How Far Have We Gone?

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“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” I was reading Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray again, and my eyes caught these lines. No sooner than I’d read it, my thoughts shifted to the last time I read a comment about how a woman belongs in the kitchen.

The portrayal of a woman as the ‘non-aggressive’ and ‘dependent’ individual who is best in the kitchen and worst behind the wheels, or when in power, is a stereotype that has been around for a very long time.

As a woman , more often than not, I’ve been regarded as a rebel of sorts if I did not stick to the stereotypical ideals of being an ‘indecisive’ species, or if I did not adhere to being a passive individual.

Being a woman does not mean being a symbol of exclusion, that’s what everyone says. But in the end, classification never ceases to exist. A ‘lady’ is generally a representation of an ideal role that a woman ought to embrace, although its very definition is patriarchal – a gentle, emotional, dependent, nurturing person. Any other quality is portrayed as a rebellion, or a liability, in some cases a ‘bad girl’ (generally referring to the capricious individuals of the sex), and in the worst cases, the ‘able woman’ who possesses all male abilities and is regarded as the most dangerous female type of all.

One of the other stereotypes I’ve faced in my own life are the comments from the fellow people on the road who saw a woman driving. Full of depreciation and doubt, I’ve learned to lend them no ears, as have most women who can drive, but the root cause of the remarks is very vague to me. Why can’t, without letting out gasps of disbelief or shrieks of shock, a casual outlook be rendered if a women is seen driving?

Media too contributes greatly to gender stereotyping against women. While male actors advertise cars and technologically advanced gadgets, women dominate the area of domestic appliances-related ads, or cosmetic products. Such double standards exist because that’s the general consensus of ideas of people, and how things ought to be.

Every time I’m asked if I like pink, simply because I’m a girl, it irks me a little. Why do I have to like the colour pink? Is it because I give the impression that I find the colour attractive, or is it simply because I’m a girl? There’s another scenario in which the same question is answered with a meek ‘yes’, the girl is expected to be an epitome of feminine qualities of being a dainty, fragile creature. Any different and you’re either a rebel, or a tomboy, or both.

The thrust of stereotyping is felt even harder to those who register on matrimonial websites. Under the ‘Brides Wanted’ category, it almost always begins with ‘fair, beautiful, educated, homely…’ and so on. Notice the first criteria? ‘Fair’. How advanced can we call ourselves if we label physical beauty with the melanin content of skin? ‘Homely’. Yet another patriarchal stereotype that has seeped into the mindset of some stratas of women too, who consider the primary interest in parenthood and family planning to be a noble sign of an ‘ideal’ wife.

In India, there exists an overt stigma against women who are unable to conceive. The very basic identity of a woman is not as an independent individual, but the possibility of she becoming a mother. Fertility is a two-way process and even in cases where it is the male, who is not the potent contributor, the judgemental eyes and shunning depreciation lash upon the woman.

I had read an article about The Cult of True Womanhood that arose between 1820 and 1860.
“The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbours, and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity”.

A couple of centuries earlier, in the mock-epic, The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope, the female protagonist is portrayed as an epitome of physical beauty, masked with vanity, and tempered with grace. However, she is not portrayed as an example of an ‘ideal woman’ simply because she, on having two locks of her hair cut off by a devious Lord, protests the action vehemently. The basic emotion of ‘anger’, which goes against the expected virtue of ‘submissiveness’, denies Belinda, the protagonist, of the position of a ‘true woman’.

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There are, of course, cases in which stereotyping the female sex knows no bounds. Women are, in the present day, treated as if they will be unsuccessful in a testosterone-dominated workspace environment. A few years back, suicides of capable women officers of the Indian Army surfaced the news. Bright, brilliant women ended their lives after suffering from depression, mostly because despite their qualifications and abilities, they were looked down upon, and treated as individuals with ‘personality weaknesses’, ‘low self esteems’, ‘lacking confidence’, and such other insensitive reasons.

“For every woman who is tired of being a sex object,
there is a man who must worry about his potency.
For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes,
there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.”
These lines by Nancy Smith instill the idea of junking stereotypes against women and portray the double standards that the ‘fairer sex’, so to speak, faces all the time.

And the original comment about stereotyping women, saying that we belong in the kitchen, that I came across on a social networking site, a woman rightly replied to it by saying – “That’s where the knives are.”

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  • Akshina Banerjee

    Loved it! I have always seen that women are equated with femininity and men with masculinity. The fact that feminine does not necessarily mean female and masculine does not necessarily mean men escapes even the best of minds. The only time we all can be equal is the time when we start to understand that every human being is a beautiful blend of both femininity and masculinity – in some one feature is stronger than the other. Thus, we have to understand that the characteristics should never be generalized, they are very individual-centric.

  • Nupur Chowdhury

    A very thought-provoking article! While I have been relatively lucky, in that I am yet to experience direct discrimination from the people around me, the point about discrimination against female drivers does strike a chord. Even in a metropolitan city like Kolkata, it is endemic! I was learning to drive just a couple of months ago, and while I was never personally targetted by such narrow-minded people, I saw such incidents happening everywhere. One ray of hope that really brightened my mood, however, was the fact that most of the students attending the driving class with me were young girls, almost all of whom were first-generation drivers! We can only hope that when these young women take to the road in a few years, mindsets will change faster than they have so far!

  • Avigyan Chakraborty

    Composition is good. Topic chosen is also good. You have to wait for the conversion of the societal structure from patriarchal to matriarchal. There are too many fools moving in the streets.

  • Avinash Khilnani

    Very well written Diya!