Category Archives: Sexism

On the meaning of sexism

Well, there goes a hornet’s nest screaming to not be disturbed. But in this short post I propose to deal with it, because well, it needs to be dealt with. As we all know Feminism, the insidious movement for world domination by women, which has resulted in millions of people dying, countless wars and famines, has finally failed. (Go figure which part of that statement is made up :))

However, sexism is still alive. If you don’t believe me, go ask any woman who has been groped on public transportation, sexually harassed at work, or is payed less than men for doing the same work. While you are at it, ask persons of the transgendered community what their lived reality is like. And yes, their concerns are the concerns of feminism too. (At least the  feminism I believe in). But today’s post is not about convincing the fringe that sexism exists. It is about having a dialogue with men and women who want to introspect about their behavior. It is about pointing out a few things to those who have no desire to practice hidden or benevolent sexism, but have a hard time figuring out what they are doing wrong. But before I begin, I would like to point out that sexism is not an isolated problem, it is part of a larger network of disrespect, assumptions and unfairness that other communities face too. So if you are looking to address sexism in your attitude, also try to examine whether you stereotype people based on race, disability or other social disadvantage.

Well, here we go. When I Google sexism, Google throws me this peach. ‘Sexism :prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.’ Now of course you would think that these behaviors are easy to find and call out. Surely, they do not exist in modern institutions and workplaces anymore. And even if they do, they are isolated cases and can be handled easily right? Well, that is not really true. Firstly what do you mean by modern? (This is also relevant to those of you who think ‘modern feminism makes no sense’). We all live in the modern age. But women don’t enjoy the same level of rights in practice (or even on paper) in every country. So when you are talking about modern, you mean a very limited (North American or European context). So do not conflate the two things.

But even in the European and North American context sexism exists. Although violence against women and sexual harassment continue to be problems, sexism has taken subtler forms in these developed contexts, including the gender pay gap and racial and gender biases in academic departments of universities. This link will lead you to the feminist propaganda site NPR, also called the National Public Radio. You may point out that in the NPR study that I have linked to you,  women professors and African-american professors treat women and African-american’s as badly as the others do. Sure. But sexism is not the prerogative of men only. Women are sometimes complicit in patriarchy, as minorities are in racism. That does not detract from the larger point that these behaviors have to go. Sexism is bad, irrespective of who is doing it. The fact that these behaviors have become subtler, makes them harder to tackle. Institutional bias against women, does not create the kind of furor rape does. Of course, the latter is graver, but the former still needs to be eradicated.

Now let us examine the issue of benevolent sexism. This category of sexism does lead to a lot of thorny debates because a) We live in a society that historically prized chivalry, and some of those social norms have stuck on b) People may be genuinely confused and think that to not be sexist requires them to treat women the same way as men c) People feel threatened by the mythical feminist jumping down their throat at every small thing.

I remember when I was young, someone told me that I could either pick feminism or chivalry, but I can’t have both. To my mind, this was a no brainer. I wanted to be treated as equal to men. I honestly saw no use for chivalry. But that does not mean that I want to be treated the same as men. There is a difference. What, pray, is the difference? Imagine an old person (gender unspecified) gets into a bus. They are carrying a few bags. I have a seat in the bus. I get up, and offer them the seat. I am treating them with respect, keeping their needs in mind. I do not treat a hulking man of 25 this way. This does not mean, in any way, that he is not equal to the old person. Notice how you can think people are equal, but treat them differently?

So, when you get up to offer a seat to a pregnant woman, it isn’t sexism. She probably needs to avoid jerks (of the literal kind). I would get up to offer a seat to a man who looked like he needed it. The same goes for holding doors. I hold doors for people, and feel nice when people hold doors for me. I invented a name for such behavior. I call it common decency.

But this does not mean benevolent sexism doesn’t exist. It exists when men will insist on paying for a woman every time, despite her requesting them not to. It exists when the worth of a woman’s work is judged by how perky she looks, when the industry in question is not the perkiness industry.  It exists when someone assumes that a woman is interested in trinkets and jewelry, when she might like bird-watching better. It exists even when women are stereotyped as ‘infinitely superior’ to men. No, they aren’t. They are regular people. It exists when women are shamed about the number of sexual partners they have, when it is nobody’s god damn business. It exists when women are told? ‘What? You don’t like kids, don’t worry you will change you mind in a couple of years.’ It exists when we can come up with no better response to a woman’s cogent argument than ‘She has been divorced three times’. It exists when a scientist finds no better shirt to wear, during  a televised press conference, than one with half naked women on it.  This is not to take away from his achievements. But really, wearing a shirt with women in lingerie on it, during an internationally televised event? Just ask yourself if this is respectful to the women in science? Forget about the whole sexism issue, and just ask ‘Gee, is it possible that my women colleagues might find this shirt (worn on this occasion) hurtful?. What am I trying to achieve by wearing this, on this particular occasion’ While we are on this issue, I love freedom of speech and expression. I just don’t think everything has to be said everywhere, and every urge has to be expressed everywhere.

But, you may object. Still not convinced. Aren’t some stereotypes true? Do you like trinkets? You will ask me. And if you do, isn’t the speech you made a bit hypocritical? Sure,I like trinkets. In fact I was over the moon when my boyfriend bought be pretty gold colored year-rings on out first anniversary. Some stereotypes are definitely true. But let me tell you something Chimamada Adiche, or the wise one (as I call her), said:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Yes, I like trinkets. But I don’t just like trinkets, and quite a few women I know don’t like them at all. And even if I was incredibly happy to get those pretty gold colored ear-rings, I was happier when he gifted me the Terry Pratchett book I was really pining for. Really, the power-saw on the third anniversary was the best gift ever. (Ok, I made up one of those three things. Go figure which one). The truth is that people are not single narratives. They are not their uterus. They are not the melanin level in their skin. They are not their disability. There aren’t any little boxes in which you can pigeonhole them, while doing justice to their person-hood.  And they deserve respect and consideration. And an essential part of respect is fairness. That radical notion that I should be treated equally, given equal circumstances.

Sometimes it may be hard. But here is a big tip:

No matter who you are dealing  with, respect and empathy goes a long way.