphill into a VERY strong wind …
    XO

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you M.R.

      What separates japan from western counties is the lack of religion: No dogma, no problem changing. They’ll be putting this to the test in the next couple of years as same-sex marriage has (finally) made an entry point here. Two places in Tokyo now recognize same-sex partnerships. I’m interested in how they will argue for and against it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Of course ! – I had forgotten that, Steven.
        Oz is nearly there ! – after Ireland, we’re all pulling our socks up. 🙂
        XO

        Liked by 1 person

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