Of sexism and male privilege

Any bid by men to tell women what to do or not to do is basically sexism

August 17, 2016 12:05 am | Updated December 05, 2021 09:18 am IST

Tabish Khair

Tabish Khair

When >Khizr Khan, whose son died fighting for the U.S. , accused Donald J. Trump at a speech during the Democratic National Convention of “not sacrificing anything”, Mr. Trump lashed out with characteristic belligerence and cultural imperialism. He claimed that the dead soldier’s father had delivered the entire speech because his mother was not “allowed” to speak.

In making that claim, Mr. Trump regurgitated one of the oldest colonial tropes about Muslims — that Muslim women have no rights. Of course, it is easy for Mr. Trump’s supporters to extrapolate from the situation of the >Islamic State or Wahhabis , who do impose draconian limitations on the rights of women, to all Muslim women. It is also easy for someone like me to point out that such extrapolation is wrong and so generalising as to be racist: historically and currently, Muslim women have lived and continue to live in many different ways. It is also easy for Mr. Trump’s detractors to point out that the Republican candidate is no feminist himself: he has consistently taken stands that are considered anti-women by gender activists, and his pronouncements often betray a hugely male ego. The fact that he admires Vladimir Putin, as macho a man as any in international politics, is no coincidence.

Resentment against gender equality However, unintentionally, Mr. Trump has highlighted a matter that is seldom discussed in mainstream media: gender rights. The fact remains that certain strands of sexism and male privilege run through not just Mr. Trump’s core constituency but also, evidently, Islamism, Hindutva, etc. Actually, one can say that the most powerful and reactionary political forces today — even when they are opposed to each other — are united by the subterranean or open existence of male privilege and/or anger and resentment against gender equality.

A writer and thinker I greatly admire recently noted in an email to me that >globalisation has “obliterated the spatial and temporal reference points that were indispensable to both political analysis and action. In other words, the relatively coherent communities within which one could fix responsibility or blame and diagnose a mode of corrective action have dissolved. There is now a free-floating individualist rage instead.” I cannot put it any better, and the question arises: is there any way, in the current situation, to reconstruct a relatively coherent community within which one can diagnose a mode of corrective action, a solution, so to say?

Maybe there is: gender. From a gendered perspective, the various and seemingly random (sometimes even antagonistic) political eruptions of today come to present a rather united face — and can, as such, enable a coherent response. It is the face of a Man. That we fail to see this surely has something to do with the fact that much of the worrying about the world today is done by men, like me. The esotericism of some branches of feminism in recent decades has not helped us see better either.

Because if one looks at it all from a simple and simply gendered perspective, something fascinating and obvious has been happening.

I recently had a conversation with some East European women about the Soviet days. As most of them were as old as me, or older, they remembered the Soviet Union — and what it had meant for them in what is today Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Though critical of Soviet communism, all of them stressed the fact that women’s rights were taken much further in those days — and regretted that since then there have been obvious signs of backsliding. Mr. Putin is probably not the biggest culprit there, but his persona too is based on the resurgence of male, macho myths, and over much of ex-USSR older and more traditional >forms of gender relationships are being propagated in the name of religion and nationalism.

Mr. Trump, with his trophy wives, his Republican opposition to forms of family planning, his big male ego, is no different. Actually, the inherent sexism of the U.S. is evident in the fact that Mr. Trump, despite his incoherence and dubious past, is considered more trustworthy than Hillary Clinton by Republicans: a man, we know, inspires more confidence than a woman in sexist spaces. If Ms. Clinton had been thrice-divorced, like Mr. Trump, she would have had no chance of becoming a presidential candidate, let alone the champion of ‘family values’ as Mr. Trump seems to be for many Americans. I need hardly adduce the example of other leaders of the great ‘backlash’ in recent years, such as the Italian, Silvio Berlusconi.

I would be the last person to claim that Islamic fundamentalism does not have sexist tendencies: any bid by men to tell women what to do or not to do is basically sexism, at least unless the very same restrictions are applied to men too. So, no, you cannot go about in shorts or denim jeans and claim that your women have just ‘chosen’ to wear versions of the hijab. As for the Hindutva crowd, can we conveniently forget the times when they have roughened up women for not wearing ‘Indian’ clothes or going to a bar, and propagated a repressive ideal of womanhood?

A common factor In all these cases, you have a common factor: men trying desperately to latch on to unfair privileges, or reacting with anger and resentment against real or perceived loss of male privileges. All these disparate movements are fed by men who believe in their ‘superiority’, and women who make such men possible — whether these are trophy wives who bat their false eyelashes at the idiotic statements of their husbands, mothers who save the best dishes for their sons, or wives who wear what their husbands decree in the name of religion or culture.

Once we come to see the ‘great backlash’ in this light, it (and even ‘individualist rage’) makes sense — and this might enable us to work towards a solution. The solution, in short, is to strengthen the rights of women globally, to ensure that they get exactly the same space for education, work and living as the men do.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

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