I find it strange when men say things like “Women are complicated. They are difficult to understand.” I am a woman, a rational one. And I know I am no more or less complex than an average human being. Some things about the way I live my life are different from the way men live theirs. This is because while I inhabit the same planet, there are restrictions, offences and dangers posed to me, that they do not face. This does not make me harder to understand.
I know a lot of women who say things like this too. I believe every single one of them has been conditioned to allow herself to be subjugated. Being deified or mystiqued (yes, I made that word up. Consider it the opposite of ‘demystified’) is just as disrespectful to women as abuse and chauvinism. Saying ‘You are special’ is saying ‘You are not normal like me’. There is even a term for this. It’s called Androcentricism. I think of it as ‘Male-normative’ or ‘Being male is normal; all else is special cases’
Every human being tries to navigate their way through life, living it as close to what they want as possible. Women’s lives have numerous disruptions and barriers, because society does not allow us control over our lives. So a lot of women don’t believe they have any way to get what they want other than under the garb of mystery. And some of them are just comfortable enough with doing this because it doesn’t require them to apply themselves further and be direct. Women are just as selfish, lazy or petty as men are. It’s a human thing and I don’t see why it should be denied to women on account of their being women.
I think for most men, it’s easiest to slot women into narrow definitions — the whore, the homebody, the airhead, the vamp, wife material. And anything that doesn’t fit into these structures gets written off as the feminine mystique. It’s easier to do that than take the effort to understand why they behave the way they do. Perhaps it is also avoiding the fact that acknowleging a woman as an equal, nuanced human being will have mean recognising the unfair world that she lives in.
What’s interesting is the kind of men who say women are complicated are the same ones to deride me for how unlike a woman I am, how I’m ‘too direct’ or ‘too aggressive’ or ‘think I can just say anything’. Ever heard anybody tell a man that?
It’s not that women are difficult to understand. It’s that some men don’t want to acknowledge their gender privilege.
I heard someone describe three other people’s interaction as ‘ritualised’. It made me think of the forced inanities that people thrust on each other, the scripts that we impose on each other and that we find ourselves following. The delighted welcomes, the whine exchanges, the mutual enabling of vices – aren’t these the traits of many long-running relationships? Some of us find security in it; some find it oppressive. Either way, there is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, and performed according to set order, which Wikipedia tells me is the very definition of ‘ritual’.
Do some of us exist in RITUALISED RELATIONSHIPS then?
I know most women are unaware or misinformed about their rights. The right to say no, the right to birth control, the right to a woman cop’s presence. Then I just came up against a conversation started by a woman who talked about her right to have her bra strap peek out without having to be harassed. And a man asked “So you can show but we can’t look? Just asking.” And it made me realise that men are just as misinformed about their rights.
So here is my attempt to dispel some misinformation for men:
- You do NOT have the right to harass a woman, no matter what she is wearing.
- You do NOT have the right to stare at her in a way that she considers offensive.
- You do NOT have the right to insinuate that it is her fault.
- You have the ‘freedom of speech’ right that we all have. But ‘freedom of speech’ means that you have the right to speak your piece as long as it does not hurt anybody. Insinuations like these do hurt women.
- Women have the same right to that freedom of speech as you do. If you feel you have the right to tell me I’m blowing things out of proportion, I have the right to tell you that you’re wrong and a misogynist.
- The statement “Just asking” does NOT automatically waive the ‘does not hurt anybody’ clause in ‘freedom of speech.
*I apologise for this not being a comprehensive list. There is much misinformation and I’m doing my part to dispel it.
I was with a friend last evening, driving around within a residential area’s bylanes, when we saw something. A couple was standing by the side of the road, clearly arguing. The guy, who was much taller and broader than the girl, was holding both her hands, while the girl seemed to be feebly protesting and trying to shake him off. They were both dressed well and looked like they were in their 20s. The girl was not shouting, screaming or crying. But she was not smiling or laughing either, which is what made me think that this wasn’t friendly fooling around.
My friend noticed it as well and after a few seconds hesitation, we doubled back. As we watched from a slight distance, the pair seemed to join in a hug, after which the girl broke free. I saw her push him back roughly and quickly cross the lane. The guy didn’t seem perturbed and the girl didn’t run. But she turned several times and the look on her face was one of fear. It was past 11 at night. There were several autorickshawallas on the road as well as stray pedestrians.
