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Sexism in India (or anywhere else) is not just about the hugely unfair things that happen. It’s also the ‘small things’ which work ominously in the background and need our attention.
Have you ever noticed, whenever a male and a female go out for a meal in a restaurant, the waiter always brings the bill in front of the male? It is quite possible that in that couple the female is the bread-winner at home or maybe both of them are economically stable and capable of paying the bill but only the male is expected to do so. Even in the case of friends, a male and a female who would be splitting the bill, it is always expected that the male counterpart will be clearing it.
The waiter is oblivious to the economic backgrounds of the two individuals but still almost always brings the bill to the male. Moreover, the male thinks of it as a duty that he must fulfil because he is a man. This is rather a commonplace example illustrating gender roles in society and how individuals give into it without even questioning it. It is neither the waiter’s fault for presenting the man with the bill nor the man’s fault for thinking of it as his duty. It’s so commonplace that it feels right in our society.
We probably overlook casual, everyday sexism more than we give in to it. Everyday sexism extends from classroom seating arrangements to advertisements which we see on televisions, hoardings, billboards and traffic jams. We’re inherently a society that is taught not to question anything, from traditions and practices to career choices. And that has made it enormously hard for us to question the existing patriarchal norms. Sexism is so deeply associated with so many spheres of our lives and the society that most of the sexist notions go, if not unnoticed, ignored.
Recently, a woman in the UK was harassed on a public bus and she retaliated against the same. Her co-passengers did take her side but then insisted that she leave the matter by saying, ‘That is what men do’. She almost ignored that incident; however, when she was harassed two more times in the same week, she started reading about sexism and feminism. She organised groups where women would come and share similar experiences. To her surprise, women experienced sexual harassment on a regular basis.
In the case of India, sexual harassment and what is called ‘eve-teasing‘ are even more commonplace. In 2012, 24,923 rape cases were reported. This roughly means that 3 rape cases were registered every hour, every day in 2012. It should be noted that these were the ‘reported’ cases and who knows what the real numbers would add up to. Rape and harassment are extreme forms of sexism and sexual oppression prevalent in our society. Just take a moment and think about other modes of sexism when rape and harassment are so widely spread in India. The most basic question that arises is why sexism plays such a prominent role in our society.
Our society and our way of living are predominantly sexist. We live in a patriarchal society where the notions of sexism and gender disparity are induced into our minds and subconscious even before we are born. “If it is a boy, we’ll paint the room blue and if it is a girl, we’ll paint it pink.” The practice of gender socialisation seeds the ideas of sexism and patriarchy within the minds of little boys and girls. Ideas like, boys have to be stronger, sporty and tough whereas girls need to dress pretty, perhaps go for music or dance classes, strengthen sexism.
When children observe that their mother serves breakfast to the father in the morning and then takes care of the entire house and then again greets their father with a big smile after coming back from work and further serves him dinner. Or in the case of a working mother, they observe that she single-handedly takes care of her work as well as the house, they develop ideas such as, it is the duty of a woman/wife to serve her husband and take care of the family no matter what. The summation of such small incidents accounts for the larger problem of sexism in the society.
How do you tackle such a deep seeded problem which is prevalent in the entire world and more pronouncedly in India? The answer maybe feminism. Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. A majority of the population, male and female, still have a basic idea about feminism, i.e., it is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men and that feminism is predominantly anti-male. We cannot blame individuals for having such notions. A majority of individuals learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media. They learn about feminism from the people around them, people they interact with and the entire society which is dominated by patriarchy.
Raising awareness and education about feminism is required. Feminist awareness for males is essential to transfigure the movement as not just for female groups. Had there been an emphasis on groups for males that taught boys and men about what sexism is and how it can be transformed, it would’ve been impossible for mass media to portray the movement as anti-male. Hence any male who actually knows what feminism is all about and has divested himself of male privilege is as important as his female counterpart in this struggle to end sexism. The enemy, the threat is sexist thought and behaviour.
Sexist thought and behaviour, sex roles in the society and gender socialisation are the threats we need to tackle promptly. Since birth, we have been socialised by parents and society to accept sexist thinking. By failing to create a mass-based educational movement to teach everyone about feminism, we allow mainstream patriarchal mass media to remain the primary place where folks learn about feminism, and most of what they learn is negative. Education in the form of literature, be it books, novels, comics, newspaper articles or simple brochures and pamphlets. Anything which would propagate the real idea of feminism and challenge the mainstream idea of feminism which is propagated by the patriarchal mass media. Any form of literature which would appeal to the youth and masses of people.
