I was at a seminar last month discussing the world of erotica, pornography and the internet as it pertained to women. There were exactly three men in the twenty-five odd gathering. One was the cameraperson (silent throughout), another lurked in the far corner of the room and I never heard a word from him. The third was sitting right next to me and as vociferous as the women. It was from him that I had this question.
Put that way, it seemed rhetorical. Feminism is a movement, an attitude, a perspective on the world. Since sex is determined by your body plumbing, a mind activity such as this can’t be a gender restricted one (See this for distinctions of sex and gender). On the other hand, I believe women and men experience inequality, injustice and disparity differently. Their motives to come to this movement are different. And an overpowering life attitude such as this, is a combination of rationale as well as emotion.
I do have several men in my life who are supportive of equality, who even call themselves feminists. This is not meant to disparage their efforts and even their struggles. In some ways, I think it’s even harder to be a male feminist than a female feminist. For one, it requires going against automatic conditioning, peer pressure and media messaging. Then there’s the constant deriding from both sexes (what, you think women are always nice to someone who stands for their rights?). My father (probably the first feminist in my life, male or female) sometimes tells me that women are probably the worst male chauvinists in this country. After all, he points out, it is a mother who makes a mama’s boy. It is a mother-in-law who drives the daughter-in-law harassment. I have to agree with him.
I know my own ‘strength’ and independence are constantly being held to account by the men in my life, not the women. When I bought a new computer recently, dad accompanied me and so did a close (male) friend. This plus two conversations with other men who advised me. One of them asked,
“Just how many men do you need to help you buy a computer?”
Hmm, indeed. My independent woman self is kept in place by the men in my life – now is that ironic or pathetic?
How and why we come to the feminism philosophy is utterly different. These men are feminists/equalism supporters because they believe it is the right thing to do. I support equalism because it gives me access to a better life. When we go into a debate on this, I am fighting for my survival as an independent human being with rights. They’re debating something that may not impact them at such a profound level as it does me. I must also make mention of privilege guilt. There are several men who are struck by advantages they enjoy that are not extended to the women in their lives. They don’t all become feminists but they struggle with the inequality anyway. I think this actually describes the angst of most ‘modern men’ I know today.
Let’s set aside the fervour and commitment for a second. I want to question whether a man can truly understand what it is to be a marginalized gender.
In my first semester at b-school, the Production Management professor, an M.Tech from I.I.T. Bombay spotted me sitting in the first row. He walked up to me, sneered and asked, “Why are you here? Why aren’t you at home learning to make rotis?” The whole class laughed. Through the year, he routinely made fun of my questions and was dismissive of my presence. He was just one professor in the 40-odd faculty members we saw in two years. But his words have never left me. I worked very hard to get into the program, studying on the bus on the way home, reading my texts during lunch breaks at work. I was at the top of my class. Yet, my efforts and my very presence was taken as insignificant. Can a man fathom the utter humiliation and frustration of that?
During the placement week, a very prestigious company came to the campuses across the city. My seniors advised me to not even bother applying as the company had a reputation of being gender-biased. I ignored them and applied anyway. The guy I was dating then didn’t even make it through the entrance exam. I was one of three women in the twenty that got through. And the only woman shortlisted for an interview. And in that closed room, the four men seated around the table told me that while I had made it that far, they couldn’t see the company actually hiring a woman. My classmates and the (then) boyfriend who hadn’t even gotten through this entrance exam – every one of them got jobs before I did. I finally landed a prestigious job, a better paying one than them. Will a man ever understand just why I still feel vindicated by that?
Last year, I was to get married and after a very public engagement, the relationship ended. Friends have behaved as if nothing happened (which I know now is the best I can hope for). And several of them have egged me ‘to get over it’. I can see how uncomfortable they are with having to be okay with something like this. I have also had a few people stop talking to me, some parental units ask their kids to not invite me over any more. I know the ex has not had to face anything of this nature. He is a self-acknowledged feminist but he won’t acknowledge that this is happening. How, I want to know, can he rightfully be a feminist, if the world treats him differently from me, in the same situation and he does not see that difference?
I am not at such a place of anger any more. I am able to engage in conversations (rather than arguments) with men about attitudes to women. I find myself thinking that the man before me has not had a chance to experience what I have. I’m willing to make allowances for their limited experience range and be grateful for their extra effort. But don’t these considerations negate the equalist philosophy? And if so, how can a man be a true feminist?
You know what I find most burdensome, about being a woman? It’s the black-and-white nature of options available to me. It’s true that women’s liberation has brought reprieve to all my gender. We are not anymore constricted to the stifling role of a ‘little woman’. But this doesn’t mean that we’ve been liberated. We’ve just been given a choice of cages to live in, not all of them golden.
I attended the launch of ‘A Bad Boy’s Guide To The Good Indian Girl‘ by Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra recently. I finished the book in one night and it served to crystallize what I’ve felt for many years. There is the most common box of ‘Good Girl’ that every Indian girl is typecast in, at birth, with family & society doing their darndest to keep her there for the rest of her life.
But here’s what. Even if she does break out of that restricting definition, she simply falls headlong into another one. I’ve broken a few of the ‘Good Girl’ rules myself, opting to not mask my natural assertiveness and my ambition. Thus I’ve gotten slotted in another mold of ‘Career Woman’ (or occasionally ‘Pushy Bitch’). Now I find I’m constantly battling notions that I:
- should be an overachiever, in a meaningful job that pays well
- always be 100% sure, confident and in control
- be intelligent, sparkling, entertaining and ‘with it’
- do not like or care about family
- do not like kids or feel maternal
- do not feel sentimental or feel ashamed when I do
Would one attribute such notions to a man who was gregarious and ambitious? It is possible to see a man who throws himself into life as it comes along and loves hard, works hard, isn’t it? Why is it so hard to do that with me, then? Then, has women empowerment actually given us wings or has it just substituted one cage for another?
