Something that I seem to encounter a lot, and which always makes me wince, is when a well-meaning (or defensive) chap trots out the line “of course I believe in women’s rights, I respect women, they are our sisters, mothers, daughters…”. Similar to this, although not exactly, are platitudes like “if you don’t respect women, some day some man will not respect your daughter (/mother/wife/sister)”. Because this kind of thinking is so widespread, especially in this part of the world, and because so many people who say it genuinely have good intentions, I’d like to address exactly why this is problematic.
The problem with the first statement is that it implies that only women he* can imagine as related to him (or to another man) are worthy of respect. Of course, he might have a very good imagination, and thus be able to imagine all the world’s women as related to him, somehow, but that is often not the case. Therefore, women that he cannot imagine in relation to him (such as lovers, girlfriends, prostitutes) and women that are solitary (who do not have any visible relationships around them) are automatically barred from being respected. They are not ‘so-and-so’s sister’ and he can’t imagine them as his own, so why should he respect them?
The problem with the second statement is that if the person himself doesn’t have any women in his life or doesn’t respect the women in his life, teaching him to view all women that way is not going to do much good. This is particularly important when it comes to trying to dissuade young men from eve-teasing by telling them their daughters or sisters might be treated the same way. First of all, they might not have sisters, or they might be the sort that lock their sisters up, and then think it perfectly good game to tease the sisters of all the men who aren’t as despotic. Second of all, such young men are hardly thinking of children, much less of the future prospect of having daughters, so that argument falls flat too.
The basic issue with both statements, however, is much more fundamental. We don’t have statements about why men need to be respected because they are someone’s brother/father/son/husband, because in history, the narrative has always been centred on men, told from a male perspective. Women have been the Other, viewed only from the outside, enigmas. Because of this, their voice has been squashed and ignored. This sort of thinking is prevalent even today (‘What do women want?” well, for starters, try asking them).
Only by viewing and respecting women as individuals can you consider them capable of their own choices and listen to their voice.By reducing women to their relationships with men (or to relationships in general) it again reduces them to the Other. By denying them individuality, you squash their voice and their agency yet again. And that is why this is so important.
It can be simplified to what is shown in the picture: women must be respected for being an individual human being, with individual worth, and not according to their possible relationship, to you or anyone else. A woman is as much an individual as a man. And that is the whole point.
*I have used male pronouns throughout this article, although I am fully aware that many women hold this line of thinking, but because it is primarily used by men, I am addressing them.