The idea of feminism and feminist education needs to be incorporated in popular culture which currently is overwhelmed with sexist notions and thoughts. Music videos, movies and songs which are inherently part of today’s pop culture are primarily misogynistic. Sexist thinking about the female body, i.e, objectification of women, is an issue which we need to address in order to transform popular culture. The notion of young and old women about their appearance and dressing, that they need to look ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’, needs to be changed. We need to challenge the so-called ‘standards’ which are set in our society. Who has set these standards? Where do the norms of ‘correct’ behaviour and dressing come from? Feminists aim to challenge these standards. This has made capitalist patriarchal investors in the cosmetic and fashion industry invest more in mass-media. These mass-media campaigns trivialised women’s liberation by portraying images which suggested that feminists were big, hyper- masculine, and just plain old ugly. Developing healthy self-esteem and self-love would nullify these so-called standards in the society.
Equality at work was one of the major steps taken by feminists towards reducing sexism in the society. This was based on the assumption that economic equality would liberate women and ultimately end sexism. Although the assumption was accurate, it did not really succeed. In the struggle for equality at the workplace, it was only the upper-class rich women who benefitted. They achieved equal rights, equal wage and opportunities; however, the fraction of women who secured these impartialities were only a minute percentage of the whole.
Women belonging to the middle and lower classes still struggled for basic equal rights, fight against exploitation and oppression at work. Even if they did succeed in achieving these rights, they were expected to balance household and work simultaneously. This was also the case with rich upper-class women. Even if the household got domestic help, it was expected of the woman/wife to supervise and monitor the domestic help which again was mostly a lower class woman. While some may argue that equality at the workplace for a fraction of the population is a step forward, it should be noted that the ill-effects of this were more pronounced than its merits. This resulted in a gap between classes within the feminist movement. Moreover when equality in the workforce was secured, women from the poorer strata and working class rushed towards jobs. They later realised that they did not even receive equal wages for equal work let alone equal rights and opportunities.
Sexism at work is so pronounced in the entire world. In an interview with Andy Murray after he had won the Olympic gold medal, he was told “You’re the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals,” leaving Murray to point out: “Venus and Serena have won about four each.”
The path to economic self-sufficiency will necessarily lead to alternative lifestyles which will run counter to the image of the good life presented to us by supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal mass media. While economic self-sufficiency may be the answer to liberation, households in India are predominantly patriarchal and will, therefore, oppose any ideas contrary to the already set ‘standards’ in the family and the society. This idea of patriarchy is propagated within the family to future generations. One of the reasons of this propagation may be the methods of parenting. The idea that children are the property of their parents and have to conform according to their will, is highly prevalent in our society. This often leads to domination of children by their parents. Domination can be directly related to patriarchy.
When children are treated with domination, they learn that physical assertion is a legitimate form of authority. These ideas later reflect in their character and will ultimately propagate sexism and patriarchy from generation to generation. When the male parental caregiver embodies anti-sexist thought and behaviour, boys and girls have the opportunity to see feminism in action. When feminist thinkers and activists provide children with educational areas where anti-sexist biases are the standards used to judge behaviour, boys and girls are able to develop healthy self-esteem. The need for men to participate equally in parenting not just to create gender equity but also to build a healthy relationship with their children is tremendously important. Parenting is an act of love. Wherever domination is present, love is lacking.
The idea of patriarchy is so deep seeded that it may be linked to religion also. There are innumerable examples which directly indicate that various religions propagate sexist thinking and ideas. In Hinduism, menstruating women are not allowed into temples and other so- called ‘sanctums’ of worship. Prior to 1956 women were not even allowed to inherit property in India. In Islam, women are not allowed to lead prayers in mosques. Even the Dalai Lama, who claims to be a feminist, recently said that, while he believed a female Dalai Lama would be possible, she would have to be attractive or she would be of no use.
These are few of the multitudinous examples of subjugation, oppression and suppression of women. In certain cultures, women are treated as the property of the husband after marriage. This is the reason why marital rape is so common yet the majority of the population in our country doesn’t even know what marital rape is, which is, in fact, legal in our country. Women are still fighting for reproductive rights all over the world. Female sexual freedom requires dependable, safe birth control and legalisation of abortion and the main opposition to this are by various religious institutions.
We talk about women needing more representation in Indian politics but some of us are still uncomfortable with women driving. We still have double standards when it comes to marriage and we still think of working women as having part-time jobs, besides motherhood. We are frustrated by religious fundamentalists’ comments on rape but we never talk about any of this at home, or in school; arguably the most significant places to have this discussion. And by living under this ‘taboo’ we’re just living in denial. We may never solve the problems that plague our society and we may never come close. However, if we never acknowledge the problem and how omnipresent it is, we’re simply giving in.
Top image via Flickr, credits Christopher Dombres used under a Creative Commons license 1.0
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