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The recent case of a man putting his feet on actor Zaira Waseem’s armrest and allegedly harassing her, should really make us think about personal space.
Recently I heard someone proclaiming, “Overt Feminism is killing chivalry and altering the natural gender chemistry. Men and Women both seem to be wary of each other and it doesn’t augur well for inter-relational harmony”. Well, it seems to be a loaded sentiment and gave me food for thought too. I believe ‘Gender Wars’ are yet another manifestation of the ill effects of capitalism. After all, since the advent of mankind, from an agrarian to monarchical and eventually an industrial mode, it’s just been about spoils, wherein a skewed gender equation keeps the graph tipping in favor of those dominating it, a.k.a MEN. It’s not about a blame game but about the way anthropological evolution has taken place, and both genders have got trapped in their own peculiar maze. If women had it bad, men weren’t favorably placed as ‘perpetrators’. The whole imbalance has dehumanized world culture since long and the chasm between both genders gets deepened by any extreme in the continuum of their respective placements. Ironically such an analysis stands a risk of getting thwarted by feminists and misogynists equally, as it tends to dilute and disrupt their power play.
Without going into an in-depth analysis of post-modern feminism, or doing a critique of patriarchal misgivings, I would like to offer some nuance on the recent Zaira Waseem controversy. The teen actress complained about a middle aged man allegedly molesting her by placing his foot on her arm rest, while aboard an air plane. She was in tears while narrating the harrowing experience and felt that it hurt her sensibilities as a female. Her Instagram video went viral and the celebrity received both bouquets and brick-bats in equal measure.
The range of reactions went from empathy, amusement, veracity of her complaint or the hullabaloo around it, logic and reasoning behind her inaction/delay in complaining, and on to other sundry expressions. So far so good, as each viewpoint stands open to query. However, sickening to the core was the communal angle given to the whole issue and the way each religious faction tried to score brownie points at her expense. Utterly disgusting was the barrage of abusive comments hurled by some fellow Kashmiris, who left no stone unturned to label, accuse and shame her for going against Islamic ethos, by becoming an actress.
A national award winning teenager from the valley should have been a source of pride for all of us, but then it was yet another tale of a woman at the center of a masculinity invoked conflict, whose so-called honour tends to legitimize the male war against the perceived enemy. It’s not a battle of the sexes but a vile way of objectifying women differently in the dubious pursuit of safeguarding her ‘honour’.
Histrionics, tragedy and intellectual critique aside, the whole issue boils down to male gaze, male privilege and general etiquette. The man in picture is nothing but a product of cultural conditioning which entitles us to encroach upon the spaces of others. Some South Asian men are award worthy in the genre and more irksome here is the fact that the ‘foot’ clicked by the girl was in dire need of a good pedicure. On a lighter note and not entirely impractical, the least a woman could do in such circumstances is to scourge for a nail filer in her hand bag full of treasures and gift it to the man. There are some other options to handle a ‘Hand Rest turned into Foot Rest’ scenario. She may pinch the foot hard, lest it’s in dire need of awakening. This would be deemed as a humanitarian gesture doubling up as a good acupuncture. She can also request for some hot water or coffee and pour it over the foot. Call it a foot in the mouth diatribe of mine, but it should suffice for a deep cleansing of the erring foot. After all, it would be a small foot for a man but a giant leap for womankind. Ladies, be innovative; everything isn’t worth your precious tears. A bit of philanthropy or out of the box thinking never did any harm.
That said, it ought to be an equal opportunity world where gender interaction should be bereft of all stereotypical narrow-mindedness. We all need to remove our blinkers and envision a fair world. In the whole ambit women also need to inculcate a fair sense of judgment besides escalating their pitch against wrongs by men. #MeToo has been a worthy campaign of confessions which tends to villainize many men and rightly so. However its real purpose lies not in ridicule but in the bigger picture of gender sensitization of a society. At an individual level, nothing can ridicule humans more than their own conscience, if it’s called for.
On hindsight we can’t be in virtual or real ‘Purdah’, and some amount of proximity on all levels between genders shouldn’t be escalated to the realms of shame, ridicule or accusations, lest we tend to be a paranoid society in the garb of modernization. The paradox has to be sorted out real soon, if we really want to break the moth balled stereotypes and patriarchal shackles. Real justice is a two way process and we need men as well to be the real torch bearers of our ‘crusades’. Real feminism is also about equal rights for humans at large. So why the gross disparity and paradox at times? Give the dudes a fair chance, rope them in; lest they sulk and lament at our myopia. After all, we are also endowed with a lot more besides being the dainty damsels in distress. Ladies, be the ‘hero’ of your lives, not the victims, and if you tend to be the latter, turn the tide and see the world cheering for you. Sticking out your thumb is easier than tending to a sore thumb.
In the last few decades the gender centric nuances have been critiqued and subsequently there’s been an emergence of several concepts. Such research has mostly tried to understand deep rooted patriarchal standards which define man-woman placement in post- modern world. For the sake of argument at hand, I would refer to two such standards. Mansplaining, or when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does. Without generalizing its applicability to the whole male gender, it still remains a subtle tool of domination embedded in the psyche of a society.
It maybe veiled under the notions of decorum, respect or harmony; but at its core it’s nothing but a power-play to have the upper hand. Deep entrenchment of such mores has paved the way for their legitimization and therefore may find resonance with both genders (women vouching more for it, at times). Of late it manifests itself prominently in the online space where the female presence is looked at with suspicion, ridiculed, trolled, dumbed down or even labeled at times.
Having fleetingly touched upon the psychological encroachment of space/zones, let’s understand the concept of Manspreading, or the physical encroachment of female space. In 2015, it even got an entry in the Oxford Dictionary. This is the practice of encroaching the space of others; more so the encroachment by males. Some tend to suggest that men’s bodies need more room, while others link manspreading to privilege and occupation of space. Manspreading is framed as a powerful yet ridiculous symbol of men’s tendency to take up more than their fair share of literal and metaphorical social space. It’s visible in our social set-up where the public spaces get constricted and restricted to female occupancy. In Zaira Waseem’s case, this seems to be a more tenable explanation, with a twist or maybe more to it, than meets the eye.
Subsequently ‘Virtual manspreading’ is the practice of taking up online space in a way that encroaches on the space of others. Male internet commentators infiltrate what is meant to be female or neutral online space. It can be dangerous when a singular view is promulgated, when communication ought to be a two way process between individuals at par. It ceases to be so if either gender manipulates it to their advantage, consciously or subconsciously.
Back in the 1960s an anthropologist named Edward T. Hall pioneered the study of the spatial requirements of humans – more commonly known as ‘Proxemics’. According to Hall, the personal distance we should keep (or try to keep) from others can be divided into four spaces or ‘zones’; Public, Social, Personal and Intimate.
When someone enters each one of these specific zones, it tends to automatically activate particular physical and psychological reactions in us. In adverse circumstances it’s something to do with dehumanization; a psychological process that allows our brains to subconsciously ignore these individuals or avoid treating them as people when we ensure that we do not make eye contact, make minimal movements to avoid physical contact and wear blank facial expressions.
However personal space thresholds vary internationally; in some cultures it’s actually considered rude to stand too far away from another individual. The crux is that the zone encircling us is person dependent and thereby manifests itself in our respective reactions. It’s not necessarily about gender differences but about the way we hone our sensibilities as humans first.
Nothing more than allocating foot to footrests, and arms to armrests. Simple, ain’t it ?
Top image is the image of the foot as shared by Zaira Wasim on her Instagram
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