Gender: Between Perception & Reality


Co-writing the article with Katharina Walbert 
Published on European Youth Press Magazine during Peace Journalism Meeting 
"Rethinking Journalism" in Berlin

Republished on the North South Centre

While lyrics of the German anthem call for a “united Fatherland,” in other parts of the Mediterranean, many Arab countries are referred to as “the Motherland.” For decades, gender has been perceived differently where women and men are treated based on the influence of cultures, media and the marketing industry.

Tunisia, has been a leading country on women’s rights in its region. Tunisia’s laws have provided women an immersive measure of equality largely absent among its neighboring countries. Women have one of the most progressive Personal Status Codes: polygamy there is banned, and women have equal rights in marriage and divorce. The code also guarantees strict women rights in the criminalisation of domestic abuse and marital rape. On the other hand, this very Code has settled discriminatory provisions. For instance, According to Article 58, judges can grant custody to either the mother or the father based on the best interests of the child, but prohibits the mother from gaining custody if she has remarried. No such restriction applies to fathers. Unequal inheritance and the total absence of shelters for homeless, abused or battered women are still one of Tunisia’s biggest issues.

In Austria, things look quite different. There are approximately 30 women shelters located all over the country. Women who are in danger receive aid and protection from the state. Beyond that, Austria fosters strong gender-sensitive language discussions and initiatives. The Austrian anthem, for example, has been changed: The line which once referred to Austria’s “great sons,” was modified to now reflect Austria’s “sons and daughters.” Although there are laws protecting women, punishment for sexual harassment and rape are still low. According to § 201 StGB (Austria’s panel code), rape is prosecuted with a prison sentence between six months up and 10 years. In cases where the action is especially violent, or causes the death of the victim, the punishment can be raised up to 20 years in prison. However, perpetrators of sexual violence are often released after just a few years. Marital rape has been penalized in Austria since 2004, but refusal of sexual actions within marriage is still a reason for getting divorced. In addition to rape and sexual abuse, “every day-sexism” is problematic. Sexual harassment often happens in public spaces and work environments. Although the topic is highly discussed, the harassment is not deterred. Almost every woman has been sexually harassed in some manner at least once in her life.

Patrick Grunhag, a German gender-activist and member of Pinkstinks– a campaign that aims to challenge the heavily stereotyped roles of young children in media and marketing–thinks that Arab women are still fighting for the right to education and that “men have more power because of the religion.” He adds: “Women are punished when they are raped.” On the other shore of the Mediterranean, Alia Awada, a Lebanese activist and co-founder of Fe-Male, believes that laws protect women in Europe: “As long as there is a law to be implemented and respected, then it’s a way to protect women.” She believes that women in the Arab region “have a very long way to achieve women’s rights.”

The activists have also stated their perceptions regarding each other’s field of expertise. Alia had the chance to work with Oxfam on an inequality campaign in the UK, and deduced that “there’s no gender equality in the UK, even among women themselves.” Patrick also believes that in Western Europe, feminists shouldn’t talk on behalf of women “if they want to wear the veil or not.” He adds: “We should be an open society that accepts other cultures as we claim. As feminists movements, we shall connect, listen and help other movements when they ‘want [us] to,’ show how it works in our society, but not ‘tell’ them what they ‘want.’”

Sexual harassment, gender-insensitive language, the representation of women in the media, and sexism in advertisement are common struggles to mention a few. In Western Europe, products for children are overtly gender stereotyped. “There are two different types of nachos, a spicy one for boys and milder softer one for girls,” Patrick describes. “We also have BEEF Magazine, which is targeting men based on the prejudice that only men are interested in barbecues,” he adds. Patrick also criticizes casting shows like “Germany’s Next Top Model” broadcasted on Austrian and German networks that “show girls that they have to use make up and wear high heels to be considered beautiful and popular.” The ad and media industries try to shape the ideal woman looks, be it in weight or looks.

Alia is fighting gender stereotypes through television programs, talk shows and commercials in Lebanon as well. “We are still using images of women on TV that we’ve been using for 40 years now,” she confirms. One of her organization’s advocacy projects was an online campaign raising awareness on these stereotypes in the media. Alia clearly states the danger in the use of “sexually violent” images as a “joke” on TV. Overtime, violence against women becomes normalized and emphasized in society and in people’s mindset. Interestingly, Alia and Patrick both mention the same example of a female portrayal by the marketing industry used to sell cars, by which beautiful women are always placed next to. “Even when a woman is in power, the media discusses her fashion rather than her leadership,” Alia concluded. 



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