Navigating A Feminist Identity
Last evening was a series of odd events. It started when I was hosting an open mic. One of the performers ranted about being friendzoned, spewing vitriol on the woman and ended up calling the audience boring because nobody would applaud. While this person was still performing, someone tapped on my shoulder and said, “You’ve got to call this out. This is problematic.”
This was heartening to hear. I’ve soldiered on alone for so long, being called all kinds of evil names, it just felt so good to know someone else found this outrageous and demanded action. When he finished, the silence of the audience was deafening. My god, this is what I touched when I did a silent performance. The whole room voiced their discontent with this problematic piece without making a sound. It was more powerful than anything I could have said or done because the community policed itself.
As a vocal feminist in this very space, I’ve endured hostility & harassment for calling out shit like this. It has also become my calling card, with ‘Have You Met My Feminism?’ getting much more recognition than any of the other pieces I worked harder on. SXonomics was my middle ground, learning to temper my fire to be more sustainable. So I wondered how to handle the problematic performer. I was, after all hosting and it’s my responsibility to hold the space as safe and diverse with minimal silencing or hate.
I decided to let him finish rather than disrupt a performance and then call it out. When I went back on stage, I explained why friendzone was a problematic idea, keeping it as personal attack-free as I could. And then I moved on. But I wondered if I had been too mild about it. It’s hard enough deciding which battles to fight and the decision of how hard to fight is even worse. As I explained it to some of the others who were enraged, later, as a host I sought to encourage anyone performing and helping them navigate their problem areas (including gaps in thought). Many of them thought it was pointless but I figured it was always worth engaging until the other person made it absolutely impossible.
After the event was over, a girlfriend commented on the incident. And then she said another performer had told her she liked performing when I was hosting because I was especially supportive of women performers. But, my friend said, I managed to do it without belittling or neglecting the men. So up my spirits lifted again.
I closed the evening catching up with a male acquaintance. I started to tell him about the incident. “You get why friendzone is problematic, right? No? Okay, let me put it this way. Men are the ones who complain about being friendzoned.”
He interrupted to tell me women got friendzoned too. I said, but the complaining is by men. He agreed and fell quiet….for about 3 sentences before interrupting to mansplain what these guys are like. I asked if he knew who incels were. He didn’t but it didn’t stop him from interrupting me and mansplaining about what men like these were like. I managed to get a word in about the shooters in the US. But not before he started talking about his roommate, yelling about how lots of Delhi guys were nice people. The next 4 minutes (the time it took to walk the road) he kept shutting me down, interrupting, his voice getting louder and his stance getting more aggressive by the minute.
When it got to him shouting (yes shouting) about how everything about me was gender, I just went very quiet and then told him to drop it. You see, this person is not a close friend. He’s someone who contacted me based on my writing (which has all been very strongly feminist and about gender politics). I didn’t even want to bother dealing with this kind of disreputable behaviour anymore.
He didn’t seem to realise I was ending the conversation. I reiterated, “This is over. Go home. It’s late.” He sputtered and said, “You say I’m mansplaining? You…you are woman-shunning!” I walked away before he could say anything more. Angry men are dangerous men. Half an hour later, my phone was beseiged with foaming-at-the-mouth messages from him. I told him if he ever contacted me again, I would report him. And I blocked him.
I’m aware that there will be a lot of people who think I should have patiently heard him out and explained to him. Because after all, I did take that stance with the first problematic man. I even told the others who were angry with that guy, that the only hope we have is in engaging and keeping conversations going. But I also have to draw my boundaries and definitions.
Tolerating men’s bad behaviour till they decide to be better human beings is NOT my job (or any other woman’s). From experience I know such men never will make that decision. Engaging with someone who wants to learn – there’s some merit in that but it is still my prerogative to decide I don’t want to. And I have decided not to engage with anyone who throws tantrums or silences me – I don’t do that and I deserve better than to be treated that way.
And finally, I don’t have to do all of this alone. Maybe the world is changing or maybe I’m moving to parts of it that hold more solidarity with my values. The respect and camaraderie of several women (and some men) who feel the same way versus surviving lots of toxic men – it’s an easy choice when I look at it like that.
Patriarchy is a shutdown, silencing, a one-way order. Feminism is a conversation. And a conversation can only be two-way (or multi-way). It can only be between people willing to listen to the other. Anything else is not my business.
Play a game with me. Ready? Pick any one answer:
QUESTION: What do you call a guy who makes a call at 1:30AM stoned and drunk to a girl who said she was having a bad day at 11:30PM?
A. A thoughtful, considerate, caring person who is taking time off partying to help someone in need.
B. A booty call.
If you picked A, you’re either a) a guy or b) a girl who has been told by a lot of men that you’re a princess who will be looked after so long as you’re patient because all men are brave, thoughtful and here to serve you.
If you picked B, you’re a woman. You may have once been the princess detailed in A but you’ve been disappointed too many times.
There is a fundamental difference in how men and women construct a story based on the same sequence of events. The thing is the women who pick B are doing so based on undeniable patterns they’ve lived through. While the men who pick B are doing so, wilfully ignoring patterns they’ve themselves contributed to because it’s inconvenient. Well, maybe I’m just biased and that’s not a good thing for a game designer or a quiz maker.
