Type ‘women should’ into Google search and its autocomplete option throws up a few stomach-churning suggestions, including ‘women should be slaves’ and ‘women should stay in the kitchen’. Conversely, type ‘women shouldn’t’ and once again autocomplete steps in with recommendations like ‘women shouldn’t vote’ and ‘women shouldn’t work’. These insights were captured in a recent advertisement campaign by Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai for UN Women, shining a light on the extent of sexism and skewed notions of gender roles that exist in today’s ‘modern’ world. Titled ‘The Autocomplete Truth’, the campaign has spawned debates and conversations around stereotyping, gender discrimination and quite unnecessarily the logic behind Google’s autocomplete! Google maintains that its autocomplete algorithm recommends high-volume searches, essentially reflecting what has been searched for most. Many people question it. Whatever the mathematical equation behind Google’s predictive technology and the moral imperatives therefrom, the undeniable truth is that sexism is alive and well and it exerts a stranglehold on the lives of millions of women around the world. Sadly, India is notorious for its discrimination against women. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, registered rape cases in India have increased by almost 900 percent over the past 40 years. Last year, Trust Law, a legal news service by Thomson Reuters Foundation, conducted a poll to find the best and worst places to be a woman amongst the G20 countries. While Canada ranked No.1, India was given the unholy title of the worst place to be a woman. These are shameful facts. And that is why we should be worried about the autocomplete truths exposed in the UN Women campaign. Regressive attitudes nurture violent behaviours against women. If women should not be seen or heard, then the act of being seen or heard is a defiance of the norm. Any violence this perceived ‘transgression’ attracts is squarely the fault of the woman. How many times have we heard our politicians and leaders reprimand women for dressing, what they call, provocatively? In the gruesome gang rape of Nirbhaya, we heard ridiculous statements like she should have called them brother and pleaded for mercy! Deep-seated gender discrimination can be addressed through local movements at the urban and rural level. We need to build a zero-tolerance society that comes down heavily on lewd, criminal behaviours including violations like eve-teasing, groping, stalking, which are widely considered ‘not worth reporting’. This is where a platform like Safecity, which encourages the reporting of all kinds of sexual harassment and intimidation happening on our streets, provides a useful service. Only when we proscribe all bad behaviours can we hope for real change. Admittedly, we have covered some ground on gender equality. But, we are still a far cry away from a being gender sensitive society. Concerned citizens, both men and women, need to participate more actively in shaping an inclusive society. Gender education, women’s empowerment, effective support systems for victims of abuse, sensitizing the police force and building a robust and responsive judicial system is crucial. Equally important is the need to address underlying cultural prejudices, economic inequality and poverty. Women should feel safe and live without fear. They should have complete control over their bodies and be treated as individuals with the right to determine the course of their life. We also need to reclaim the ‘women’s rights’ movement from glamour magazines. Somewhere along the way we seem to have ended up advocating the fashion world variety of emancipation for women, where women are chiefly represented as objects of desire for men. And finally, I have to mention that when I typed ‘women shouldn’t’ into Google (on 2 December 2013), I received an odd suggestion – women shouldn’t have self-esteem. Really? What does that even mean!
– Antaash Sheikh, Independent Contributor