“Women Must Be Protected, Men Must Protect” This Is How Benevolent Sexism Works

Posted: August 5, 2019

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Benevolent sexism. It’s a cousin of Feminism Lite, where a feel good statement about women traps them further into patriarchy. How does this happen?

“Women are born to be protected.”
“Girls are often soft and kind.”
“Good women must be worshiped.”
“Our women would never disgrace us.”

Haven’t we all heard these phrases in common parlance often, and don’t most of us perceive these as positive phrases for women? Just look at WhatsApp forwards about the ‘greatness of women’.

We see them as signs of respect and admiration for women, failing to recognize in them the signs of benevolent sexism.

What is benevolent sexism, and how does it work?

Benevolent sexism refers to an evaluation of gender that apparently appears to be positive from the point of view of the observer, but is actually damaging the cause of gender equality, like the statements mentioned above. Often protection and love is given to women in exchange for their complete obedience and compliance to conventional gender roles.

In public spheres such as Social Media and workplaces too, ambivalent/ benevolent sexism gains a lot of support across genders and groups, because it reinforces tropes of hostile sexism and other conventional social classifications like caste and religion. Confining women to traditional glorified roles like motherhood and the ‘goddess’ of the household, and seeing them socially too only in the context of their association with men serves patriarchy and sexism well in the long run.

Here are some of the ways in which benevolent sexism manifests itself:

Men must protect and women must be protected

(A woman’s is safe with men. All men must protect ‘their’ women.)

In conventional societies a man is often seen as a protector in various roles- father, brother, husband and son.

Women are seen as ‘protected possessions’ and are almost ‘owned’; first by their birth family and then by husband’s family. Hence the ‘arranged marriage’ within caste/ clan/ religion becomes the only accepted form of marriage.

Men must provide and women must serve

(Why should you work when he earns so well? Look after the kids and old parents!)

Often men take pride in being providers for women and families, and even if women take up the same role it is often put under a scanner, and strings attached like mom’s guilt. Women are brought up to serve men and families and it is considered to be an inherent trait in them.

Women must be worshiped and men must be chivalrous

(Good women must be worshiped, especially mothers of sons. Men must do manly things.)

In a lot of cultures the prevalent image of women as a ‘Devi’ to be worshiped and put on a pedestal often leads to the caging of women in these pedestals. Whereas men are conditioned to be manly and chivalrous and never display any softness.

Sexist language is used in popular culture

(A woman’s No is actually yes because they are shy. The good mother always keeps the family first.)

The references made to women in popular culture like poetry, songs, films etc. are sexist and often also make women see themselves in a particular light. Commonly used adjectives include – beautiful, pure, soft, delicate and precious, indicating a need of ‘protection by men, from men’. Whereas in the same vein, abuses too refer to the genitals of women or to sexual acts with women.

Parenting roles are divided based on gender

(Nobody can love like a mother. Fathers must keep children disciplined.)

Just like moral beliefs, expectation of parents’ gender roles stereotypically characterize fathers as aggressive, ambitious, and hard-task masters having no skills for care taking and housekeeping, while mothers are perceived as affection-oriented epitomes of kindness, compassion, nurturing and ‘naturally sacrificing’. 

Ironically, most men practice hostile sexism whereas benevolent sexism is practiced by women themselves more. Benevolent sexism clearly creates discrimination between women and men, stereotyping both.

There are also benevolent justifications for such discrimination. For example, “it is the role of the daughter-in-law to look after the family and she must forego her career for this if need be.”

Male protection and respect by men in all relationships becomes highly valued. This pushes women to be hostile to other women in a race of ‘who gets the upper hand’, leading to the myth of ‘women are women’s worst enemy’.

Women easily fall into this trap of glorification and forget that the pedestals created for them are so narrow that these end up being prisons. Let’s be wary of them.

Image source: pexels and a still from the movie Vivah

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Pooja Priyamvada is a columnist, professional translator and an online content and Social Media consultant.

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