The myth of chivalry
chiv·al·ry Pronunciation Key (shvl-r)n. pl. chiv·al·ries:
The medieval system, principles, and customs of knighthood.The qualities idealized by knighthood, such as bravery, courtesy, honor, and gallantry toward women.A manifestation of any of these qualities.A group of knights or gallant gentlemen.
chiv·al·rous Pronunciation Key (shvl-rs)adj.:
Having the qualities of gallantry and honor attributed to an ideal knight.Of or relating to chivalry.Characterized by consideration and courtesy, especially toward women
The last time a man stood up when I walked up to his table, I thought he was leaving at the sight of me. It wasn’t till I saw Pretty Woman that I learnt that it was considered good manners for a gentleman to stand up when a lady approached or left a table.
I was taught that good manners were about saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’. And about being polite to my elders. And nice to children. And do things for the sick and the old. I seem to have forgotten a lot of it. Everyone has. I don’t treat people with courtesy because they don’t treat me with respect. Men, most of all.
My mother, a long-time proponent of the old-fashioned value system of gender roles smirks at my dilemma and says, “You want your independence and feminism and chivalry as well? Isn’t that a little too much?”
Is it? Yes, I know, I’m hardly a lady..most women like me aren’t. We don’t smile sweetly when men open doors for us. The last time I took a flight alone, three men offered to help me hoist my suitcase onto the luggage rack but I smiled thinly and refused. I didn’t need any help, thank you very much. Besides I had a sneaky suspicion none of them would have bothered, had I been 20 years older and wearing a saree instead of well-fitted jeans.
Is that all there is to it? My search for a definition and similar meanings of the word ‘chivalry’ tells me that it is an ancient custom derived from the knights. That’s the Western system of course. Here in the east, we had our own code of conduct towards women.
Chivalry encompassed compassion, gentleness, protectiveness and above all, respect for women. Ah….that’s what is missing. Respect, respect, the big ‘R’ word. It about more than just doing things for one gender. It is about an understanding and appreciation of the other’s differences from yourself; a willingness to not make them wrong for it but dignify them anyway. Something as simple as offering a seat to an older person or a pregnant lady on the bus….not because you want to underline that they are weaker than you are but simply because it would probably benefit them much more than it would benefit you.
While on the topic of seats on a bus, I notice that men don’t offer seats to women on buses anymore. Could this have something to do with the fact that the first three rows on the left are reserved for women? I think so. Compassion like respect can’t be forced (or enforced). It just happens.
And here’s how the equation goes furthur: Men plainly resent the fact that there is a forced reservation of seats (on the bus or in Parliament…what’s the diff?) and they make it very obvious. I’ve fended off sneering comments about how the travelling is no issue if one is a women in Mumbai. I’ve also dealt with accusations that I could breeze my way through much faster on account of the 33%-syndrome.
Here’s how I deal with it: I get bitchy. I wouldn’t offer a seat to a man, no matter how tired he looked. At least that is what I was doing till I realised it. And I’m determined to use every single advantage I get on account of my gender, since I’m accused of it anyway.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that chivalry is dead. A lot of women I know who have had gyanaecological check-ups tell me that a male doctor is far better than a woman. You know why? Because they treat the patient with care, with gentleness..and with respect.
A month back, I had a dizzy spell and took a rick home. The driver offered to escort me right up to my door, asked me to call my family to come and get me and even after I declined all this, stood by and waited till I had walked across the lobby and gotten into the lift safetly.
Yes, it exists in brief flashes. People still remember how to be considerate to each other. Not every single moment is lost in these gender/ economic class power-equations.
It is a two-way street. I guess I don’t respect men really all that much. I don’t expect them to treat me with respect….I don’t even remember a guy I could describe as a gentleman. Which side started it is an endless debate. I am just not strong-willed enough to break the endless chain. My attitude goes something like:
Call me a bitch by all means, I need to be one in a world of dogs. If you want me to be a lady, you be a gentleman first.
Is that weakness on my part? Yes, it is. I don’t know what chivalry is. It hasn’t existed in the world in all that I’ve known of it.