When Beauty Is A Curse
By Amanda Nasinyama
From the 16th to the 18th of May, 2016 Uganda had the newly elected Members of Parliament take their oaths during a very colorful swearing in ceremony. One of the highlights of the event was the swearing in of the Gomba district female Member of Parliament, Ms. Sylvia Nayebare. To be honest, I had not heard of Sylvia until her picture was sent to one of my whatsapp groups. You see, Sylvia is a very beautiful woman who’d caused quite a stir when she showed up to the ceremony – she’s the kind of woman that turns heads wherever she goes. One of the members of my whatsapp group quickly threw shade at Sylvia by stating that, ‘we should watch the space because such beauty comes with no brains!’ Imagine that, here’s a woman who, at 26 years of age, has managed to acquire one of the top leadership positions in the country and she is judged because she is considered ‘too beautiful’. In this day and age you would think that a woman’s intelligence, expertise and character would not be determined by her beauty.
Ms. Sylvia has been a victim of a gender stereotype, one where a beautiful woman can neither be smart nor ambitious. A gender stereotype is a generalized view or preconception about attributes or characteristics that are, or ought to be, possessed by people because they are women or men. Gender stereotypes emerge from socially construed ideas of gender. A social construct is an area or notion that appears to be natural and obvious to people who accept it, but may not represent reality, so it remains largely an invention of a given society. Gender stereotypes tend to interact with other identity-stereotypes including class, race, ethnicity, religion and disability to further compound stereotypes around different groups of women and men. The problem with stereotypes is that they reinforce and legitimize gender norms by presenting them as truths, common sense and natural despite being based on limited knowledge and/or prejudice.
Research has shown that stereotypes create dangerous consequences that tend to limit a person’s full potential and threaten their well being. We end up unknowingly being put into a box as gender stereotypes force both men and women to ignore their true selves in order to conform to the cultural notions of masculinity and femininity. Gender stereotypes are ubiquitous in all aspects of our everyday life. This includes education, work, sports, art, family, social and political life. Gender stereotypes tend to influence the behaviors towards both men and women at work and socially. They have also been shown to be one of the root causes of inequality in the social, political and economic spheres. Therefore, gender stereotypes tend to result in the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms for not only women but men as well.
There are various examples of how gender stereotypes have contributed to human rights violations and limited both men and women’s potential. One such stereotype is the perception that women are sexually promiscuous which ultimately restricts their access to justice in cases of sexual assault, as they are unlikely to report such cases even where there is progressive legislation. This is mainly due to the fact that in such cases the woman is often made to feel like she caused the assault. Cultural practices like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are practiced in order to curb a woman’s sexual libido so as to ‘prevent’ her from cheating on her husband as well as to ensure her ‘purity’ before she gets married. In addition to this is the failure to criminalize marital rape due to the societal perception that women are the sexual property of men.
Gender stereotypes have contributed to many young women choosing not to ‘over qualify’ themselves on the academic front because it is widely believed to limit marital success. A friend of mine has taken to not telling the men that show interest in her that she is lawyer. This is because she is often told that female lawyers are too opinionated, loud and disrespectful. A lot of women who are believed to be successful in their careers and education are often advised to down play their achievements so as to not appear threatening and reduce their chances of getting married. Men’s apprehension towards marrying or dating successful women is also a result of gender stereotyping as it is the norm for the men to be the ‘alpha’ in the relationship, which calls for them to be seen as more successful and wealthier than their wives/ partners/ girlfriends.
Gender stereotypes also have a powerful influence on what is deemed to be appropriate employment for women and men. Women face limitations in participating in the formal labor force as they will occupy low level posts that will offer them flexibility to manage their households while working in the formal sector. According to 2011 UNDP report on Women’s Participation in Public Administration and Its Decision-Making Spaces, men constitute 67 % of the public sector labour force in Uganda, while women make up only 33% . The Uganda Gender Policy (UGP) of 2007 also states that women constitute 17.4 % of permanent secretaries and heads of departments and divisions in the civil service, whereas men account for 82.6%. This is evidence that although women have become more visible in the job market, some of these stereotypes still hold women back by restricting them from further advancing their careers. Men are also negatively impacted by these stereotypes when they take up roles that are traditionally meant for women, such as a stay at home parent. They face a lot of ridicule from society for not being ‘real man’.
In the political sphere men are considered to be natural born leaders they tend to control decisions-making processes in the public sphere while the women make decisions at home. Too often women are stereotyped as not having leadership skills, being too emotional, too irrational and not being able to make tough decisions. Wambui Otieno states that a male politician tends to be seen as politician first and foremost. Conversely, a woman politician is seen as a wife and mother. The lack of women in powerful positions used to be blamed on the “pipeline problem”, i.e. women with the appropriate education and background not being available to take up these positions. This does not hold true today as quite a number of women have attained the necessary education and exposure; however, they are held back by the prejudices which are, in part, promoted by gender stereotypes. Imagine Sylvia’s predicament, any mistake she makes will serve as proof that, indeed, a beautiful woman can not be smart.
One of the worst manifestations of gender stereotypes is that domestic violence has been linked to men’s inability to live up to society’s expectations of what it means to be a real man, being a breadwinner and household decision maker. In East Africa, and worldwide, widespread unemployment has left many men unable to fulfill traditional gender roles as the financial provider. As a result, some men are turning to violence against women and children because it is one of the few remaining ways that they can display power over others and ‘feel like a man’. Men have also been stereotyped as the problem, as violent, lazy, uncaring, irresponsible and patriarchal, which demonizes all men and undermines whatever motivation they would have to take action to challenge gender inequalities (or resist ideas of masculinity that may be damaging to women and themselves).
The media today also conveys so many unrealistic images of who a woman and man should be. Thanks to social media, women are now obsessed with weight, beauty, clothes, cosmetics and living the ‘amazing life’. Those that are not able to achieve this ideal life are left lacking self confidence and self worth. Lack of self confidence affects all areas of our lives and will lead to our inability to be successful.
Men who are soft and gentle in temperament, who love to cook, watch musicals, who are sensitive, are often chastised by others for not being charismatic and extroverted. Likewise, women who are extroverts, brave and tough, are often reprimanded by people for not being gentle & submissive. Alice H. Eagly and Valerie J. Steffen have theorized that gender stereotypes will not disappear until people divide social roles equally, i.e. until child care and household responsibilities are shared equally by women and men and the responsibility to be employed outside the home is borne equally. To counter the negative effects of gender stereotypes we must stop perpetuating the myth of gender roles entirely. We must therefore help men and women overcome the societal dictations of what to do and what not to do.
Be empowered and don’t forget to empower a man and woman close to you.