My friend had a brainwave. Instead of outright butting in, he stopped and asked her for directions to a restaurant close by. She seemed startled, then collected herself and shook her head and said she didn’t know. The guy, who had been watching this, crossed the road immediately and demanded to know what happened. My friend repeated his question. The guy just turned and walked away. We waited till the girl walked on and turned into one of the gates in the lane. The guy continued walking further down the road.
My words don’t prove conclusively that the guy was harassing the girl. But I know what I saw. I know the sense of danger I felt emanating from the situation. I know that unmistakeable instinct that women develop, that I felt, about trouble. There was definitely something off about the situation. The girl’s expression and then the look of relief on her face even in answering a simple question were one clue. The guy’s instant intrusion, demanding to know what was going on and then his turning and walking away, as if he had only wanted to check we weren’t interfering and that done, he could walk away – that’s another clue.
It’s possible that they might have been a couple and arguing. The girl did not ask for help. And none of the people around offered or even seemed to notice that she might need it. But this is a problem. I have been in that very situation. Just because a man is your boyfriend, friend, lover, colleague or acquaintance, does not mean that he might not pose a threat to you. In all the autorickshawallas around who were watching the ‘tamasha’ when it got a bit louder, I saw the same thing. I sensed it in my own self in those few seconds before my friend and I decided to turn back to see if the girl needed help. It was this thought:
“Why interfere in a couple’s problems?”
I am glad that we did. I am glad that I had a male friend with me. I don’t know if I would have had the nerve to interfere otherwise. If I had done so, I don’t know if I might have courted further danger for myself and for the girl. And finally, I’m very glad for my friend’s diplomatic but careful management of the situation. His action registered in a non-threatening, unobtrusive way, that somebody was watching. I’d like to think that’s why the guy rushed to find out what was happening and then bolted, albeit feigning nonchalance.
I’d love to believe that all of this was in my mind and I was seeing evil where there was none. Unfortunately, I see too much violence on a daily basis and too much unseeing all around. Something else occurred me, right when this was happening. I remember seeing this video about a social experiment, which revealed people’s unequal attitudes towards violence against each gender. It showed how people noticed and offered help when a woman was attacked by a man but didn’t care or laughed when a man was being attacked by a woman.
What struck me even then, was that in India, it wouldn’t happen. In India, people do not interfere even when they see a man committing an act of violence against a woman. It’s not even equal opportunity violence tolerance in India. Violence against women is actively encouraged (what, you haven’t seen the latest Salman Khan movie?) and nurtured. It’s cherished as a show of masculinity. And the reverse, no, I’m afraid it’s not tolerated. The same all-influential Bollywood movies also show how a hero loses his head, after he is slapped by a woman, in a justified manner since ‘she must be put in her place’.
I have been beaten, slapped and punched by men, men who were supposed to be close to me. Some of these have happened in public. Not once has a person ever interfered. I’ve even been told that I should not be such a feminist, that I should learn to forgive and forget. And memorably, two so-called friends badgered me for a month about my hostile attitude to men. When I told them that I had been subjected to violence by men, both of them shrugged and said, “So?”
I don’t want to end this post as a rant. But let me propose a few ideas instead.
- If you know a woman you believe to be strong, do not assume that she is invulnerable to threat. Do not judge her for needing your help. The world is not an equal place. I might go so far to say that the more openly ‘strong’ a woman is, the greater her chances of falling victim to violence. There just are that many men around who are threatened by a woman’s strength or independence.
- Do not feel that it is not your place or job to interfere. A crime is a crime, regardless of who commits it. Rough handling of a human being, without their consent is a crime. If you see it happening and you allow it to pass unchecked, you are accessory to that crime.
- This is one place where you can, should, err on the side of caution. If you interfere, the worst that happens is you are insulted or ridiculed. If you do not interfere, a human being might suffer violence and damage, something you could have prevented by didn’t.
- If you are not in a position to interfere for some reason, don’t give up. Be innovative like my friend was. The ‘Bell Bajao’ campaign was based on this idea. Disrupt the situation, make it clear that somebody is watching. At least, it should diffuse the situation at that moment. It always helps to have the police station’s number. Call and report what you’re seeing. The police do respond. They will not make life miserable for you, for reporting it.
