You just need to ask why, and why again and why to every, everyday sexism, till the narrative loses logic and then you can watch them crash and burn.

No one thinks its all men its just enough men to make us live in fear
Blog Sexism Friday, January 13, 2017 - 18:31

By Shakti Swaminathan

9th of April was a warm and sticky night in Coimbatore. Shankar was getting ready for his 7th birthday. At 8:30 pm the same night, they say I was born, amidst much cacophony and complications. Mother was in labour for long. A brother, whose birthday party met with an abrupt end, sat crestfallen and hungry while his father was desperately trying for a ticket from Chennai.

“Look at your daughter, she is so cute,” the nurse crooned as she thrust a little bundle into Sethu’s arms. Sethu lay in a heap, engulfed by the new wave of pain that made her breathless. Every astrologer and every relative had predicted a baby boy.  And how badly they wanted a girl. It wasn’t a baby but a dream in her hands. “Call your husband,” the nurses prodded. But all she heard was her mind say, “ Poor girl, she will have to go through the same pain one day”.

God seems to be a renowned sexist. Why create a weaker sex at all I sometimes ponder. What stops a woman from physically over powering a man? Is it a case of biological misogyny or years of social conditioning that has rendered us ‘softer’ and more ‘docile’?  The other day while watching ‘Udta Punjab’, the scene where a feisty Alia Bhatt is pinned down and raped by four men mortified me. My eyes involuntarily shut tight and my toes curled. It was too real. Had she been physically as strong, would she have had to succumb, I muttered to myself. The classic nature vs. nurture debate is never black or white; it’s black and white. While nature may be responsible for the initial defect in design; society takes a cue and adds to the widening inequality between the sexes. Patriarchy doles out sexism all realms of life, paving for the arrival of the hapless ‘feminist’.

Who is a feminist? A bindi wearing, jhola toting, ‘fabindia waali’ man- hater, they say. But growing up in India, every girl is a closet feminist. Some choose to be vocal. Some are reticent and most have not discovered their voice yet.  

Mine is a fairly liberal and very loving family. But I was oblivious to gender inequality for the longest time. My rose tinted glasses failed to observe the patriarchy that ebbed and meandered slowly into life, nestling in corners, and rooting itself in blind spots.

My father gave me abundant freedom and choice, to opt and grow in the career I wanted and to pick my life partner. He supported my every move. But the same father would leave the dinner table, with his plate waiting to be picked up by a woman, or worse eaten on by my mother. One day I asked him why he couldn’t leave it in the wash area, like the others. He was stumped for a minute. It had never occurred to him he said. Since then he made it a point to pick it up, while my mother affectionately protested.

Through school and college, I made friends with guys who in their rare moments, cracked ‘jokes’ about their ‘score’ or admitted that they often became friends with a girl because they found her hot. Family get togethers wouldn’t end without a congregation of uncles and aunts descending on the one ‘Casanova’ cousin and cracking jokes on his battery of girlfriends while he stood shyly, basking in the glory.

Why wasn’t a girl with multiple boyfriends ever funny? Our language gives us a slut, but makes one conjure words for a male equivalent. Gigolo doesn’t quite make the cut. Man- whore? We still need a female derogatory term to act as the reference point.

When my brother returned to India with his MS degree in tow, a newly minted name board awaited his arrival, glistening bright with his name and degree. When I completed my masters, albeit in media, my board had no takers.

I fumed. I squabbled. I even put my foot down. But it went unheard amidst all the mollycoddling and laughter. I was just the petulant younger daughter who“ anyway is not going to be in this house for ever.”

When I did get married, I realised that equal marriage is an oxymoron. Even with the most progressive of husbands and families, somewhere lurking is an unwritten code that makes the man’s house take precedence, making it the fulcrum of all activities. The bride who doesn’t talk is ‘stuck up’ they whisper, while the guy who remains silent is ‘gentle and soft spoken’.

Marriages make great feminists and in the rare event that they don’t, motherhood gives the final push.  While battling an inexplicably difficult pregnancy, I often cried that it was a curse to be born a woman. Excruciating pain certainly did not build my character. It only amplified when I realised that my struggle was incomprehensible to most people, especially the male mind.

And then the baby came. Some nights, I wanted to shake the sleeping husband awake, thrust the wailing infant in his arms and run out of the room. But alas, the baby wanted me, and only me; I was her source of food.

