Oppression can be defined as ‘a situation in which people are governed in an unfair and cruel way and prevented from having opportunities and freedom’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2019). The term can also be defined as ‘the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner’ (Dictionary.com, 2019).
In essence, oppression results in individuals being unable to live freely as it restricts them from exercising their human rights. For example, throughout history minority groups have been oppressed such as women and people of colour. Nations have treated them in unjust ways because they believe that they do not deserve to live as the rest of the civilians live; they are deemed of less worth than others. Oppression can be seen as systematic injustice because it encourages an order where certain groups benefit far more greatly than others i.e. when it comes to education and job opportunities.
The origins of the term ‘oppression’ can be dated back to the 14th century. It is believed that ‘Middle English oppressioun, borrowed from Anglo-French oppression, borrowed from Latin oppressiōn-, oppressiō “action of pressing on or overpowering”’ (Merriam-Webster, 2018). The idea of overpowering is one that is largely important to investigate here because it emphasises the existence of power. Early examples of this can be seen in Europe where women were accepted as lesser in society. For instance, while Ancient Greece is ‘often held up as a model of democracy’, women did not have basic rights, and could own no property nor could they participate directly in the political system – and this was normalised. In both Rome and Greece, women’s every movement in public was limited and there are cultures today where women are still oppressed in this way (ThoughtCo., 2019).
With an understanding of intersectionality, not all women share the same experience of oppression. It should be argued that other forms of oppression can interact with the oppression of women. For example, ‘racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and other social forms of coercion mean that women who are experiencing other forms of oppression may not experience oppression as women in the same way other women with different “intersections” will experience it’ (ibid.).
A contemporary example of oppression that I will discuss is arranged child marriage in which girls as young as age 9 are forced into marriages, often to compensate for their family’s economic needs. The head of UNICEF’s Child Protection Program in Lebanon, Johanna Erkisson, stated that ‘although there’s no dowry tradition in Lebanon, and no money changes hands when a girl marries, she does become her husband’s economic responsibility…from an economic perspective, her family sees that as positive…they believe they are doing what is best for their child’ (Schaer, 2021). In nations such as Lebanon, with a history of humanitarian crises as well as economic and political downfall, much of the population lives in desperate situations, making arranged marriage a popular practice. In 2016, UNICEF launched a programme which aimed to support young girls in poverty and prevent them from forced marriages. For example, in Burkina Faso, over 14,000 adolescent girls were supported with school materials, payment of school feed and case management to ensure they continue their education (UNICEF, 2020).
Oppression in relation to pedagogy and higher education
Rankin and Reason (2005) conducted a study regarding students of colour within predominantly white institutions and found that ‘underrepresented students often feel isolated, alienated, and stereotyped especially when they are on campuses where they are not the majority’ (cited in Hermida, 2017, p40). Although this piece of research focuses specifically on American universities, it can equally be applied to British universities. Institutions must understand that each of their students and staff members will undergo completely different experiences within the university environment and each of these must be accounted for. The university setting should be one that is safe and vibrant and promotes equality and inclusivity rather than oppressive behaviours. In terms of staff, they to must be equipped to deliver effective lessons that allow minority ethnic groups a chance to participate. For example, ‘in whole class or small group discussions notice patterns of participation. Who speaks more? Who never speaks? Do male voices dominate? Are English Learners silent?’ (Aguilar, 2013). They must ensure that all their students feel comfortable within their classroom or lecture hall, and watch out for any signs of prejudiced behaviour from other students. Should they notice any signs of harassment or bullying, this should be reported immediately and it should be seen that the perpetrator and victim are appropriately accounted for. Furthermore, academic teaching staff should encourage their students whose English is a second language to participate in class and group discussions in order to increase their confidence. This is because all students deserve to feel encouraged enough to ask and answer questions and feel like they are in a safe space.
Aguilar, E. (2013). Teaching for Justice: 10 Ways To Unravel Systemic Oppression. [online] Available at: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-for-justice-unravel-oppression-elena-aguilar
Cambridge Dictionary (2019). OPPRESSION | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. [online] Cambridge.org. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/oppressionn
Dictionary.com (2019). Definition of oppression | Dictionary.com. [online] Available at: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/oppression
Eric Liu (2014). How to understand power – Eric Liu. YouTube. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_Eutci7ack&t=160s
Hermida, A. (2017). Everyday Oppression: The Challenges of Belonging for Underrepresented Doctoral Students at a Predominantly White Institution, University of Minnesota, 40.
Merriam-Webster (2018). Definition of OPPRESSION. [online] Merriam-webster.com. Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/oppression
Schaer, C. (n.d.). Underage marriages increase in Lebanon during pandemic | DW | 15.05.2021. [online] DW.COM. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/lebanons-crisis-increase-child-marriages/a-57531628
ThoughtCo (2019). How have women fought against oppression throughout history? | ThoughtCo. [online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/oppression-womens-history-definition-3528977
UNICEF (2020). UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage. [online] www.unicef.org. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/protection/unfpa-unicef-global-programme-end-child-marriageN
Ayesha Haq (2017). Unpacking the Meaning of Oppression | TEDxUCincinnati. TEDx Talks. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUQqhl-Fjwk (a Muslim student speaking about her experiences of facing oppression within education and everyday life)
Collins, S. (n.d.). LibGuides: Anti-Oppression: Anti-Oppression. [online] simmons.libguides.com. Available at: https://simmons.libguides.com/anti-oppression (an information page of Simmons University in which they explain anti-oppression)
Questions to ask
- How would you now define ‘oppression?
- Have you ever been a victim of oppression?
- Can you think of three groups of people who are currently being oppressed?
- What piece of advice would you give to someone who is or has experienced oppression?
- What work could you do today to reduce the impact of oppression?