- If it feels rough, it is violence. Don’t overthink the boundaries. It’s not that difficult. If the person does not seem to be enjoying it or looks distressed, assume it is an attack. Here’s an indicative list I found on ADaring which defines domestic violence: You are facing domestic violence if your partner:
- Calls you names, insults you, puts you down and does not allow you to go to work or school.
- Prevents you from seeing your family members or friends.
- Is too possessive and jealous and constantly accuses you of infidelity.
- Gets angry every time he consumes alcohol or drugs.
- Threatens you with weapons or violence.
- Hits, kicks, chokes, slaps or torchers you or your children or pets.
- Forces you to have sexual relationship with him/her.
- Blames you for everything and says that you deserve being punished.
I ask you this, as a woman who lives in a world that is dangerous for her. I am asking to share in the privilege you enjoy. I am asking you to help me have my basic right to safety. And just in case you need a reminder of how ‘normal’ domestic violence can look, here’s a Violence Awareness campaign that Norway is running:
Man getting ready for night out:
Run across shower.
Howl at underarm chill.
Repeat on other side.
“Aren’t you ready yet??”
I must have missed the memo. Excuse me, but when did an ‘already-married’ status become a dateworthy trait? The internet, pubs, parties and all manner of social occasions are rife with married men partaking of mating rituals – the innuendo-ridden conversations, the excessive compliments, the lingering glances, the offers to buy drinks, the requests for phone numbers, even the unabashed booty calls. I thought these were reserved solely for single people. In fact, didn’t married people used to scoff at us singletons to have to resort to these tactics?
Here’s news. They still do (condescend to single people, that is). But they also participate in these supposedly-only-for-singles rituals. Status symbols-as-reasons-to-be-douchey are not cars, foreign vacations and posh addresses any more. It’s being married and being able to do the flirty thing too. I can’t think of a worse display of arrogance than this. It’s an outright ‘I am having my cake, I’m eating it too and I want it with buttercream icing on top!’. I’ve been at the receiving end of the attention of more than one married man like this. The patni, kids, successful career/money made things being done, flirting-even-though-I’m-married seems to be his latest goal. It’s startling and then when I get over the shock, amusing.
Here are some laughable things I’ve heard:
Women must like the challenge of a man they can’t have because they are married.
I was my wife’s second boyfriend so I’m allowed one more.
And then there is the utterly mystifying,
“I am really unhappy in my marriage. My wife doesn’t understand me.”
Why on earth would that be my problem? My friend calls it the ‘Pati, Patni aur Woh‘ play. He says a lot of women are suckers for such stories. He hastens to assure me that it doesn’t work on ‘intelligent women’ like me but that ‘sympathetic women’ are only too eager to pat the arm, go ‘There, there’ and coo about how sensitive the man is. Yes, thank you. I don’t like the implication that I’m devoid of sympathy but given the kind of male tantrums that have gotten thrown at me, for not being so – I think I’m okay with that. If this is true, I deduce that men who throw a hissy-fit that I’m not sympathetic to them are basically whining that I didn’t fall for their pathetic ploys.
The obvious next step to this is, of course, asking women why they’re dumb enough to fall for this. That’s what the men who use these ploys think of the women who fall for them. But it’s victim-shaming, isn’t it? Why should a girl be shamed because she was trusting and sympathetic? Never mind the fact that she gets shamed if she is not, also.
I think a married man who says or does one thing out of place deserves to be slammed publicly and consistently. It’s only fair, considering he’d get much worse, if he were a woman. Sympathy? Why did he get married in the first place, if it was so burdensome? And if he only discovered it later, why not end the marriage?
“Because it’s not that simple.”
They all say. Sure, then probably, Mr.MarriedFlirt, you ought to be spending that time trying to figure it out instead of preying on the singles scene.
Here’s a new one that’s popped up among this crowd – polyamory. Open relationships, modern thought, ‘that’s love, this is sex’ ideas get tossed about. Ask however, if his partner practises this tolerant attitude to his partner as well, and it falls apart. Polyamory & open relationships are equal rights things but not in these men’s minds.
And finally, there is the ‘Boys will be boys’. Shall I take that to mean douchey, irresponsible, selfish and incapable of consideration and responsibility? Fine then, remember that the privilege of consideration & respect is accorded to those who earn it, not those who feel entitled to it.
