Article in brief: the author talks about Sharjah’s Girl Guides, and explains the importance of Girl Guides associations to empower women and combat unconscious gender bias in the society.
I can’t even begin to imagine how different my life would have been if I had been part of a Girl Guides or Scouts as a little girl. Can you imagine your own life with it? A couple of days ago I attended the badge award ceremony of Sharjah’s Girl Guides, under the patronage of HH Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, Chairperson of UAE Girl Guides Association and patron of Sharjah Girl Guides (SGG), wife of Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah. I had to fight back my tears when the Girl Guides’ activities were listed and they walked proudly and confidently on the stage to receive their badges from HH Sheikha Jawaher. I welled up with pride and joy looking at how much they had achieved.
Let me tell you why this is such an important thing in our community. The leaders of the country have a very clear message when it comes to educating and empowering women. Ensuring women’s education is attainable by putting down proper rules and regulations, but the empowering part will always remain a difficult part to enforce. No matter how much the country tries to mandate gender quotas on leadership roles, if women don’t believe in themselves, and if society keeps thinking of them as the “soft gender”, all efforts are in vain.
Society’s actions and behaviors that hinder the empowerment of women are not unique to the Middle East, but are global and are heavily studied in the West under the term “unconscious gender bias”. You can research the case study by Harvard Business School called “Heidi vs. Howard” and you’ll find many studies and articles on this concept, and the more you read the more you’ll realize how we all must have gone through it in a way or another. These actions are never consciously meant to hold back or cause pain to the girls as they grow up or even as adults. It was best said in a women leadership website called “Handbags in the Boardroom”: “we are not aware of this filter on our assessments and decision making.” That is why changing this will be difficult, because we can’t change what we can’t see. And so we’ll need to start pointing such biases every time so people can start recognizing the patterns and break them, instead of reaffirming them with sayings like “this is how traditionally things have always been.”
The examples on this are infinite, in all phases of life, fields of work, and in almost all countries. I will try to elaborate how one normal thing we do while raising up kids at a young age can form the foundation of a bias and stereotype at an older age:
When kids are exploring and finding games to play with, girls are often pushed towards games that are “softer” in nature, that don’t include much of the outdoors. If they do play outside, the games are tamed so that the girls don’t hurt themselves, and they must remain where the parents can see them, to step in at anytime for the rescue. On the contrary, boys are encouraged to play outdoors, with no mandate to stay where they can be seen, no restriction on the creativity of what crazy stunts they’ll pull, because falling and getting hurt is part of the package of growing up as a boy. And the result of this? Girls are almost always extra careful and think twice about everything they do because they don’t trust themselves in something they haven’t explored. Remember, they could only explore as long as the rescue is around, which takes much of the fun out of exploring anyway. Boys? Woah, they jump into the most unfamiliar surroundings confidently, not fearing the fall or the hurt, pulling out some life-threatening stunts at times, because they’ve learned that they can always recover from anything on their own and that it’s okay to get hurt every now and then.
Boys are not genetically fearless and neither are girls genetically fearful. They acquire these traits while growing up, after a few occasions of being treated and perceived in that way, leading them to fulfill those qualities projected on them. The more both genders are raised and treated equally, given the same opportunities, rules, responsibilities, and chores, the more proofs we’ll see on the fallacy of our stereotypes and generalizations, and that some girls are much stronger than we give them credit.
So ultimately, regardless of how the leaders of the country mandate rules around the matter, the problem will remain. No matter how much they preach about the importance of empowering women, the way boys and girls are raised at home plays a huge factor in that, and it is difficult to change. Raising boys as the stronger species and girls as the softer one will remain a vicious cycle in many households that is hard to break. And here is where the role of an association like the Sharjah Girl Guides comes into play.
We can’t compel parents to let their girls play outdoors as creatively as they wish, or give them new developmental games, instead of the typical Barbie and dolls. We can’t tell the parents to take their girls to male-oriented gatherings, instead of just female ones, to teach them how to speak their minds instead of just look pretty and stay quiet. Some parents may try a couple of times then forget, because it’s not something everyone is used to or was raised on. But what the country can do is create programmes for girls to introduce them to the outdoors, to learn how to depend on themselves, speak their minds, and develop leadership and teamwork skills.
That is why Sharjah’s Girl Guides is such an important step. We need to understand that we can’t ensure all parents will rise to the level of girls’ empowerment we’re aspiring to. We need to take the responsibility and create more programmes like Sharjah’s Girl Guides to provide that kind of safe space for girls to develop their individualities, build their self-confidence, and self-esteem. It teaches them that even if they fall, they can stand up on their feet again on their own. When they develop that sort of mindset at an early age, as they grow up they will only develop it further. They will know their value and fight for it without waiting for someone to remind them of their worth and value, and assure them that they can do it.
I salute Sharjah and the great efforts of HH Sheikha Jawaher in taking the initiative and pioneering the Sharjah Girl Guides. I hope the authorities will pick this up and support HH Sheikha Jawaher in establishing this in each emirate, so we can develop a well-balanced society. A society that maybe one day will not wait for the leaders to handpick women into the electoral Federal National Council (FNC), but people themselves can trust a woman to lead and will vote for her to be part of the FNC without thinking twice just because she’s a woman.
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