GIRLS: Oh, how we've grown up!
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
"Women are born with pain built-in. It’s our physical destiny – period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own. And then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other, and when there aren’t any wars, they can play rugby. We have it all going on in here, inside. We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years, and then just when you feel you are making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes. The fucking menopause comes, and it is the most wonderful fucking thing in the world. Yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles, and you get fucking hot, and no one cares, but then you’re free. No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person. In business."
In Fleabag, when Kristin Scott Thomas delivered this monologue written by Phoebe Waller Bridge, women felt understood. Waller Bridge put into words the female experience in a soliloquy so painfully beautiful that the women couldn’t help but resonate. When I heard it for the first time, I wanted to shout in agreement and scream into my pillow for the accuracy of it had me bawling my eyes out. Pain is an inherent part of womanhood, but to awaken that sense of realization, to comprehend that to be a woman is to endure and suffer, that to be a woman is to be put in boxes and labeled, that to be a woman is to explain yourself over and over again, that to be a woman is not be viewed as a person but solely as a “machine with parts,” a body meant to be gazed at; is a considerable feat that PWB bagged through this monologue. I am here to talk about something similar.
As a woman who was born and brought up in a small city in India, I took a lot of pride in the fact that I was raised “like a boy.” Being raised like a boy in India means that you were given the rights and “freedom” to do things that you normally should anyway. It means that you were given the “liberty” to go to places that you should have access to anyway. It means that you are “allowed” to enter public spaces and do things that you are entitled to anyway. But most importantly, being raised like a boy is an acknowledgment of the fact that the girls were traditionally raised within the confines of the social norms, and doing otherwise is worthy of praise. When the parents of a girl take pride in the fact that they raised their daughter like their son, they are reaffirming that the traditional norms dictated, limiting the prowess of women only to some fields and roles
The Inferior Gender, Childbirth, and Honour.
“The female role in reproduction—shall we say—involves a lot more time, effort, and pain (and before recently, a hell of a lot of death). Every moment women spent pregnant (which was a LOT of time) was a time that would have been taken away from power-playing.” – Anonymous.
It is not unknown that women are considered to be the inferior gender in almost all cultures and societies. In the Hindu context especially, Manusmriti declares that women are to be honored and protected. I will talk about the beloved biological argument in a bit. Culturally, at least in India, girls, from the moment they are born, are deemed to be “paraya dhan” (someone else’s wealth). It is ingrained in the culture deeply that a girl child is a burden to the family as she to be married off, and that is a hefty business. Marriage for women was barely a choice in earlier times. Till today, it is something that women have to comply with more evidently than men. A financially independent woman will always be considered “incomplete” if she has not “settled” in the institution of marriage. Dowry, child marriage, Sati, the horrendous practices that followed after becoming a widow, honor killings, and domestic violence are all examples of women being secondary objects or extras in the lives of men they’re related to. They were discarded when they no longer served the purpose they were meant to fulfill. Speaking of purpose, women continue to get the primary care and respect in some communities only because they are child bearers.
Image Credit: Reuters
Childbirth is sacred. It is welcoming a life into the world, but the society, as we know it, is hypocritical. It celebrated the life that didn’t need to be tolerated. It welcomed the life that didn’t need to be protected. It greeted the life that was not a social liability in the earlier times. Gladly, the times have changed for the better now to no small extent. Issues like female infanticide, female genital mutilation, rape and abduction for sex trafficking, acid attacks, forced prostitution, marital rape are a few among the many gory examples of gender-based violence. The issue of honor killings is so rampant even today. The onus of the reputation and honor of the family is on the daughters and wives of the family till today. The men of the house can commit heinous crimes, and they will still be spared for their masculinity shields them, but god forbid a woman chooses to marry a person from another caste or even dare to run away and marry, she will be killed by her own family. The partner too. Sanhati Banerjee, in her piece for FII, wrote: “The corollary of honor is shame. The argument runs if honor is violated, it brings upon shame. Society as a collective unit pronounces what is honorable and what is not, and in this context, shame is a social experience.” In a society where this shame is collectively experienced by victims of rape and their families, while the perpetrators roam around freely as they were just ‘hormonally-charged” or “men will be men”, I have only the system to blame. The system dominated by people who believe that rape victims should be killed because rape is seen as something that is the fault of the woman. The system that believes that women should always “stay in their limits” and violating these limits would cause them unfathomable trouble. The system assumes that limiting women is more important than educating men.
