What It [Really] Takes: Ending Sexist Stereotyping in Humanitarianism

Written by Dr. Lina Abirafeh, Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World
This was originally published on February 14, 2020 on the Yalla Feminists Blog
Permission to publish on the COFEM Blog was given by the author.

We as feminists view this new video with deep concern. The intent was to celebrate humanitarians and their efforts. UN OCHA states the following as a preamble to their video on Twitter:

“Their impact is measured not in profits or percentage margins, but in how many lives they change for the better. Here is #WhatItTakes to be a @UN humanitarian”

We are concerned for the following reasons:

This video is misleading – presenting a seemingly-abandoned child as a juxtaposition to having a humanitarian parent. When this parent is the mother, it puts women in a cliche of family vs career, a dichotomy of the 1980s, where women have to compromise family to pursue careers. The viewer is led to believe that the son is left without a mother and forced to eat, sleep, and otherwise fend for himself. Nevermind that the father is present – we do not see his face – and that he is also a parent and can look after his child just as well as the mother can. It is also worthwhile noting that single parents are more often female. Female headed households bear the double burden of work and family – and carry the guilt of both. This video implies that a woman who is a “good humanitarian” is therefore a “bad mother”. We are left feeling guilty that the child’s life and wellbeing comes at the expense of global peace and lofty causes in far lands. These are unreasonable choices that are also highly gendered. Replace the woman with a man and the ad would not have the same effect – and the child would not convey the same level of guilt.

Furthermore, the terms used to describe this female humanitarian are gendered because women who succeed in the workplace are often told they are pushy, stubborn, overbearing, impatient, etc etc … all gendered language used to describe strong women in the working world. While the ad seems to try to reframe these words – that they should have positive connotations – it fails to deliver. What we are left with is an impression of a strong dynamic woman who society deems unreasonable, stubborn, and whatever negative things society calls her, in order to serve humanity. She should be proud to be called these negative labels because she’s serving humanity.

And when this woman is black, the racial stereotypes are also magnified. Black women and all women of color are viewed as even more aggressive given they have to overcome both sex and race in order to succeed. As such, this video is an insult to the intersectional feminist message that we have been conveying for decades.

The ad further fuels the misconception that one has to sacrifice family and decent working conditions and hours in order to be a humanitarian, again perpetuating the unhealthy work conditions that are expected for humanitarians. So much for all the rhetoric about self care.

In conclusion, the video itself is “unreasonable” because it falls short for women; it is a missed opportunity for a strong feminist message. Instead of this cliche, we would prefer to see a video that highlights women’s leadership, emphasizes women’s strengths, and empowers women in this field. This is not a trade off but rather a career choice that deserves respect – whether male or female. Yes, humanitarians are unstoppable, and humanitarian women even more so – given that they have to fight a patriarchal system even within the United Nations in order to excel professionally. However OCHA is remiss in highlighting this internal shortcoming when it should be working to fix its own issues of inequality rather than shamelessly showcasing them in a gender stereotyped video.

According to this group of seasoned feminist humanitarians, it seems that stereotypes and sexism are #WhatItTakes.