Happy Women’s Day: A field guide to finding yourself

On quiet misogyny and the trouble with respectability.

Written by Bee Rowlatt | Published:March 5, 2017 12:00 am

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Here’s a letter to all you urban bros and venerable gentlemen who hate misogyny and believe in respecting the ladies. I’ve got news for you. And I’ve got a favour to ask. This might seem a bit much, but, perhaps, you’ll take a moment, seeing as we women are celebrating our very own special Women’s Day and all.

Everybody knows and recognises the bad stuff. Old-school hatred of women is not hard to spot. A girl’s clothes get torn. Yet another woman is hounded off social media. Women are scared to go out at night. Women are told to be scared to go out at night. Girls go hungry. Girls can’t find a toilet. We see these things every day, and every civilised human hates them.

This letter is asking you to look beyond that. There’s another misogyny, a more tricky, less visible kind. Amartya Sen writes about the “quiet violence” committed against girls. Well there’s a “quiet misogyny”, too. Like a low-level carbon monoxide leak, this misogyny is hard to see, to identify, to locate. It may not create a stink, but it’s all around us and it’s not good for anyone. So, let’s take a closer look.

“Hold on,” you might be forgiven for thinking. “I already nod sagely in agreement with Beti bachao, and tweeted the other day that evil rapists should be hanged. What does she want now?” Only this: we need to start talking about the quiet stuff, the less visible stuff. And even more uncomfortably, we need to start finding it in our own behaviour.

You may have heard terms such as unconscious bias and microaggression. These are things said and done, often in good faith, by people who don’t necessarily mean any harm. People like you, me, and everyone we know. It’s stealth discrimination and it comes camouflaged in politeness. Why do such things matter? Because all of these said and done things gradually add up. Because quiet misogyny is the embryo of the really bad stuff, it’s the birthplace of loud misogyny. It’s all on the same continuum.

The notions of respect and respectability are key to quiet misogyny. Often when people claim to “respect” women, it’s conditional. It requires the keeping up of certain appearances. This can be unhelpful. Here are a few real-time and commonplace examples of what “respectability” looks like: Traditional dress is conflated with safety for women; motherhood is placed on a quasi-religious pedestal; working women are encouraged not to take risks; MBA toppers end up being “homemakers”; Girls are told to sit nicely.

All these scenarios come from a particular place, a place of respectability. As the poet Audre Lorde writes, “We are taught to respect fear more than ourselves.” The fear of appearing disreputable can make it harder for women to speak out, or to challenge expectations.

This place of respectability is populated with the kind of men who delight in calling themselves gentlemen. It echoes with the sound of their voices. Gentlemanly misogyny sweeps off its hat and bows in respect for ladies; quiet, fragrant, fluttering ladies. When what we need is space and consideration for women. Hardworking, courageous, self-fulfilled women who wear any kind of clothes at any time of day.

Quiet misogyny is so ingrained that even the most enlightened of women aren’t immune. Shikha Makan’s excellent documentary, Bachelor Girls, examines the plight of single women trying to rent a place to live. Time after time they’re ousted, by means both subtle and downright toxic. The villains are, of course, the judgmental landlords, but there’s something troubling in their victims’ pleas for respectability. Almost without exception, the women — from diverse backgrounds — insist that they’re “from good families.”

What about young women from bad families — don’t they need accommodation even more? Either single women are allowed rental housing or they are not. Invoking the idea of respectability is an easy defence, but it’s one that harmonises too closely with bigotry.

Ultimately, it’s on those of us with privilege — of any sort — to begin noticing and naming quiet misogyny wherever we find it. If you’re privileged enough to be reading a newspaper article then you’ve got a headstart. You’re in a position to set the tone, both socially and professionally. So here’s where we get to the favour-asking part. (Bear with me. It’s a whole year until women get their very own day again.) For starters, don’t talk over female colleagues; don’t talk over women and girls in your house; don’t put your hand there when you talk to junior colleagues. And, please, stop the mansplaining.

Mansplaining? It’s the act of talking down to, or over, a woman. And it’s not some trivial hashtag for elite women with their urban feminist ways. No. It’s a universal experience that has only recently found a name. Remember the US election debates? In which a thin-skinned bully repeatedly interrupted a well-behaved woman wearing a rictus smile? Mansplaining is the one experience that Hillary Clinton has in common with all girls and women everywhere, from Bihar to Bradford.

Mansplaining is a peerless example of quiet misogyny. Women are expected to ignore it, preferably with a patient and winning smile, on a daily basis, so that we don’t seem shrill. It’s the face of the persistent power relationship; it’s that continuum again. (I’d gladly womansplain the continuum but you get the point.)

So those are some random “Don’ts”. There are also a few “Do-s”:

Do speak out, and do act. Instead of just observing or refraining from these “gentlemanly” gaffes, take them on. If a female colleague is gallantly reassured she needn’t consider a foreign posting because “what about her family?”, you could point out which men in the room also have families (all of them). And wouldn’t it be cool if it happened to be a man who asked his colleagues why the sexual harassment policy isn’t put up on the office walls? It’s the law, after all.

Small acts like these take the burden off women, who otherwise end up seeming like nagging harridans. (Trust me, it’s boring for us too.) It takes nothing from you, but it could mean the world to someone else who’s afraid to speak out. Tackling quiet misogyny is important and it’s worth it. You don’t even have to be the new Mary Wollstonecraft or Ismat Chughtai — you just have to not do nothing.

Bee Rowlatt is a journalist and the author of In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys.

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