There are a lot of don’ts when it comes to a woman simply existing in the world. Don’t sit with your legs uncrossed. Don’t talk back to elders. Don’t seem too friendly with men. Don’t wear revealing clothes. Society tries to control how women communicate, dress, sit, travel — basically, live their lives. Since these rules can’t be expressed blatantly as the way to control women, they are dressed up and presented as social etiquette. And how do you consider if a person is decent and ‘well-bred’? By their etiquette and their ability to adhere to its arbitrary rules. Thus, making class also a part of these gendered rules. So, the concept of gendered etiquette not only creates a gap between gender and defining gender roles, but also maintains the gap between social classes.
Gender-specific etiquette has led to generations of societal silence around outrages committed against women. It doesn’t matter if being polite kills you. The onus of decency has always fallen on the woman or else they might be considered “unladylike”, while men can continue with vulgarity and endangering women.
So, the concept of gendered etiquette not only creates a gap between gender and defining gender roles, but also maintains the gap between social classes.
Seymour Parker, professor of anthropology in the American Anthropologist, says, “The ritual of gender etiquette is an institutionalized social performance whose smallest constituents — or symbols — serve as vehicles for the transmission of socially normative meanings of gender”. According to him, the need to go along with traditional gender manners is linked with a need for clear gender-role boundaries. Thus, social etiquette imposed on women are born out of patriarchal notions of gender, and it is significant in defining and further deepening of gender roles in society.
Etiquette essentially rose out of the need to tell women how to conduct themselves in the places that they traditionally don’t belong in, like while travelling, or at workplaces, or at parties. Thus, it is based on women feeling like they are living in borrowed spaces as if their mobility in the world is a mistake and requires constant speculation.
This is also clear in a text published in the Manchester University Press written by Emma Robinson-Tomsett that describes the ‘journey etiquette’ curated to women travellers between 1870 and 1940. “Decorum and respectability had to be maintained, echoing the elegant, proper, decent image of women journeyers promoted by transport companies,” writes the author. “By adhering to their guidance on dress, demeanour, and conversation, etiquette writers suggested women journeyers could avoid becoming the subject of damaging gossip that could lead to social ostracism.”
It was between 1870 and 1940 that Robinson-Tomsett had written these etiquette instructions, the patriarchal etiquette of the past still linger in contemporary society. It can be seen in the way society sexualizes girls at a young age, and then ironically teaches them to contain their sexuality so as not to make others uncomfortable. They are taught to be polite, not to talk back or challenge authority. Women are even shamed if their undergarments peek out of their clothes, which has given rise to a list of etiquette rules about how to sit, walk and dress. Thus, it is clear that discomfort with the agency of women has led society to control them with etiquette.
Etiquette essentially rose out of the need to tell women how to conduct themselves in the places that they traditionally don’t belong in, like while travelling, or at workplaces, or at parties.
Women in Japan are still fighting to be free of heels in the workplace. Being required to wear heels in a workplace indicates a professional environment that takes patriarchal dressing etiquette for granted. Blaming the victim for rape also arises from this conditioning of etiquette of modesty, blaming it on wearing certain kinds of clothes or consuming alcohol. Even centuries after when the first etiquette books were written, society still makes women feel like they live in borrowed spaces.
Most of the etiquette is a standard of propriety that makes little sense, and that enables people to make unfair assumptions about someone’s character. It builds a lot of burden specifically on women. It is time to free women from the rules that restricts their mobility and self-expression, because they own the public space as much as anyone else.
Featured Image Source: Wonder