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The Gender Trap – What’s in store for the ‘Woman of Tomorrow’?

December 21, 2012

The woman of tomorrow - who is she?

Photo courtesy: Cdsessums 

Writer: Yamuna Matheswaran

    As an adolescent growing up in India and facing the rude shock of eve-teasing practically overnight, it caused me many years of shame and humiliation, discomfort with my own body, apprehension every time I stepped out of the house, and also caused me to wish I were born a boy instead. The reason behind this being that, unlike some of my friends, I could never accept it as a part of life. Those men who grabbed my breasts in the bus, on the road, in a crowded store – with the kind of nonchalance that implied they had the right to do so – induced in me a deathly rage. It was not okay. My efforts to fight this and question gender roles and “boxes” as a teenager only led to my elders labelling me a trouble-maker, to the point where I started to question if I was in the wrong.

I often found myself in arguments with family members for not being “feminine” enough. My refusal to wear scented flowers in my hair, or jewellery, or that well-known “dot” – the bindi – on my forehead, did not sit well with them. I played sports, and chose to wear pants instead of the modest salwar kameez. All of these things I did not because of a desire to rebel or a disregard for my culture, but because that was who I was, as a person. Clearly, I – and other girls like myself – didn’t fit into preconceived notions of the “good Indian girl”. At times, it led me to wonder if I was in the wrong for not being a certain way. Over time, however, it became clear that it was a much larger issue related to the perception of women in Indian society, where male chauvinism is alive and well. 

A close friend of my family’s once declared that she wished her pregnant daughter would deliver a grandson, rather than a granddaughter. When asked why, her matter-of-fact response was that raising a girl and eventually getting her married off is an expensive venture. Not a rare point of view, sadly, in a country where sex-selective abortion and female infanticide is a horrifically serious issue. What do high GDP growth rates and technological breakthroughs matter, when a nation continues to treat almost half its population as second-class citizens?

More personal experiences come to mind: my brother being advised to “bulk up” in the gym while I was told to be careful about getting “too bulky”; being suddenly told, as a confused 12-year-old, not to step outside the house unescorted. These instances, while far from tragic or abusive, are discriminatory and restrictive in their own right. Unfortunately, most people enforcing this type of behaviour – however educated and intelligent they might be – fail to realize this. To them it is merely common sense, an adaptive strategy for surviving in a developing nation.

Gender Boxes and Stereotypes

There is this idea, all across the world, that “women exist to be decorative”. Is it surprising then that there is such a strong link between a woman’s sense of worth, her self-confidence, and her appearance? Gender is, after all, a social construction, much like states or religion. Who decided that women should paint their nails and wear make-up instead of men? Of the innumerable products designed to enhance a person’s beauty, why is only a fraction directed at men? Why has feminism become a dirty word, and why is it likely that I will be branded a hairy-armed man-hater for stating these things? Why do we buy into these stereotypes without questioning them? And why is it that human beings are so uncomfortable with anything that does not conform to this box that they have created, of what is normal and what is acceptable?

The Concept of the Other

In her landmark work of feminist philosophy, Simone de Beauvoir questions the vague notion, and in fact myth, of “femininity”, and retraces its patriarchal origins. What is femininity? Who defines it? Is a woman essentially a womb?

The concept of the ‘Other’ is also a prominent theme throughout the course of the book. De Beauvoir identifies the prevailing notion that “humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself.” This patriarchal view of the world, of regarding the male self as the essential, the subject, and the female as the alterity, the object, has allowed for the development of distorted gender roles and an imbalanced relationship between the sexes.

De Beauvoir references a variety of influential historical persons who have harboured this skewed outlook, including Aristotle (“The female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities”) and the French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas (“…Neither is the difference between the sexes the duality of two complementary terms, for two complementary terms presuppose a pre-existing whole… Alterity is accomplished in the feminine”). However, these points of view are facilitated by the use of a patriarchal lens; an objective consideration of the issue would prove otherwise.

Masculinity vs. Femininity

Gender stereotyping does not apply to women alone. A number of men restrict themselves/ are restricted from doing certain things simply because they are not considered “masculine” enough, including something as minor as admitting an affinity for a film intended for women. Pink – which is nothing more than a colour – has been contorted into becoming an indicator of human sexuality.

Yes, men do cry, women do pursue meaningless lust-ridden escapades, men do enjoy fruity drinks, and women do guzzle down dark beer. And no, not all women enjoy saccharine romantic films, not all men are inclined to fight, not all women are meant to mother a child, and not all men can read maps. When will we reject these restrictive norms that dictate how one is supposed to behave, and allow ourselves to be truly liberated?

