(A COLLECTION OF RANDOM OBSERVATIONS)
It’s because of days like 8th March, celebrated as International Women’s Day (originally known as International Working Women’s Day) that I feel like re-examining the situation of gender and justice in the world around me. Being a student of English Literature, I’ve realized that every conversation and observation is influenced by gender politics. But it’s only recently that I’ve understood how no matter what I learn about gender in the classroom, my biggest lessons on the subject of sexism or equality will always lie outside of it.
The other day a few of my friends and I were sitting at a restaurant and generally having a good time. It was a sunny afternoon and we were all catching up and talking about our lives until one of my friends said something that should have changed the course of the afternoon but didn’t. There were three boys and two girls (including myself) on that table. Suddenly my friend started talking about how she’d gone for a party and someone had made unwanted advances towards her. What sounded like every other girl’s story slowly became more and more horrifying as she told us about how the boy wouldn’t stop following her and the extent to which he went to get physically close to her. Just as she was finishing the story, another friend stopped her and said “Yaar we were all having such a good time, why are you making everything serious?”
When I look back at that moment, I remember feeling quite rage and a strange kind of mortification. It’s not just the fact that all three boys at the table had turned their eyes away from my friend and I, it was also that in that moment they were desperately looking for some kind of distraction, some way of steering the conversation away from what they perceived as unpleasant waters. What surprised me most was that when I tried to politely ignore my male friend and encourage my friend to finish her story, she looked at me like I was irritating her by pressing for details due to the sake of gossip. She herself agreed to talk about something else and before I know it we went back to our regular kind of conversation, completely ignoring the fact that one of us was very seriously trying to talk about sexual harassment.
Before I go any further, I have to mention that all three guys present at the table with my friend and I, are sound and caring friends. Yes, they were murmuring words of advice like telling her to call up someone the next time it happens and staying away from the stalker. But overall their anger and worry surrounding the situation was far less than mine, as if this was a ‘girl problem’ and not a very big ‘human problem’. The fact remains that they just saw this whole situation as a bit of a mood killer and did their basic best to make the conversation stop. The indifference to sexism is one of the most subtle and major reasons for the existence of sexism in the first place. The reason why I mention that my friends were in general caring and kind is because they cannot be written off as typical male jerks, so to speak. This also means that men in general have a tendency to covertly stop dialogue surrounding issues like these simply because it makes them uncomfortable.
Another kind of situation that I recently experienced was that when my friends and I would hang around campus in the morning; there were a group of boys who would exercise in the field near us. Slowly as days passed into weeks, we noticed that one of the boys was very obviously interested in one of our friends. She was oblivious to the whole deal so his gestures became louder with each passing day. Soon he began to stalk her and corner her in corridors. Not only was she very put off by this, she was also very scared at how little she could do to make him back off. His name was graffitied on several of the buildings and walls around us because he was a member of a big political party. Now the funny thing is, very few of our friends thought of this whole situation as a violation of her private space. Why? The answer is because the guy was very good looking. It’s as simple and shallow as that. Somehow, most men and women aren’t quick to label such guys as creeps because they conform to the standards of what the ideal man is supposed to look like. The boy who was the stalker in this situation was handsome and strapping and the worst part is that all my friends and I used to regularly ‘check him out’ while he would work out in the morning.
We need to be honest with ourselves. We are far more wary of men (and women) who are considered less than good looking even if they approach another human in a respectful and decent way. Men, especially those who are constantly reminded of their masculinity and good looks, feel a sense of entitlement, as if it is their birthright to show their virility by forcing themselves on other so called beautiful girls. It’s the only way they can justify their arrogance and superiority, by reminding others of how many unwilling and unwitting women they have ‘conquered’. Although the aforementioned situation is far from abnormal in our society, what shook me up inside is when I found out that this man is a rape accused who is walking free on bail.
In the moment that I heard this piece of information, I was hit with the knowledge that I too used to find this man attractive, we used to see him every morning, how could someone we know ever do this? And that is when I understood that no sexual harasser looks different from the rest of the crowd. A man does not have to look dangerous or lecherous to be a rapist. As juvenile as this observation might have been, I realized with a shock that in a country with such high statistics of cases of rape and sexual assault (especially since most go unreported), the potential threat to women and men can be from someone who is very much a part of their live. Not all sexual predators, of course, are distant strangers that one will never meet again. More often than not, they are the people with whom one sits, eats and walks.
If you’re on Facebook or Twitter (or even if you’re alive in general, actually) you’ve probably seen the brutal way in which women are slut shamed. Not only is the ‘overly sexual’ woman seen as a piece of fresh meat there is also this not-so-recent phenomenon of shaming those women and men who have never dated or had romantic/sexual history. From personal experience, I find it funny how since adolescence, people do a great job of reminding you of the fact that you are an unsightly blemish because of being overweight, dark, not ‘girly’ enough or having different interests which don’t include fixating on the members of the opposite gender. But as you get older and realize exactly how far from ideal (or mainstream) you are in terms of your looks, it is these very people who will tell you that you should love yourself first, as if that’s the reason why men don’t stop in their tracks to look at you. The fact is that even if you were to follow the world’s advice and practice some self loving, it’s not long before people around you remind you of your single-dom and try to break your delusion of completeness and fulfillment.
You know, you have to love patriarchy for the genius ways in which it evolves to find a way to make you feel like there is something wrong with you. I recently remember male friends of mine joking about how I must surely be a man because of the nonexistent dating history I possess. The jokes further went on to say that I must be homosexual without knowing it because that’s the obvious reason for why I’m not in a heterosexual relationship. Mockingly calling someone a lesbian is obviously seen as the best insult that you can throw at someone in a homophobic society like ours. What troubles me is not the fact that people are trying to ridicule and make assumptions about my sexuality but the fact that people think of homosexuals as people who settle for people of their own gender because they clearly can’t be successful with people of the opposite sex. Far from offensive are the presumptions about my sexual identity because what disturbs me more is the fact that I am only a woman if I like a man. It is as if I am less of an individual because society hasn’t seen me attach myself to a man. Subjects such as female masturbation or asexuality are unconceivable in a world where I am supposed to constantly be defensive, if not apologetic about why I am not good enough a physical specimen for the average man.
This article is not a piece about how there is so much wrong with society and how International Women’s Day is a farce. It is just about how easy it is to suppress dialogue about the ground realities faced by women and men every day. Women are equal perpetrators in this as I realized when I asked a friend about the best way to deal with unwanted messages from persistent strangers on social media and she told me that this is something that all pretty girls just have to deal with. It’s also funny how in that moment I realized that I am always going to be pretty enough to be harassed and letched at but not pretty enough to be considered good looking under the framework of patriarchy. When I told my friend that I’d like her to accompany me to the college gym for fear of being hounded by boys there like most of my friends were, she casually told me that because of my being overweight I shouldn’t act like I have anything real to worry about. The point of this is that the most dangerous kind of sexism is subtle sexism. The kind that you and I don’t even notice because before we know it, someone has changed the topic by saying “let’s talk about something else.”