Breaking the rules of the gender game

A June 2009 file photo from Tehran shows woman supporter of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, standing next to a poster of him, whistling, as she films an election rally at the Heidarnia stadium AP Photo  

I’m a whistler; I’ve been one for a long time now. But the deciding moment, when I knew that it had to become an inseparable part of my ever-shifting identity, was at the age of ten when a teacher at the ‘alternative’ school I went to commanded me to cease my exalted exhalations. “How unladylike!” she said, and all at once I was introduced to this alien concept. There was apparently a world in which ‘ladies’ didn’t whistle and unless I learnt the rules of this strange place soon, there was a distinct possibility of my being left in an unladylike lurch. Not knowing any better, I decided to take my chances and went my whistlesome way.

In retrospect it seems quite apt that I should’ve had my first gender-minder in school, for gender is something that we are schooled into. Not because the process happens in school alone, but because it is a deliberate and systematic drawing up of boundaries and definitions within which the genderless child must learn to box itself into, much like the rest of formal education. Once we’re at home in the construct provided to us, we’re given our gender roles, taught our places and instructed not to cross the line. Soon it becomes an unquestioned part of us and we accept that the world is divided into masculine and feminine, with some even claiming the two belong to altogether different planets.

We see these messages all around us, whether it’s in politics, sport, entertainment, advertising, media, religion, you name it. We’re constantly being told how to be ‘a man’s man’ or ‘a woman of substance’ – but have you ever wondered why everyone seems to feel the need to constantly tell us how it’s done? If it was so natural, shouldn’t it be more self-explanatory? Why does our gender come with so many ‘Instructions for use’? Feminists across the world have been asking us these questions for over sixty years but their voices have often been drowned out in a sea of submissiveness. The questions though keep coming.

In a thought-provoking talk on the notion of masculinity to the Minnesota Men’s Action Network, Robert Jensen, Journalism professor at the University of Texas and a feminist, set out a simple exercise for people to try. If a small boy came up to you and asked what it means to be a man, what qualities would you list? The audience responded with words like affectionate, respectful, independent, sensitive, supportive, and helpful. These he pointed out were the idealised definitions of masculinity, while the dominant culture, which represents the established and prescribed forms of behaviour, customs and communication in society, answers the question in a very different way. In its scheme of things, men must be assertive, aggressive, competitive, unemotional and born with a sense of entitlement. It is this disconnect that lays bare the process of socialisation and the gap we must bridge if we are to move towards a gender-just society.

When the exercise is taken to its logical conclusion, we find that all the qualities listed as idealised definitions of masculinity are actually our understanding of what it means to be a decent human being. Can we therefore, confidently state there are certain qualities exclusive to men and others exclusive only to women? This isn’t to say there are no differences between the sexes, but to question whether these differences are so fundamental as to divide us.

In many ways it is the warped notion of manhood, or mardangi, which lies at the heart of the matter. The one that peddles sexist ideas such as testicles equals courage or spouts dialogues like ‘ Mard hai to dikha!’ (If you’re a man prove it!) or believes that control over others is a way of life. This is what social theorists refer to as ‘toxic masculinity’, a patriarchal mindset, whose central tenet is domination, whether it is over human beings, nature, nations or just a parking spot. Don McPherson, a former sportsperson and now an outspoken feminist, believes that today “We don’t raise boys to be men. We raise them not to be women or gay men.”

One of the ways in which this mindset is created is through language. For years now linguists concerned with issues of gender have been pointing to the massive male bias in our daily conversations. The de-facto use of the male pronoun and as linguist Dale Spender puts it the ‘male-as-norm’ structure of the idiom, may seem to be just a matter of convenience, but it is more than that. It promotes the notion of men being the sole subject of language while everything else is just a suffix, an add-on, of no value to the words themselves. In her remarkable book ‘Man Made Language’, Spender observes that words that degrade and insult women far outnumber those that diminish men. In fact the ultimate insults that can be hurled at men who are not stereotypically male are all either female-coded or homophobic words.

This sort of violence in language and ideas is not representative of all men and is harmful to them as well. It is in acknowledgment of this that an increasing number of men (and women) are now coming together to create counter-narratives to the dominant view of masculinity by accepting, discussing and creating new ideas on manhood, gender and sexuality. The ‘Skirt the Issue’ campaign in Bangalore this January, where a group of young men took to the streets in skirts to counter the notion that rape is tied to a woman’s choice of apparel, was one such conscious and creative action. Interestingly, parts of the media and academia seem to be lagging behind in this pluralistic initiative with theories on ‘Masculinity in crisis’ abounding, as if it were an endangered monument in need of state support. Why isn’t ‘femininity’ ever in crisis? Surely, ‘puberty’ would be a more likely candidate for something that sounds so hormonal and full-blown?

Further, the people doing the work of rethinking our gender relations and consciously resisting sexist stereotypes openly admit their indebtedness to the feminist struggle, with many more people, especially men, now calling themselves feminists. People are beginning to see that the portrayal of women, who advocate gender justice, as ugly, man-hating, bra-burners, is a deliberate attempt to keep things as they are. Those whose interests are served by sustaining a male-dominated, unequal society see any questioning of their self-appointed authority as a threat. They welcome more laws, policing, armies and weapons, since it gives them more opportunities for muscle-flexing and a false sense of security, but are less open to structural changes that require dialogue and compassion, which they know would ultimately lead to them losing power and control.

But the voices of change are gradually getting louder and louder. An inspiring instance of this is the ‘Who Needs Feminism?’ campaign that began at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, but has since caught on in many other places, including some close to home, like Lahore. A student-led initiative, the campaign consists quite simply of a series of photographs of people holding up signs stating their reasons for supporting feminism. The range of responses is fascinating with some rejecting the objectification of human beings, being judged on the basis of appearances instead of intelligence, or living with the constant fear of sexual assault, while others talk of needing to confront their own privileges, questioning the present power structures and striving for equality. The one that sums things up quite neatly, paraphrasing activist Lilla Watson’s words, is by a male student. It reads: ‘I need feminism because my liberation is bound up with yours’.

This spirit of coming together is what is evident around us today; the understanding that the fight is no longer about women alone, but for a collective future in which no one has power over another.

Neerja Dasani is a freelance writer

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 11:22:14 AM |

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