When we outrage at extreme acts of violence against women, we tend to express shock at the perpetrator’s “beastly” conduct. We bracket them into “others,” separating them from the society we exist in. Othering offenders is our collective way of washing our hands off of any criminal liability. While there is some truth in “they cannot be us,” there is a whole lot of truth in “we enable them”.
Yes, we enable hate and violence by normalising inequality among various gender identities. Our casual remarks, jokes, everyday attitudes contribute to this normalisation. If not discriminating directly, are we not contributing to the culture that breeds discrimination? Each of us is capable of being sexist. Each of us has been sexist.
Shall we pause and take note then?
Bundele, harbolon ke muh hamne suni kahani thi,
Khoob ladi mardaani wo to jhansi wali rani thi
(We have heard tales from the Bundel and Harbol,
What a manly fighter that queen of Jhansi was)
Rani Lakshmi Bai has been a hero to almost all children of India across generations. Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ is probably the most prominent piece of Hindi literature to evoke feelings of valiant passion. Lakshmi Bai was not only brave but also a trailblazer. She fought battles when only men would go to wars. Chauhan sings paeans for her, comparing her heroics to that of a gallant man’s. For those were the times.
There have been social roles for gender identities. Those become stereotypes where a gender identity’s character and abilities are generalised. Such stereotypes also enable the idea that one gender is superior to others in certain matters (ability and skills).
Then ask: Is a gender stereotypical comparison a compliment in the truest sense?
A nursery poem in Hindi, playfully introducing kids to the circular shape goes like this:
Papa ka paisa gol gol, Mummy ki roti gol gol
(Papa’s coins are round, Mumma’s rotis are round)
There are gender stereotypes in society. While one may argue that breadwinning and caregiving must not be looked at in a superior-inferior way, one wonders why a reversal of gender roles is not encouraged/normalised.
Then ask: Does continued enablement of gender roles foster a culture of prejudice and discrimination?
Mithali Raj, the Indian women’s cricket team captain, was once asked by a journalist who her favourite male cricketer was. She was quick to retort, “I have always been asked who your favourite cricketer is but you should ask them who their favourite female cricketer is.”
After the release of Sania Mirza’s autobiography, a veteran journalist enthusiastically asked her about her plans to “settle down”. Sania responded, “You sound disappointed that I’m not choosing motherhood over being number one in the world at this point of time. But I’ll answer your question anyway, that’s the question I face all the time as a woman, that all women have to face — first is marriage and then it’s motherhood. Unfortunately, that’s when we’re settled, and no matter how many Wimbledons we win or number ones in the world we become, we don’t become settled.” This response made the journalist apologise.
Even in a cricket-fanatic country, the women’s game is still not taken seriously. ‘Not a space for women’ is a notion we carry when it comes to many spaces including sports and politics. Players, politicians, leaders who are not men are often either ridiculed or patronised.
Then ask: Have we already decided the spaces based on gender?
When a couple visits a property for purchase or rent, have you noticed how the agent wants to engage only with the man? Agents, mechanics and scores of service providers are often averse to taking instructions from the woman or even engaging with her. There is a blatant notion we have long normalised: that women are less aware. This strengthens the idea that is often expressed with the “that’s not her place” disdain.
Then ask: Do we often feel, “she wouldn’t know”?
Four years ago, at a woman’s hackathon event, a STEM college student, minutes after winning a prize, asked publicly, “But ma’am, aren’t boys smarter than us when it comes to technology?” Her question threw me off-course for a second. I started by reminding her that she won the competition. Then I asked the audience what they would get for a girl child when visiting family and friends.
While we buy kitchen sets and Barbies for the girl, we would take a motorized toy for the boy. Breaking or making such toys is how boys become comfortable with and curious about gadgets. The conditioning begins early. Regardless of “no discrimination” stances, we condition our daughters and sons to live differently. The gender roles and the complexes take over in due course.
Then ask: Can a gender identity be intrinsically inferior? Are we enabling a complex of inferiority?
Then there is that universal, seemingly harmless space of jokes. One laughs at funny jokes, right? Not quite. Many women, like me, have laughed at supposed jokes to fit in. Sometimes, we have cringed inside. At other times, we have experienced a sense of belonging, being in the inner circle, excluding the “wrong kind of woman”. Those jokes are on others, we told ourselves. It is just a joke, they told us.
However, a particular choice and placement of words do not only establish communication between people, but it also establishes a culture. “You run like a girl” is an insult, “that must be a woman driving” is criticism, “You are funny for a woman” is a compliment and the likes, are elements that establish that certain “jokes” originated from the man’s world, and the woman must laugh along or she would be labelled as ‘unfunny’ or a ‘buzzkill’.
Then ask: Is it really just a joke? Do jokes also beget discrimination?
Have you ever come across deifying posts around woman’s day, mother’s day etc? That claim that women are superior, sacrificing beings? That women are superhuman? That how we must salute women as they go along their lives suffering as mothers, sisters, wives and daughters? That women go through their lives enduring pain but never dropping that smile? Have you heard how women are kinder, how they are gentler? Or, how they must be ‘respected’, often a euphemism for protected or saved? That, dear all, is benevolent sexism and it is as harmful as hostile sexism.
Looking at women as a relation (mother, daughter, etc) robs women of their plain human existence. Treating women as superhuman only burdens her further. Being saviours for women reduces them to weaker and secondary beings. As Vera Nazarian put it out plainly, “A woman is human. She is not better, wiser, stronger, more intelligent, more creative, or more responsible than a man. Likewise, she is never less. Equality is a given. A woman is human.”
Then ask: Shouldn’t women decide what or who they want to be?
Noticing the world while equipped with glasses of equality would make us notice the privileges and discrimination. Let us stop being ok with anything that suggests an unequal world. Let us recognise that we all are Different but Equal.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Study Breaks Magazine