The false idea that “feminists hate men” has served to alienate many men from the cause. In his article for New Internationalist magazine, titled “The Prison that is Patriarchy” (July 2011), Mbuyiselo Botha brilliantly points out what the characteristics of “real men” are supposed to be, from their attitudes towards violence, and their sexual patterns, to their reluctance to show emotion, and the “relegation of gay men to a lower stratum of manhood”. Botha also discusses the convenience that patriarchy provides to men, but points out how, ultimately, gender equality benefits both sexes in terms of health and emotional well-being, and highlights the importance of involving men in the movement.

Media Representations of Women

In reality, men control a majority of the world’s media. Thus, media images of women are mainly representations of what certain men desire to see. A look at awards in the music and film industry reveals separate categories for males and females, all reinforcing the belief than the sexes cannot compete with each other, even in the domain of art. In films, full frontal nude scenes involving women are aplenty, whereas those depicting men are rare. If sex sells, why isn’t anyone trying to sell it to women?

In the realm of sports, women do not receive as much exposure or income as men, tennis being one of the few exceptions where both sexes receive equal pay. However, skimpy outfits dominate the women’s circuit – how many people would admit to watching a women’s match purely for the thrill of the sport? Female models, on the other hand, earn significantly higher wages than male models – is this perhaps an indicator that the primary economic value attached to a woman is an aesthetic one?

The Case of Physical Strength

When it comes to physical strength, despite the natural advantage that men possess, I believe that it is social conditioning that prevents women from achieving their full potential. Messages relayed by various media and the opinions held by society reinforce the idea that it is acceptable, even expected, for women to depend upon men for physical protection, as opposed to encouraging self-defence techniques. From an early age, women are taught to aim for physical beauty, not in terms of strength or fitness but rather thinness and “softness”. Men strive to be strong, while women strive to be thin.

Gender Roles in Indian Society

A recent study ranked India fourth in the list of worst places in the world to be a woman, above the conflict-ridden failed state of Somalia. (Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/15/worst-place-women-afghanistan-india) Sex trafficking, female infanticide, and rape runs rampant in this “rapidly developing nation”, where women are raped on buses, raped in parking lots, molested on busy streets, and dumped on the side of the road when finished. The fear in every girl’s eyes betrays the realization that it could have been her; no one is safe.

The nation continues to be characterized by widespread gender stereotyping and a system built upon patriarchy. Our “culture” is one that requires modesty from women, be it in the way of dress, their ability to make independent decisions, or the subordinate roles they play in a household.

A major issue is the acceptance of gender roles by women themselves, and the dubbing of non-conformists as “immoral”. In India, cases of eve-teasing (public sexual harassment of women by men) are numerous, as is the number of women who accept it as inevitable. The constant necessity of having to look over one’s shoulder in order to thwart an attempted grope is stifling – it hinders a woman’s right to just be. When a person is escorted during travel, during the night time, during trips to sleazy neighbourhoods, it hampers her sense of independence, crushes her spirit.

And then there are those who – intent on proving their commitment to women’s rights – make it a point to praise any woman who accomplishes anything remotely interesting. Is it because they have set the bar so much lower for women that they are so easily impressed? This constant differentiation between individuals on the basis of sex is in itself stifling.

A Cultural Awakening

Why is feminism misconstrued as “hatred of man”? It almost seems as though there is no direction a woman can take that is obstacle-free, unless she walks straight into the box that has been concocted for her. If not for this patriarchal system, women wouldn’t have to try so hard to just be.

There is no denying that Indian women – and women in general – have come a long way in their fight for equality. However, the double standards that still exist in our society, and the pervasive cultural perceptions about the way a woman ought to lead her life, are a result of deep historical conditioning, and of years of subordination of females. What we desperately need is a form of cultural awakening – because enough is enough.

We owe it to the women who have struggled to provide us with the right to a decent life, to the men who understand the importance of equality among the sexes, and to ourselves, to continue the crusade. Because every time a woman falls prey to gender discrimination or sexual abuse, it is a blow to the integrity of our world as a whole.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2012 6:06 am

    Yamuna, this is very logically and effectively put together. I couldn’t agree with your views more. You say it as it is. I wish you continued engagement with the challenge of being a woman in India. You are a part of the process of change. Every word, every single thought, every gesture counts. It will all add up one day. Keep at it!

  2. March 3, 2013 9:59 am

    Thank you, Neerja. I appreciate that.

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