“Harini, your uncles are coming home, go wear something that properly covers your body.”
Does it feel like you’ve heard this somewhere? Of course, not with the name Harini, unless your name is Harini… but you get my drift? Perhaps you haven’t heard it addressed to you, but maybe to another woman?
This is a familiar statement which reiterates the deep-rooted misogyny is our society. We have well-meaning women asking young girls to cover up, just so that their older uncles don’t look at some skin and think ‘wrong’ of them. This is just one of the countless instances where a girl is told to do or not do something, thanks to the male gaze. In this issue that celebrates women, I share stories of everyday sexism from the perspective of three women from different walks of life.
The New Mother
We live in a society where the show of skin is considered the measure of a woman’s ‘character’ — it’s inversely proportional, you see. The lesser the amount of skin visible, the higher your character score. For new mothers, this misogynistic attitude is particularly irritating, as it is employed when there is a hungry new-born bawling in their arms. “Forget breastfeeding in public, I don’t have the freedom even inside my own house,” says new mother Aparna. “I’m always made to sit inside a room facing a wall so that nobody even accidentally sees my breasts if they enter the room. I argued a couple of times initially but to the elders, that only seemed like a mad person’s behaviour. After a point, I really couldn’t be bothered because feeding the baby is more important. So I just give in and go inside.”
Aparna’s experience is shared by new mothers across the world, often being shamed for breastfeeding their babies in public. The natural act of feeding a baby from one’s own bosom is considered disgusting and immodest. “I think it will take at least another generation to normalise breastfeeding in front of others,” says Aparna.
De-sexualising breasts by making the most of the digital revolution can go a long way in changing the way people react to breastfeeding. Thought-provoking art and open conversations have the potential to change the attitude, albeit very slowly and gradually. This might be wishful thinking but with the US having just made it legal in all states to breastfeed in public, perhaps other countries will follow suit and implement similar provisions.
For all our talk of freedom of expression, we give little to women. TV stars set the standard for what’s considered attractive for their fans who are largely male — they have long luscious locks, a slender body, the gift of singing like a nightingale, and usually, they are very adept at doing things in the kitchen. Sadly, for everybody involved, not every woman grows up to fit this mould. Because women are (surprise, surprise!) just as diverse in their thoughts and actions as they are in their bodies and how they decide to tend to them.
Take Parvati, for example. She’s a sassy young woman — she likes to dance, wear sarees and adorn her hair with flowers. But here’s the catch: she has short hair that is completely cropped on one side, has a number of face piercings and she has a strong build due to heavy workouts. “Often, when people approach me from the back, they think I’m a boy. When they see my face, I revel in their surprise as they discover my feminine features,” she says. What is not surprising is their attitude once they realise that she’s a woman. “I’ve had complete strangers come up to me and say, ‘What the hell? You’re a girl right? Why’s your hair so short like a boy? How do your folks allow you to walk out of home this way?’ shares Parvati. “It used to bother me when I was younger and clueless about society and its closed mind-sets. But today, I’ve learnt to be much more patient and understanding about it, while also having fun driving my point home.”
How could this attitude be kept in check so that people can simply be themselves without having to explain their choices? “Television and advertisements can help by introducing strong female characters with short hair who are not always portrayed as lesbians with a drug problem,” says Parvati. Another way to slowly help women feel comfortable in their own bodies is by encouraging women to stand up for each other and defeat social conditioning. And finally, she says, “Ignore the sexist society. Ignore them till they get exhausted. Tire them out.”
The Single, Working Mother
Kumari (name changed) is a single mother. She works in one of the highest levels of government, and often times, finds herself being the only woman in the room working at such a high level. “It’s official. I’ve filed a complaint with the appropriate authorities about my reporting officer wanting to know about my sex life. The harassment is still being investigated; they can arm-twist you with transfers,” she says. Since she’s a single mother, many male colleagues have hit on her, trying to get personal. She gets back at them with her sass and sarcasm, and that’s really the only thing she can do in such cases.
She’s not the only one who has faced such issues. Women are heavily judged for being single for whatever reason. Men think them fair game and often behave inappropriately. Kumari speaks of another woman who was raped, who had come to them seeking recourse, after being beaten up for being married to a man who already had a wife and child. She was raped by the male officer who was assigned to protect her, and wasn’t even aware of the resultant pregnancy as she was recovering from a head injury at that time. But because of his position and the permanent nature of his job, the guy walked freely. “Women take it lying down because it is very easy for men in power to trap them, and finish their career for good,” she says. “These people, they try to crush your spirit. They prolong your case, and make you go from one office to another in an effort to crush you and make you give up. That’s the most destructive thing. And that is why we need the feminist movement today.”
The Meaning of #MeToo
Last year, a number of women came out with their stories of sexual assault, thanks to the platform provided by the #MeToo campaign. Today, as we become more and more aware of these stories, it is more imperative than ever that we look inward — at ourselves, our workplaces and households — to trace our own sexist behaviour. It is usually the small, seemingly insignificant instances that we shrug off, that eventually lead up to the horrifying cases we hear of in the news. This is why we need equality. We need to empower women to look at themselves as equal to men, who shouldn’t be treated any differently, simply because of having been born female. Women need to be treated as human beings with agency over their own bodies, who are not boxed into expectations created by society. Women are not animals to be caged and made use of to satisfy a man and his desires.
Women are humans, no less than men, and they should be treated like it. And the time for that is now.
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