There is a certain attitude I sense in people when they learn about my relationship, a certain, ‘You are so lucky!’ followed by the assumption that I must be thrilled since my life’s ambition has been fulfilled. It is not I don’t feel lucky or happy; both of us do. But I resent the implicit assumption that my life is about bagging the right guy and feeling triumphant for having landed one. That’s insulting both to me and to my relationship.
How about the automatic understanding that comes the way of men when they feel ‘not ready for a marriage right now’? These are laughed off with a wink and even a subtle impression that it’s the normal man thing to feel. But I say it’s not. Apprehension before a major step is a human thing, not a male thing. It’s our bodies’ internal signals alerting us to the possibility of a situation that we need to be prepared for. Why then, does everyone assume that always know my mind and that my life proceeds smoothly without glitch? Why is my confusion always attributed to my ‘just being difficult’?
I don’t feel like I’m treated equal to men when I’m given no room for mistakes, no leeway for confusion, no space for undefinable emotions, ideas and actions. I struggle with many roles, even the ones that fit me well such as the CareerWoman or the EarthMother. I struggle when they conflict. I struggle when they all come together. But most of all, I struggle with the fact that they exist, these neat little boxes into which I’m supposed to package my personality, my dreams, my emotions, my identity and indeed, my life. When did life ever let itself be organized so neatly?
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*Image via MicrosoftOffice
The woman who can’t decide if she wants to be the Nice Girl or the Business Skirt
There is a certain kind of woman that I’ve been becoming more and more conscious of, in the past decade. I found her right after I started working. This woman may hold down any job, from adwoman to pilot to salesgirl to journalist. She’s got the degrees, the skill set and even the resume. She’s confident, can speak the right jargon (in business situations) and lingo (in social situations). She may also have the other requisite paraphernalia for being a Superwoman, such as a cool hobby, an offbeat alternate career, a with-it social circle, a quirky love life and the mandatory ‘progressive’ outlook on gender equality.
On my first job, my company hired a bunch of people for a short-term assignment after an interview process. During the actual project, the woman in charge of managing a front desk was found combing her hair (at that very desk). When questioned about the whereabouts of certain materials that she was responsible for, she looked bewildered and said, “I don’t know”. My cutting (and in retrospect, harsh) reply was, “You have two hands, two legs & a head. Hopefully you have a brain too. You were hired to use all of them.”
There is the weaseling out of uncomfortable situations such as being pulled up for bad (or incomplete) work, by crying. You would think it’s easy to tell what kind of woman would break down if you pointed out a mistake on her report. But this is not the pretty, dainty princess sort. This is the toughie, ‘I can hold my own’ sort who ambushes you with an emotional response. It’s all the more difficult to handle such a situation because you never saw it coming. We deal with people along the equations that are set in place based on power dynamics & social roles. This particular situation means the woman abruptly changes all those, leaving you weaker to respond.
And finally there’s the kicker of turning to male support. Personally, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about having to ask a guy for help. I admit this may be an ego issue, since I’ve had to take offense so often against sexist remarks. But there’s nothing permissible about a professional who needs ‘rescuing’ on account of her gender.
Recently, I went on a short trip out of the city. The tour was organized by a young lady, who seemed full of bright ideas and budding talent. She’s a musician, who quit a corporate job to start a travel tours company with some friends. She was confident, articulate and enthusiastic. She was also charming, at ease with new people and seemed like she’d be able balance all the varying demands of these jobs well. The trip went completely off because of mismanagement of time and as it turned out, people. Each episode was dismissed with a smiling nonchalance. When things came to a head, she shrugged and said, “What can I do now? Just chill out yaar.” Shortly after, one of the male guests turned up to speak on her behalf. Thereafter, it was up to him to sort out the various glitches that had occurred because she had not done her job properly. Even if he did not have any problem with having to do this, he could not be held accountable for any issues that came up from the mismanagement or the superficial solutions that were offered. The lady in question quite literally shrugged it all off, putting it down to other people being difficult.
A number of situations like this have me saying, “I would never hire her!” which comes across as harsh & judgemental. But I am a certain kind of professional, the kind that thinks commitment to work & earning respect are gender-irrespective. If I demand equality in recruitment processes & in salaries, I don’t feel like I can ask for gender concessions while working. Besides being unfair, how can I expect any sort of respect if I do that?
Women like this weaken my stand, both within the professional setup (if they work with me) and for my gender. It’s hard enough to assess whether a woman is going to turn out this way. What’s even harder is the assumption that because I’m a woman, I should condone anything from another woman. There are the allegations of my sex being the proverbial crabs in a pot, not wanting other women to shine. Then there are accusations of being a bitch, as a boss or as a customer. And finally, there’s the assumption that I don’t truly believe in women’s liberation since supposedly, I don’t ‘support’ women in the workplace.
What I’m wondering is, when did equality end at rights and stop being about responsibility as well? I’m asking does the requirement of professionalism not apply to women, just because they’re women? And why at all should I have any respect for these women who’re just using feminism as a convenient excuse to write off sloppiness, laziness, irresponsibility and bad attitudes?
On the other side, I also have to admit that most women struggle with early-imposed notions of being ‘Nice’. At the most basic level, I think it’s important for every woman who goes out to work, to question what being a professional really means. I want to believe that it has nothing to do with popularity stakes and everything to do with getting the job done right.