Understanding Sexism — Part 1: Narratives
“If you believe in equality, you are a feminist.” Emma Watson’s definition of feminism, and perhaps the most popular conception of the movement, is an alluring one. Maybe believing that men and women deserve equal rights is all it takes, is enough. Women can be liberated if we spread the message. The reality is far less forgiving. Sexism has grown far beyond the casual bigot and the closeted misogynist. It infects every corner of our reality, tearing into the foundations of our society. An infestation this advanced does not abate so readily.
The cornerstone of building an effective movement is understanding the enemy. We all know, understand, and recognize the most obvious forms of sexism: interpersonal sexism, both blatant and casual. Deliberate hatred towards women, obvious discrimination, the works. But misogyny goes deeper than just hating and attacking women. It exists in layers.
A very common form of sexism is the negotiation of rights and duties. Justifying discrimination under the garb of religion, culture, or tradition, for example. Women on their periods being banned from temples may not seem as vile as demanding dowry or endorsing child marriage, but they are all cut from the same cloth. It is not too difficult to realize that most of these traditions specifically disadvantage women, and almost never men.
Gender determinism is another. The unscientific narrative that men and women are more suited to certain tasks than to others, with men being better suited to work, and women better suited to taking care of the home, cooking, cleaning, etc. Most jobs today are not particularly physically demanding, and the difference in the ability of men and women in mental tasks and problem-solving remains an open field of research. However, irrespective of the results, predisposition to certain fields of work should be immaterial to anyone but the person choosing between those fields. The sexism here lies in usurping the decision-making process, justifying the denial of choices for women as a more rational decision.
Another interesting and connected form of sexism is unsolicited paternalism. The phenomenon of telling women what to do, or denying them certain rights on the premise that exercising them is detrimental to women. Smoking and drinking are common subject matter. Women are disproportionately judged and shamed for indulging in either. However, the most significant and dangerous forms of this can be seen in the policing of women’s clothing. Wearing revealing clothing is seen as an ‘invitation’ to sexual harassment or even assault, with parents often stopping their daughters from going out in them. Skipping over the fact that women have a right to wear what they wish, this policing is far more dangerous than meets the eye. It falsely shifts the blame for instances of sexual assault from the offender to the victim. The reason men feel so comfortable citing a woman’s clothing as a trigger for such instances is the overwhelming narrative that clothes are capable of ‘inducing innocent men to make a mistake’. It has the added effect of making victims feel responsible for the incident as well, resulting in a majority of instances of sexual harassment and assault going unreported.
Noticeably, the best of sexist narratives survived criticism by being spun in a way that they appear to be in support of women. Often, women themselves are not able to recognize the ulterior motive. The first step towards women’s liberation is being able to tell friend from foe.