Identifying and fixing the causes that lead to the suffering of women is a task for our times, writes Shelina Janmohamed
Women are disproportionately affected by mental health issues. It's time to talk about it.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” wrote Charles Dickens in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
He could easily have been writing about the state of womanhood in the 21st century. It feels that in the time we live in it is harder than ever to be a woman, and yet surely no time in history has ever been so good for women? A study published by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK earlier this week has shown that a staggering 81 per cent of women feel stressed and "unable to cope". While the number for men is also high at 67 per cent, the fact that more than four out of five women are feeling this high level of emotional distress is extraordinary. And the numbers are even higher among younger groups.
I read the details of this study and realised – after much self-denial – that this is me and so many of the women I know.
I couldn't work out if it made me feel better or worse that the next three women I meet will probably feel the same. Who is this one woman, a unicorn walking amongst us, who is not feeling stressed? Is she Meghan Markle, about to walk into the life of a princess? Although even her life this week seems to have taken a stressful turn.
We know that one in three women globally suffer physical or sexual violence. We know that the gender pay gap exists wherever you are in the world. We know that it will take 200 years to achieve gender parity. Women die in childbirth, women die at the hands of their partners, women die for lack of healthcare or lack of access to it. Women suffer higher rates of poverty and illiteracy than men.
When it comes to changing the status of women globally, women's bodies, bodily autonomy and participation in the physical external space have often dominated the discourse. The achievement of female suffrage is one huge example of that, which in the UK we are celebrating one hundred years since that happened.
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The question is, will the next wave of feminism be about tackling the mental well being and the stresses that disproportionately affect women? We might not be able to see them, but if four out of five women can't cope then surely this must be the next frontier we fight?
In 1963, Betty Friedan published the groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique which tackled the idea that fulfilment as a woman had only one definition for American women: the housewife-mother. She called the widespread unhappiness of these middle class housewives “the problem that has no name” despite living in material comfort and seemingly stable families.
Yet half a century on, the changes that have happened in the work and public spaces as a result may have created radical social shifts, but the underlying unhappiness seems to remain. Whether it is the same stresses and miseries or different ones is unknown.
But in some ways the challenges in tackling these issues remain as they did in the 1960s, with issues like stress and mental health being brushed off as women suffering “First World Problems”. Sometimes this is used to push back on women to say they are not "really" suffering. It plays into the age old tropes – stretching way back to Aristotle and beyond that women are inherently prone to hysterics. The word hysteria itself is connected to the uterus.
Women have also started to talk increasingly of the "mental load" they carry, in having not just to do the work to run families and households but also to carry the burden of planning and management.
There are trends that are emerging to tackle these issues in a tactical way. Mental health is now on our discussion radars. In the UK, "controlling and coercive behaviour" is seen as part of domestic abuse, highlighting the emotional and psychological suffering victims can endure.
But the "problem that has no name" persists, and if anything it appears to be growing. It must now be named and defeated. This is the best of times to do it.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the Worl