Wednesday, 25 July 2012

On 'Natural', 'Necessary' And Change

One of the worst power oppression has is that the longer it prevails, the more it tends to get normalized. The more it's various forms and consequences appear like "that's just how things are". And the more 'normal' it becomes, the stronger a backlash it raises to anyone who questions or tries to change the situation. Because after all, you are working against what is considered an 'inevitable reality'.
Where and how did it start from, how universal is it, what would an alternative be like, all get conveniently hidden behind the facade of convincing naturalness.

From this point, oppression thrives by not just seeming natural, but in many cases necessary too. When someone brings to attention that women are overwhelmingly responsible for household duties or that they routinely face discrimination at the workplace, the immediate response is hardly to acknowledge the injustice itself but to defend it's being by saying, "oh well men face discrimination too, like the burden of providing for the family, so what's the big deal. Isn't that how a society keeps moving?" Sure. A society will definiltely go on even if it is at the expense of locking up half of it's inhabitants behind invisible (sometimes visible) bars. Slavery in America, for example, didn't put the American society itself into stagnation, it still had it's share of economic and political development. What it prevented was the progress of people of color and their rights to basic needs like freedom and safe living. What it held back (and still does although not in ways as brutal as slavery) was the advancement of a section of the society, whose deprivation not only harmed them but also denied many positive improvements for the society as a whole.

The question here is not whether a society would progress with/without gender oppression. The question here is how you define progress and what kind of a society would want to progress with it. If we think of progress merely in terms of industrial boom, acquiring latest weapons of war or increased national income, it doesn't speak much about the conditions of it's citizens, especially those marginalised. If women are treated like second class citizens, usable and disposble property for men, denied of equal rights and opportunities, aborted for being female, married off without consent before reaching adulthood, portrayed primarily as sexual objects in the media for male gaze, made to hate and give up control over their own bodies and sexuality by patriarchal religions, routinely harassed, stereotyped, underestimated and considered incapable of competition or achievement, what progress are we talking about? And how much progress can a nation achieve even if only in terms of economic development if we don't fully utilize half of it's human resource? The positive correlation between the the improved status of women in a country and it's higher level of development is one that cannot be ignored. And perhaps a question worth wondering what happens when India remains so bad for women.

(I clicked this pic from my sociology textbook, sorry if it's not
clear. The chains that tie her: economic insecurity, dowry,
traditional expectations/attitudes, early marriage, wage
discrimination, household chores, gender role stereotyping,
food discrimination, amniosentesis, and illiteracy).

Speaking about oppression being just a 'natural' aspect of social reality as the society 'moves on', a society that uses this as a driving force isn't a good one to begin with. There is something wrong at it's very core that requires change. If men have to bear the burden of being the sole bread-winner or play the major role in meeting the family's financial needs, it is because women have been denied from sharing that responsibility equally. It could be because they have been denied education, the opportunity and freedom to pursue a career or to simply put it, be 'equal' partners with their husbands. This is the product of "patriarchy, the social system characterised by male-centredness, male-dominance, male-identification and an obsession with control" (Allan G. Johnson). It is not an individual person, it is not a 'they' or 'us'. It is system of society we live and participate in, one that places men above women, one in which men are the default and women are the 'other' (we don't say "men's" football match, we automatically assume its a men's match when we talk about one whereas for women's we do, terms like "mankind" when used to refer to 'human beings' etc). It is a system that gives utmost importance to power and dominance and identifies these with maleness whereas femaleness and its associated attributes are devalued ("stop crying like a girl", "man up", etc). Patriarchy survives through the use of control, through rigid heterosexual-identification and punishing deviations from it's narrow norms or anyone who even vaguely points to it's existence. This is carried out by simply denying that it exists or at the worst by treating the pointer as 'crazy' or extremist. 

Patriarchy is not men, although it largely depends on men to keep itself going. Since it is male-identified and male-centered, anybody questioning it is in essence questioning male privilege. This is why most men see feminists as "man-haters", you know rather than "male-glorifying-female-devaluing-system-haters"? (rarely does it occur to them about how many men are feminists too). Because no matter how lightly we approach the issue of patriarchy, at some point it is bound to hit home, it is bound to evoke the realzation of how closely tied it is with men. And since most people's understanding of gender is as something biological rather than cultural, any attack on patriarchal attributes like aggression, control, emotional dissociation, toughness, being in power, etc is seen as an attack on every men personally. This misunderstanding puts a lot of women on the defensive side against feminism too, because who would want to live in constant rebellion with the very people you have to spend your entire life with/amongst? Nobody has to, but sadly, hardly anyone realizes that.

No system simply is. It is moulded, shaped and transformed by how we participate in it, whether consciously or not. It is reflected in every bit of our culture, be it language, television, newspapers, religion, education, family, art etc. Everyone's participation is mandatory, the only thing we can choose is how to do so. Privilige is not something to be ashamed of because you didn't get it by choice, it is something to be aware of. I have come to understand my 'white privilige' so when get someone telling me about my 'fairness' or come talking about "fairness creams", I now make it a point to tell them how beauty isn't about only 'one' color and that dark skin is in no way ugly. I may get "you're weird" looks/reactions, but still it sets a spark and besides, such reactions won't come from someone who values 'people' beyond their appearance. When you laugh at rape jokes, you promote the idea that rape is a laughable thing, that rape doesn't really matter. When you tell women to not "ask for it" by dressing 'modestly', you promote the acceptance of the idea of male-domination and female-submission. When you segregate toys for girls as dolls and doll-houses and those for boys as puzzles and cognitive skill building games, you prevent girl children from developing interests in math or science which in turn makes them internalize a belief that they cannot be as good as boys in these subjects, and thereby upholding the popular misconception. All of this and many more like these contribute in giving patriarchy a longer lifespan and keeping a better society at a more farther reach. 

Progress of a nation should be marked by the integration and improvement of all communities in it. Change begins at the individual level but without understanding larger systems and working towards transforming them as well, there will be little scope for social progress.

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