Pick-up lines, never the best openers and here I think I’ve stumbled on to the worst possible one ever.
Over a year and half ago, I bought this accessory on a whim. It comprises a red flower made of net and fabric, attached to a thin red headband. Like all things bright and red, it caught my fancy. I wore it several times in the next few days. It made me feel like a queen. After all, a headband is a sort of a crown and this one is in my favourite colour.
The reactions that wearing this provoked, continue to this day. At first there was astonishment. I didn’t pay it heed. There was outright gaping. I ignored it. Then came the laughter, right to my face. It didn’t bother me. When I refused to get angry, the jokes got mean.
People stopped me to ask what manure I applied on my head, so a garden would grow there.
Someone sent me an anonymous note asking what was wrong with me, wearing that red flower on my head.
Two strange men on the road stopped right in front of me and refused to budge. I walked around them. They turned around and returned to walk next to me, pointing at the flower and laughing.
I wore it to coffee with a close friend who kept insisting I take it off and put it away. Two others refused to walk on the same side of the road with me, until I took it off.
A female friend would not stop telling me how inappropriate I was being, by wearing this. We were at a play and most of the time before the play and the interval after was spent in her trying to get me to remove it.
Recently, a friend who hasn’t seen me in over a year, forwarded a fashion pundit’s claim that ‘flower crowns are a major fashion faux pas’.
I want to know what about this innocuous red headband provokes such violent sentiments from people. Why do friends and colleagues think it is okay to badger me about a minor aspect of my appearance? These are intelligent people who consider themselves forward thinking. Do they realise the meaning of their actions?
I am not breaking a law by dressing indecently. I am not wearing anything that could offend anybody’s religious sentiments. Beyond that, why should what I wear be anybody’s concern? I realise that most people do not like the way it looks. They have a right to their opinions just as much as I have the right to wear it. Why are they allowed to get away with statements like ‘it offends my eyes’? I find men peeing in public far more offensive. And I find the attitude that other people dictate what I wear, most offensive of all.
And finally about the fashion faux pas bit. I refuse to conform to what a fashion pundit or a style magazine says. Why does that give everyone the right to deride me?
It also reminds me of another occurrence over ten years ago. When I started working in 2000, I began wearing scarves draped/knotted around my neck, with formal shirts and trousers. I had seen the style in a few international magazines and movies. Nobody I had seen in real life wore them and I had to go to some trouble to find those scarves. Later, I went back to college to get an MBA degree. I continued the same style of dressing. The teachers and students uniformly believed that sarees were the only appropriate wear for presentations. I was the first female student to wear trousers to a class presentation. The scarf around my neck had become my signature style. One of my male classmates said I looked like a ‘rowdy’. Another said it looked ‘raapchik’. The adjective got appended to my name. Then two of them asked me what my rate for a night was.
This incident may sound extreme now. You’ll probably think my friends and classmates were country bumpkins from back of beyond. But this was at a time when Indian women did not wear scarves to work. The only reason I stopped wearing them was because all the hospitality services (retail, restaurants, airlines) adopted the style for their uniforms. Today, the scarf-around-neck style is synonymous with a service person in one of these industries. Hence it is ‘normal’. But because I wore it when it was not, harassment came my way. It feels like history repeating itself.
I realise this seems like a trivial thing. Most people would ask me why I don’t just stop wearing it. But that is precisely the point. Would any man be hassled this much over a minor article of clothing? I posted a Facebook update about this. And while I was typing up this post, a friend responded to the update asking why people had lost their joy and whimsy. She nailed it. That is why I wear it. It makes me feel good. It cheers me up.
Her comment made me realise a broader issue. The only men I know who may have faced something similar are a few brave gay men. Earlier in the month, a man was hauled over by the cops in Chennai and beaten up, because they didn’t like what he was wearing (Read his account on Gaysi). I want it to say, it is the same thing. We are all supposed to follow rigid rules on how we appear and any deviation is considered punishment-worthy (even if the law does not explicitly say so). There is so much difference-shaming that is considered normal and anybody who refuses to be perturbed by it, is the troublemaker.
Here is a picture of the now famous headband. It’s unwittingly become a crown of thorns for me but I refuse to hide it away.