As a feminist, I believe in equality for all and freedom for women and men to do what they want. When I notice something sexist taking place around me, my first reaction is to point it out and explain why I believe it’s wrong. Whether it is the bill being handed to the male at the table, or the crass broadcast messages circulated on WhatsApp groups, sexism seems to be everywhere. I prided myself on never engaging in it, but as I started to pay more attention to my own behaviour and dialogue than to that of the people around me, I was confused and upset to notice subtle sexism in it too.
It was always easy to be exasperated with the sexism around me, but when it came to noticing my own inherent biases, it became much more challenging. It was then that I came into contact with the term ‘social conditioning.’ “Social conditioning is the sociological process of training individuals in a society to respond in a manner generally approved by the society in general and peer groups within society.”
as I started to pay more attention to my own behaviour and dialogue, I was upset to notice subtle sexism in it too.
When you grow up in a world that quite clearly gives preference to men over women, a small part of you, no matter how oblivious, will give into that tendency. If we grew up in a predominantly matriarchal society, instead of declaring that a person ‘has balls’ for behaving confidently or boldly, we would proudly exclaim that they “have a vagina!” Neither of these two options lead to an absence of sexism. Supremacy in favor of men or women is sexism all the same.
Also Read: A 101 Introduction To Internalized Misogyny
Here are a few examples of sexist phrases that I found myself and others unconsciously using almost on a daily basis, and thus contributing in sexist discourse. These phrases seem insignificant, but are the most telling of how deep-rooted gender bias is in Indian society.
“Sit like a lady.”
Once, I said this to my sister when she was sitting on a sofa with her legs spread out, and realized the consequence of it fifteen minutes later. After apologizing profusely, I told her to sit however she wants and not let anyone tell her to “sit like a lady” ever again. It implies crossing one’s legs and sitting with perfect posture as a demure and attentive ‘lady’ is what one is conventionally expected to do. This is said so casually among families and friends that the fact that we never tell boys to “sit like gentleman” is lost on us.
“Who wears the pants in this relationship?”
This question basically asks who the more commanding and powerful member of a relationship is. Of course we believe that power and strength when interacting with others is a quality simply possessed by men, who of course wear clothing that is only for their gender, all problematic assumptions in themselves.
“You’re a girl, you should know better.”
Frequently heard in class rooms around me, teachers assume that the female is inherently a more morally upstanding and wise person in comparison to males of the exact same age. This not only disregards an individual’s own strengths and weaknesses, but often results in the blame for an issue being placed on the girl, as “she should have known better.” Another similar statement is “we expect this from the boys.” By saying this, one completely ignores a boy’s culpability in a situation as it is apparently biologically pre-determined that he will be gullible or foolish, and thus cannot be blamed for a matter so out of his hands.
A phrase, I admit, I caught myself about to say more than once. To another woman.
This is another example of society attaching assertiveness and power with only men, leading us to asking both men and women to emulate an ideal of courage that only results in the emphasis of a gender bias. Men are constantly told to behave more aggressively and in a more stereotypically ‘male’ way, generating under-confidence in even the more privileged gender.
“Here, let me do it.”
Never have I heard this phrase more than on a school trip a few years ago that involved building a basketball court and playground for a small village school. Everyone was required to do their bit in contributing to the construction, assembly lines and partner systems were formed to optimize efficiency. I was a part of an assembly line of fifty people, passing stones from one side of a road to the other. I was reaching out to take the stone being passed from my right, when a male friend of mine cut across and grabbed it instead, very gallantly declaring, “Here, let me do it.”
His implication was that I needed help passing a fairly small stone over a distance of one foot. Not only was I enjoying the exercise but was also quite obviously physically stronger than him and in no need of help. Over the next few days, trolleys were taken from my hands, shovels snatched from my grip and trays lifted from my arms as my male peers went out of their way to “help me.” I understood their intentions, and knew none of them wanted to come across as demeaning or sexist and only “chivalrous” in the conventional meaning of the term. However, I couldn’t help but to feel like this belittling care-taking of all the enthusiastic and driven girls was unnecessary and counter-productive to the entire point of the trip.
These are only a few examples of the sexist phrases we make without realising it. While they may seem unimportant and less pressing matters in comparison to rape, the wage gap and dowry, they are parts of our dialogue with one another on a daily basis, and affect our perception of the genders to an unquantifiable extent. Only when we begin to notice the inherent sexism of such phrases and mannerisms, and consciously remove them from our vocabulary and behaviour, can dismantling sexism or gender stereotyping really begin.
Featured Image Credit: You Don’t Say Campaign