But if breastfeeding is the deciding factor for assuming the mantel of primary caregiver, why aren’t adoptive mothers cut any slack either?

How much ever the husband tried to pitch in, it never seemed enough, and most importantly never equal.

I am the generation whose first conditioned response to assault is examining my role in inviting it, where ‘mild sexual assault’ is part of the job description. We have all been groped in public transport, stuck in a labyrinth of human bodies, unable to move and never knowing who our molester is. We have all been stalked/courted by our share of roadside Romeos. We sneak to the restroom with our sanitary pad cleverly hidden among layers of newspaper. (How come we don’t use the same state- of the- art guise to cover baby diapers?) We invite unsolicited advise on dress code from aunties who strut around in saris that precariously dangle down their shoulders exposing their midriff, cleavage and all.

There is perhaps not a single girl who hasn’t been followed, or worse flashed at. The road opposite the college I work at has the moniker Loafer’s Lane, after its prodigal sons who can be spotted at any part of the day, routinely indulging in some feverish cat -calling and flashing at girls strolling out of the campus. Within months, a new fast food joint named ‘Mounts View’ (after Mount Carmel College) cropped up on the road, providing solace, hot medu vadas and validity to all the ‘loafing’.

So insidious is the desensitisation that we no longer think it’s distasteful when TV cameras linger on the body contours of the cheerleaders while they dance in slow motion during an IPL match. We gyrate to the tunes of Honey Singh, the obnoxious lyrics falling our deaf ears. Along with their dinner we feed our little girls clichés of princesses who need a Prince Charming to whisk them away to their ‘happily ever after’. 

Feminism is the dreaded f-word of our generation. Our favourite heroines and supposed role models carefully put out the disclaimer that they aren’t “one of those feminist types”. Feminazi seems to be the new cuss word. It’s true that in the name of opinion many may spew unsubstantiated vitriol. After all, showing outrage is our nation’s favourite pastime, and for every action, there is indeed a social media over reaction. 

For instance, why all this furore on the patriarchal undertones of the film 'Dangal'? Dangal is a biography and was merely showcasing reality. It doesn't stop becoming feminist because the feminism doesn't resemble ours. Empowerment comes in different shapes and types for different women and it's not our place to tell what it is.

Others that give feminism a bad name include TV ads that leverage the 'attention grabbing potential of feminist rants' and click- baity articles such as the one that called Ryan Gosling's acceptance speech at the recent Golden Globes sexist. For god's sake, the man had the decency to acknowledge and thank his wife's (Eva Mendes, popular actress herself) role in his success. It easy to be opinionated. However, lets be informed too.

The recent New Year incident in Bangalore and such every day incidents everywhere else in India, demonstrate the need to call out sexism. As they say, in a state of privilege, the clamour for equality may seem an awful lot like oppression. We scream at the friend who dismisses our anger using his favourite ‘’are you PMSing?” comment, while we are speechless when someone in the crowd gropes us in the pretext of New Year revelry. Do we continue to organise rallies, and stage protests that brim with women, but not a single man in sight?

We have voices and voices are meant to be heard. We may applaud the movie 'Pink' with its infamous “No means No” tagline. But as long as we lap up an ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’, a movie with a hero who borderlines on being a creep, not understanding the c of consent, just because it’s sugar coated with pretty people, shedding pretty tears in pretty places, the need for feminism will never cease to exist.

10 years later, my little niece, studying in kindergarten, demanded for her name board on the gate and got one. “These boys think they are only great” she seethed to me over the phone.

That day, I learnt from her that sometimes you just need to ask why, and why again and why to every, everyday sexism, till the narrative loses logic and then you can watch them crash and burn.

“No one thinks all men. Just too many men. Enough to be afraid. Enough that all women have experienced it. Enough men to make it a social problem. Not a personal one."

OK ?

3o years later, when I held little Maya in my hands, I was ecstatic. I wanted a girl baby and there she was. But masquerading amidst the euphoria was an uneasy calm that niggled at my heart. I recalled my mother’s first thought when she held a baby me. My only wish for Maya is that many years later, she doesn’t dig up this post of her mother’s and catch herself nodding and relating to every word.

(Shakti Swaminathan is a lecturer at the Department of Journalism, Mount Carmel College, Bangalore; she currently lectures part-time on the Masters course in Public Policy and occasionally freelances as a features writer.)

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