Now, I hear you. I know some of these things might feel dated to you. You’ll argue that these things don’t happen anymore, and that law has come to the rescue of women. The truth is, these things do happen. In the cover story of India Today’s magazine issue of January 1976, it said, “With all these Acts on the statute book and constitutional provisions of all sorts, it appears everything has been done for women. Yet, there is a social tumult in the air. Paradoxically, it is not the legal or constitutional shortcomings but the minds of men and women that are the decisive factors in India's social predicaments. Traditional attitudes and rigid customs or just willful denials of human rights still beset the masses of women, and the reformative Acts remain largely 'paper tigers,' either not accepted or, out of reach of most women, for lack of awareness about their existence and or application.” I reiterate. This cover story was published in 1976, but I hate how it still stands true. Just because we do not see and hear about things does not mean they don’t happen anymore.
Prejudices rooted in the false sense of morality and conformity to gender roles in social relationships is what irks the women of India. The lack of responsibility and accountability demanded from men is what irks the women of India. The respect denied because of their gender is what irks the women of India. Women are believed to be the care-takers, the home-makers, the emotional bearers, the providers, and of course, the birth givers. For someone who is expected to be so many things, we sure leave no chance to demean, degrade, and dishonor the women in our societies solely for the choices they make.
Internalized Misogyny, Sexism and Conditioning
While it is true that the oppressors in the system of patriarchy knowingly or unknowingly are men, we cannot ignore the fact that sometimes it is women who hate women the most. “Women are women’s worst enemies” is the truth in the Indian context, and from what I know, even in other countries. Young girls, no matter how progressive the households, have once been told that they should learn to cook and clean, for they will have to do it once married. Young girls are taught to be appropriate suitors in many subcultures. This phenomenon can be best understood by the term “Patriarchal Bargain” coined by Turkish author Deniz Kandiyoti in 1988. As the term itself suggests, according to Deniz, a patriarchal bargain is when the women accept and uphold gender roles and conform to the patriarchal norms, even if they disadvantage them, to strengthen their power, safety and options overall. This theory has been used as a lens to understand many media tropes, and sociologists have used it to explain the system of patriarchy. One media trope that has gained popularity over the ages, especially, is that of the infamous saas-bahu sagas.
The mother-in-law is always, for some reason, shown to be conspiring against the daughter-in-law or has an utter disdain towards her. In an excellent article by Sreeparna Chattopadhayay for FII, she wrote, “The token torturer, usually a woman, has internalized these norms to such a great extent that she is not able to or unwilling to reflect on the fact that the injustices perpetrated against her as a young bride, are the same ones she may be perpetrating against her own daughter-in-law. By wielding power in this manner, she consolidates her somewhat tenuous position within patriarchy.” But I don’t need to remind you of this by quoting women who have written elaborate articles or women who have done extensive research like Deniz. All of this is to just understand in a theoretical sense that the mother-like figures in our lives have been the perpetrators of misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy, and there is a reason.
I don’t want my words to be twisted, though. I know some women who are strong feminist icons for their daughters. I am talking about society at large. I believe everything is rooted in conditioning. “It is interesting that many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning,” said Kate Millet in her seminal work Gender Justice. The “YASS SISTER” buzz and internet solidarity has come around only very recently and exists only on the internet for the most part. Even in the #MeToo movement, we saw women doubting and questioning the stories of victims instead of sympathizing with them or even for a minute, believing them. Women are not used to solidarity from their fellow gender. History is a witness to the fact that harmful cultural practices like Sati and female infanticide were enforced and perpetuated by the older women of the house along with men. When some outspoken women tried to go against these practices, they were silenced by power. Quoting Gugush Chopra from her article for FII, “We are all familiar with hostile sexism in the way it punishes dissent. Women who challenge male supremacy and dominance or break patriarchal conventions by being assertive, aggressive, and ambitious in their actions and choices are pinned down by acts that are out-rightly hostile and subject them to chastisement, tools of which include sexual defilement, forced marriage, honor-killing, etc. to name a few. Alternatively, it shames, stigmatizes, ostracises, and renders women unsuitable for marriage. Therefore, hostile sexism amputates women’s courage and silences them into submission.” Almost all of us exercise casual sexism because it is so deep-rooted in the system.
