I heaved a sigh of exasperation as I skimmed through an academic essay on the topic of women’s rights. The assertions made in the essay were enough to release the breath that I didn’t know I was holding. My brain needed the time to process what I had read. So I went from the initial reaction to reflection, to process and finally to arrive at a good response. The writer of this essay had stated quite boldly that by virtue of gender differences, women shouldn’t be clamouring for equality, but for equity. What this does is equate gender differences to gender inequality.
Thinking long and hard about this subject, I decided to separate what is generally known as formal (quantitative) equality from substantive (qualitative) equality. When women talk about gender equality, what they are striving for is substantive equality, which is basically the belief that all humans are of equal value and status and are therefore entitled to equitable and fair treatment in any society. In the context of women’s rights, it seems quite half-witted for anyone to assume that formal/quantitative equality is what women are talking about. According to the essay, equality implies that everyone, irrespective of their differences should be given the exact same things, which would then lead to injustice. What the writer did was to reduce the concept of equality to mere “numbers”, ruling it out entirely to further push the doctrine of gender inequality and pacify women with gender equity.
In a world where men have for centuries been regarded as superior to women only by virtue of their biology, It is hypocritical and counterproductive to tactically feign ignorance of the existence of substantive equality. How often have women been told that equity can only be achieved when women acknowledge that men and women are not equal? I find this really patronising. A scenario that immediately popped into my mind is a situation where the enforcement of two people’s right to clothing plays out. The one is a 6ft tall and well-built woman while the other is a short, petite woman.
In a society where these two people are regarded as equals, they would be given the exact same quality of clothing. However, by virtue of physical differences, the quantity of clothing in measurement would be different. Substantive equality, which is based on intrinsic value, requires that as equal members of the society, they are both clothed in the same dignifying fabrics, but while the tall person gets a higher quantity of fabric in measurement, the short person gets lesser. On the other hand, formal/quantitative equality, which does not recognise differences and which many have pushed as the only form of equality that exists, demands that they get the same quantity of fabric, irrespective of their physical differences. Thus, substantive equality always leads to equity while formal/quantitative equality does not. In a society where these two people are not considered substantively equal, they get varying quality and quantities of clothing.
It is important to highlight that there can never be equity in any society where some are regarded as higher than others. It is only when the substantive equality of all human beings is acknowledged that the enforcement of equity can take place. We don’t need men explaining the concept of equality to us. Women are not a group of dumb, confused individuals who have no sense of what they’re talking about and no idea of what they want. When we demand gender equality, we are demanding that irrespective of differences, the intrinsic equality of all human beings be recognised. We are demanding the removal of the barriers that disadvantage women and equal opportunities for all. Never have we demanded a one size fits all equality model. The equality we demand takes diversity into consideration and ultimately leads to gender equity.
The concepts of gender equality and gender equity are not mutually exclusive. Gender equity does not undermine equality, it only provides the means to achieve this. In short, equity is a process and equality is an outcome of that process. So the mantra that equity demands an acknowledgement of inequality needs to be trashed and obliterated for life.
Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.