I’ve had a few conversations this week with men I’m close to – articulate, thoughtful, intelligent men. One of them insists on tailoring our interactions to contract-level precision, complete with ‘Clause B states this’ style references. This is how he understands boundary-setting. He’d be appalled if I called it a loaded term like ‘tone policing’ but that’s how it feels to me. Another apologises every time he doesn’t have a solution for something I share. He thinks this is how he should be a feminist ally. I don’t know how to explain the distinction between empathy and blind agreement, between taking a stand and playing hero.
All of them say “I didn’t realise you’re waiting for me to do this.” about while also asking me to trust them. How to do this without opening myself to accusations of being controlling and mistrustful? I thought we’d agreed on this, now I’m supposed to deal with their disbelief that I’d actually expect them to follow through?
When I talk to one of them about the communication breakdown I’m having with another man, thinks that man is immature, emotionally limited and other such things. It wasn’t till I heard this denigration of the same behaviour in other men that I realised these statements were being made only to please me.
How do you talk to someone who is eager to please you but can’t hear a word of what you say? Me? I’ve screamed and yelled and raged. It is frustrating, especially when it feels deliberate. How is it possible for intelligent humans to completely miss what you’re saying? It seems like that can only happen if they’re not listening.
And yet, why does my validation and pleasing me matter so much? Please don’t comment telling me that these men want to sleep with me and will say what they have to for that. For a fact, that’s not true of some of them and I don’t care to explain how I know. Oh and also, that’s what one of them says about every other man exhibiting the exact same behaviour as himself.
All I know at the end of this frustrating set of interactions is that men and women don’t understand each other at all. It’s like we’re speaking two different languages that just happen to have the same alphabet. We’re coming away with entirely different conversations in our head. How then, can understanding happen?
Anybody? I’ll wait.
I was at dinner with three male friends yesterday. We were at a tiny, local restaurant known more for its cheap, tasty food than its ambience or refinement. All around us were people in groups talking, laughing and eating. The proprieter sat at one of the tables counting money while the waiters buzzed in and out of the kitchen door, mingling their words with the diners’ conversations. The place was so tiny, that we could practically hear the rumbling of stomachs from nearby tables. Yes, that kind of place.
I only became conscious of it about half an hour into the meal. The friend who was wedged in next to me would keep going,
“Shh! Shh! Softer! Don’t talk so loudly!”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I have a loud voice and a personality to match and when I’m excited, it tends to rise. In addition, I live in a very noisy part of a very crowded city. Most of my conversations have to be conducted at a high volume just to cut across whatever cacaphony the restaurant/cafe deems is ambience music, the bandwidth my phone service provider is able to give me at peak hours and horns blaring on roads where one’s importance is expressed by how loud and often you can honk. Wait. I don’t need to explain. I’m loud. Period.
His relentless shushing had its effect and I fell silent for a bit. It is like being slapped hard on the face everytime someone turns to you and tells you (politely) to SHUT UP. And the noise around me immediately crowded in to cover any possible space that had opened up by my falling silent. That’s when I realised it. The others at the table were talking just as loudly. The people at other tables were talking loudly too. We could even hear the horns from outside. But I was the only one being made to shut up.
It took me back to many, many years ago. I had a boyfriend/friend who was a lot like me — gregarious, popular, enjoying attention and revelling in it. He was fun to be around. He said I was fun too. But when we started dating, something new came up in our conversations. It was the word SHHHH, alternated only by SHUT UP. It even led to some truly terrible fights.
Fast forward memory. A friend telling me that I should wear more muted colours, and oh, lower your voice please, it is considered very ill-bred to speak so loudly.
And finally back to present where I realised that the man who had asked me to SHHH had gone silent. I realised he didn’t have a lot to say. But he wouldn’t let me speak either. I tried again, this time a bit more watchful. Entering conversations, starting one with the person sitting across. And there, as I had anticipated, it came again.
“SHHH!!!! Everyone is looking at us!!”
“Where?” I asked him, “Who is looking at us? Who can hear us in this bedlam?”
He fumbled at that, obviously taken aback as he realised we weren’t sitting in the Queen’s court. Before he could come up with an answer, one of the other men added,
“THE OTHERS ARE LOUDER THAN WE ARE!”
Our man nodded but offered up a feeble,
“But…if someone complains…?”
Now here is the thing. I don’t like being apologetic for my existance. I find it hard to respect people who are apologetic for theirs. And it’s infuriating for someone to be apologetic on my behalf. It is obnoxious and degrading.
I don’t think this man any more than the boy I dated all those years ago, realises he is doing this. I chalk it down to yet another one of those sins men commit against women, while talking loudly about how much they respect women — mansplaining, interrupting, gaslighting and just not taking us seriously. Shutting women down is yet another of those things that men seem to do instinctively in our culture, without realising they’re doing it. This man is a nice guy and my friend. But he did not dare to or care to shut down any of the others at our table or at the other tables. The guy I dated had no qualms being the OTT foghorn himself but he had a big problem with his girlfriend being the same.
I am not arguing for obnoxious behaviour. I am displeased when a stranger complains or asks me to be quiet because I’m disturbing them in a public place. But I apologize and comply with their request. Because that’s a stranger and in a place like a library, bookshop or a movie, I have no call disturbing them. But shutting me down in a raucous environment, especially when the same muffling isn’t happening on the men around, is not acceptable.
I am a woman with an opinion and a loud voice. I don’t feel the need to apologize for that. And if it embarasses a man, he probably has no business hanging around me.