Women lead the race of slut-shaming, and that is a product of patriarchy. I see it is a product of patriarchy because when you slut-shame, you see the woman from the perspective of a man. You start seeing the woman behind the clothes as an object meant to satiate a man’s desires, and it then becomes an act rooted in sexist and internalized patriarchy. It pitches women against each other. Be it schools, locker rooms, workplaces, clubs, or even their own houses, women have not been able to escape this particular virus for centuries.
Men and their Role in the System
In my head, I can see men marching towards me, ready to mansplain me what feminism “actually” means and how patriarchy exists because men are biologically the stronger gender and how every cultural practice only existed because they intended to “protect” the women of the society. I will save you the time and labor. I agree that history does not take place in a vacuum, and I do not intend to ignore the cultural significance of traditions. However, just because something has existed for a long time does not make it right. I cannot help but point out how all these practices were rooted in an attempt to limit women. I cannot help but notice how most communities spent generations to “protect” their women instead of educating the people and creating an environment where they didn’t need to be protected.
I cannot help but point out that men have and always will benefit from the patriarchy.
Men have to become better allies to support the hope and movement of a gender-equal society. Men are put on a pedestal for doing something that their female counterparts have been doing for years. The most excellent example is when men are celebrated and flaunted for doing regular household chores like cooking and cleaning. This is something women have been doing for centuries now. Men feel they need to be congratulated and applauded for being allies. Men earn. Women cook. This has been the norm. Working women are expected to be superwomen; they should be able to multi-task and handle both the house and the office. That is the pre-requisite for a woman to be “allowed’ to work by her family members. She has to be exceptional with her time management skills, or she gets a handful from both sides. These are all by-products of our unreal emphasis on traditional gender roles. The idea that men are more fit for outside work and “scientifically’ women are more fit for being caretakers is not helping.
A British Science journalist, Angela Saini, actually wrote a book to debunk the bad science about gender differences and says that the biology argument is bogus. From all we know, women have actually never been given a chance to be the sole breadwinners for the family. We have never included men in the matters of care-taking. Equal participation in all the activities required to lead a functional family will yield better and happier results.
That being said, there is always an argument from Men’s Rights Activists that feminism is exclusionary and ignores the hardships of men. It argues that women do not value the contribution of men in their lives, and the discrimination we talk about is complete hokum. That could not be further from the truth. Feminists have never excluded the effects of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and the strict gender roles which cause depression and high-stress levels in men. Anne Hathaway once said that we need to liberate our men to liberate our women, and I understand the validity of the statement now. Men are trapped into believing that they are entitled to control, demand, and own the women in their lives. They are fooled into thinking that women owe them their labor. Men need to be liberated from this trap. I am not even going into the entire “Why Feminism and not Humanism” argument because it exhausts me. These kinds of arguments occur when men don’t introspect and acknowledge the privilege they have in society. These arguments arise when men refuse to listen to women who have proof and evidence to show how they have been discriminated against. Men need to be better allies. I am only going to quote a text-post I once saw, “Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space they have in society and make it feminist.”
The Vision and Future
The future is hopeful. Women before us have paved the path of development for us. Glass ceilings have been broken, and women have been heard. We see the change happening. We have a long way to go, but even small feats need to be celebrated. To name only a few feminists and movements and social workers and activists and revolutions would be a dishonor to the countless women who have worked to make lives better for girls like me, so I am not going to do it.
Source: adb.org. As part of an ADB drawing contest, Filipino children put colored pencils to paper to imagine a world where men and women work together in harmony to create a safe future for the next generations. All entries were winners, twelve more so
Though, I will quote Asha Dhar, from the cover story of India Today’s magazine issue of 1976 (you should read this issue): “In tune with the global phenomenon, educated Indian women seem to have formed a vision of equality with men. They have acquired a tremendous zeal to secure what they call 'lost rights.' Blatantly, they appear bent on ensuring their individuality to gain the freedom to explore their potential as integrated human beings. They no longer consider themselves silent spectators in this dynamic world situation but feel an urgent obligation to action and role-contribution. They urge breaking away from hackneyed traditions, warped social thinking, and double standards of morality that have blocked the worthwhile contributions they could make to the country's welfare. In the decade ahead, Indian women appear to be determined to devote individual and collective attention to the problems irking them and launch a cleansing crusade in the thinking-patterns of society, educate public opinion at all levels to sweep aside anachronistic values, and discard the dead and decadent elements in Indian culture and rebuild the vitally, progressive ones.”