CNN | 5/19/2022 | Listen

It should come as no shock that women leaders can be anti-feminist too

Opinion by Eliza Anyangwe, Editor of CNN As Equals

Updated: Fri, 21 Jan 2022 09:02:46 GMT

Source: CNN

Editor's Note: This story is part of As Equals, CNN's ongoing series on gender inequality. For information about how the series is funded and more, check out our FAQs.

The appointment of a woman into a position long-held by men is often believed to be a sign; a harbinger of good things to come for other women and in the fight for gender equality. But is it ever?

On Tuesday, Roberta Metsola became the new President of the European Parliament, the youngest person ever to hold the position and just the third woman since the Parliament was established in 1952.

The ink had hardly dried on the appointment, the first 24 hours barely passed before the Maltese center-right politician was already being "grilled" about her stance on abortion rights.

It would be naïve to think Metsola wouldn't have seen this coming. Her anti-abortion voting history made her a controversial candidate. But why do her views on sexual and reproductive health and rights matter, and not those, say, of the men who occupied the post before her?

All leaders should face public scrutiny for their views and values. But the attention Metsola is receiving -- both positive (celebrating her appointment on the basis of her gender) and negative (critiquing her suitability on the basis of her position on gender issues) -- reveals two assumptions:

The first is that one woman breaking a glass ceiling is evidence of inevitable, imminent progress for all women. Second, that only women can or should take up feminist causes.

It is because of the first assumption that the public (or maybe just the media?) expresses shock every time a woman in the public eye upholds some patriarchal policy, or says or does something that is anti-feminist.

Take Tanzania's first female President Samia Suluhu Hassan who last year said her country's "flat-chested" female football players could be mistaken for men, adding that "it is unfortunate that there is no hope of marriage life for some of these athletes, marriage is like a dream for them."

Folks were "shook", as the kids would say; Hassan was duly criticised. But what -- aside from her gender -- suggested that she couldn't possibly be bigoted?

We only need read Black American abolitionist and women's rights activist Sejouner Truth's 1851 speech, 'Ain't I a woman?' to be reminded that even feminism has not historically advocated for all women.

The assumption persists perhaps because representation continues to be used as shorthand for systemic change. Representation is valuable, necessary. But it is just the small visible tip of the iceberg of transformation needed for true inclusion. Though leadership is also key, no one person can change a system, especially when working within institutions. And it seems institutions are in the habit of taking representation as a sign that all the work's been done -- before returning to business as usual.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell explores this trend brilliantly in the first episode of his podcast, Revisionist History, where he tells the story of The Roll Call, an 1874 painting by a young painter Elizabeth Thompson that was included in the Royal Academy's summer exhibition of the same year -- a time when "British women weren't even allowed to study fine art." Thompson seemed set for greatness and the Royal Academy set for change. Yet, as Gladwell recounts, not only does Thompson fade into obscurity, despite her clear talent, the Royal Academy remains a boys club for over 50 more years.

Gladwell turns to a concept called moral licensing to explain the phenomenon of "the outsider whose success serves not to alleviate discrimination but perpetuate it."

Describing what the appointment of the European Parliament's first female President, Simone Veil, meant for diversity in the institution, self-described "EU nerd" Pelle Geertsen wrote in September 2021: "She was not a man, she was not conservative or socialist, and as an atheist Jew, she was also not a Christian. Without her, the diversity picture would look far more bleak. Veil, who held the position from 1979 to 1982, was in many ways the exception, and it's now more than 40 years since she was elected, and the institution's diversity has been in decline."

Much doesn't need to be said about the second assumption. It should be evident that if we only task women with remedying the harms of patriarchy and building societies in which all people can thrive irrespective of gender, then progress is going to be woefully slow. Progress has been woefully slow, and the coronavirus pandemic has set women back across the world.

So, next time a woman, or non-binary person, becomes the first to [fill in the blank], recognise it for what it is: a praiseworthy personal milestone with the potential to mean more. But that "more" isn't given, nor does it ever seem to come without sustained effort.

Story of the week

"The winter sky in Albania is gray and the air is damp. We're living by the sea. It's our first time ever actually seeing a sea, but it's too cold to dip our toes in. It feels expansive and full of possibility, yet devastatingly out of our reach -- just like parts of our new lives."

Read Afghan women's rights advocate and human rights lawyer Jameela Naseri's story, shared over six months with journalist Lauren Bohn.

In a hotel room in Albania, Afghan women await new lives -- and watch their homeland collapse

Women behaving badly: Justice Ayesha Malik

Written by Pallabi Munsi

Pakistan just got its first woman Supreme Court judge in Justice Ayesha A. Malik who on 19 January was appointed to serve for a 10-year term. The 55-year-old has been at the center of many landmark judgments, including a ban on carrying out virginity tests on rape survivors, but her steady climb to the top has not been without resistance.

Malik's nomination was previously rejected by the judicial commission after four of its eight members opposed her, citing lack of seniority. Now, several lawyers have threatened to go on strike if she takes her place on the Supreme Court bench.

Malik was educated in Paris, New York and London before reading law at the Pakistan College of Law in Lahore. She went on to Harvard University, where she completed her LL.M. On her return from the US, Malik worked in various law firms in Pakistan before being appointed as a Lahore high court judge in 2012.

What Malik will achieve -- or be supported to do -- in the role remains to be seen, but as Zarmeeneh Rahim, an Islamabad-based lawyer, told the New York Times: "To finally see a woman sit on the highest court in the land is a small step forward."

Other stories worth your time

Why are Latina moms in New York reporting such high levels of anxiety and depression? -- The Fuller Project Tracing the queer roots of Qawwali, Sufi devotional music -- Pride and Prejudice podcast See 2021 through the eyes of 12 women photographers -- As Equals After reporting rape of her kids, Indonesian mother branded "delusional" -- Project Multatuli

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