OPINION: Female Identity Is Still Shaped by Men

By Fatemeh Zandi

I have an issue with the concept of gender equality, because it is either deliberately distorted or inadvertently misunderstood. Besides, our most fundamental rights — “being ourselves” and “being women” — are entirely neglected.

A woman cannot be her true self as long as she views herself from a man’s perspective. Some may say that the same holds true for men. But I must point out that we have been living in a patriarchal world, where men have shaped our values, cultures, and laws, for centuries.

Recent cases of gross sexual misconduct in the West, particularly in Hollywood, have made me think more about gender roles and dynamics. My first thought was, why had it taken so long for the victims of sexual harassment and abuse to come forward?

Victims of any abuse should not suffer in silence, irrespective of how powerful or influential their attackers might be, unless there is some benefit in remaining quiet. One should at least leave an abusive environment. But in some of these instances, the victims kept quiet for years. Their silence emboldened their abusers to assault others with complete impunity.

I was struggling for a long time with this issue. I finally realized that many of these women preferred to remain silent rather than speak out against the mighty men who assaulted them, for fear of losing their fame, fortune, and reputation. They suffered willingly rather than committing professional suicide. I tried to put myself in their shoes and understand the price they were willing to pay to safeguard their hard-won success.

Hollywood has traditionally portrayed women as either beautiful and seductive spinsters, or vulnerable and passive angels. Film provided men with a vehicle to reassert their dominance over women. They projected themselves as strong, smart and brave decision-makers. They used movies to rationalize their authority by creating meek and helpless female characters that needed men’s protection.

Hollywood moguls created, developed and promoted a universe in which powerful men ruled. They sold that myth to millions of audiences in the past decades. In that world, women were second-class citizens whose primary role in life and movies was to complement and support men. In effect, male executives at Hollywood studios manufactured a feminine identity that suited their purpose.

Playing these fabricated roles means surrendering to violence. And if a woman’s success depends on enduring abuse, then her identity is defined by male standards.

In the past two decades, Hollywood has tried to create dominant lead roles for women in movies that challenge female stereotypes. But these new identities are cast in the same mold that male characters are formed. They have merely superimposed stereotypical masculine traits over women to create charismatic, courageous and confident female characters.

I don’t claim to know true feminine identity, or what it means to be one’s true self. I’ve tried very hard to discover it, without success. However, I’m a staunch critic of defining women by men’s terms. It could be that rejecting the traditional definition of feminine character is an unconscious attempt to resist an identity that the patriarchal society has forced on women.

We must not neglect the flip side of the coin: women have become active and competitive in a world that has traditionally been ruled by men. That’s what we mean when we speak of gender equality. Women will compete with men for the same jobs and positions. In this case, women are viewed, judged and defined by male standards. We must be mindful of this.

In my opinion, those who conform to the Hollywood image of women as beautiful, delicate and passive, and those who are tough, confident and competitive with men have both lost the plot. They are nowhere close to finding their true female identity.

We are not speaking here of hating men. But as women, we must find our true female identity, independent of any male characteristic. All women who have spearheaded social change in the past century shared similar traits: they were all independent, self-reliant, self-confident, and didn’t need to be validated. To find our true identity as women, we must first emerge from the long masculine shadow and reveal our true selves.

I have a simple suggestion: before making any minor or significant choices, let’s ask ourselves who would benefit from our decisions. Why should we worry about what others think? Who do I need to validate myself? What are my fears and concerns?