Sunday, December 28, 2008

Man! I feel like a woman!

But not the way Shania intended it. I am violently forced to think of myself as a woman, defined through my body shape and my reproductive abilities. I'm visiting my hometown, where patriarchy still rules. In the first ten minutes of being there, two taxi drivers have already managed to remind me that patriarchal systems are all about oppression. It's the middle of the night, and two women head towards their car, passing by the two taxi drivers. There's no man around the two women, and this absence makes them vulnerable. The taxi drivers start making comments about the women. It doesn't matter to them the women could potentially be paying customers: they are - first and foremost - women. In other words, a prey. A prey to be verbally abused.

This was my entry into my hometown. At first, I felt angry. I'm no longer used to being labeled a 'woman'. I am no longer used with being approached and related to as a 'sexual object'. But can I start a fight with two men in the middle of the night in a parking lot? Maybe I should. Maybe I should tell them to shovel it. But I don't. The men know I won't. And even if I dare say something, they know they hold the upper hand: they'll only start calling me names and become more and more vulgar, reminding me of what I am to them - a sexual object. They'll laugh and make obscene sexual signs to me. And, if I piss them off too much, they may even cross that thin barrier that holds them back and start tossing me around like a toy. Because they can. So I swallow my anger, and I am left empty and humiliated. The only thing that could have saved me would have been the presence of a man around me. Then, and only then, the taxi drivers would show respect - but not to me, to the man to whom I (even if temporarily) belong.

I've been thinking about this incident for the past couple of days. I have been thinking about how this oppressive system rests upon the internalization of our gendered roles. And upon the humiliation of women. Anger giving way to powerlessness giving way to frustration giving way to humiliation giving way to numbness and conformity. There's nothing more powerful than taking away one's dignity. If the only way I am to preserve my dignity is to have a man of my own, then I'll do it, just as the other women before me have done it. That's what I'll tell my daughter, just as my mother has told me. Not because I want her to internalize the patriarchal rules of the game: but because I want her to be safe, to protect her from humiliation. Isn't this a vicious circle?


Kelsey said...

Out of curiousity - how about making her safe by teaching her to stand up for herself, instead? That's what my parents did, and it has worked out pretty well. Sure, when I was young, I got teased a lot, and didn't have too many friends, and I started a lot of fights, but now, as a young woman in my mid-twenties, I am very confident with who I am, and woe is anyone who tries to make me otherwise.

thinkingdifference said...

i see your point - and i'm sure in a north-american setting, i'd stand up for myself. but the setting i was describing happened somewhere in Eastern Europe. i've lived there for a long time, and my experience has been that when you try to stand up for yourself in terms of gender categories, you are even more violently attacked (verbally or physically). and when you feel that there's no help coming from anywhere, you learn to shut up and pretend you didn't hear or see. you see, i really think patriarchy is a systemic oppression: to affect it, you need to challenge the system. you need laws, you need a widespread awareness and social repudiation of certain patriarchal mentalities. otherwise, you learn to live with it. and it perverts you. but it's true, women who learned from an early age to stand up for themselves will never go back to the 'old' ways. and that's where change comes in...

Kelsey said...

Ah, yeah, your location definitely has something to do with it. Though, here in Korea where both sexism and confucianism are still in full swing, I get, say, pushed out of line by men all the time. I end up pushing them right back. ;) I'm not staying in this country permanently, so I could give a shit what people think of me. My students love to call me "dog girl" (in an insulting tone) because I like to play with the stray dogs on the island, and when I hear it in class, I usually come right back with something along the lines of "big nose" or "monkey face" or something similarly insulting. One advantage of being a foreigner here is that rather than getting in trouble, my co-teacher just chuckles and thinks it's cute.

And yes, the key to ultimately changing this is in children. Once enough children are taught to stand up for themselves, change will begin to happen.

I went to a very liberal college as well, one that went so far as to have various gender-neutral bathrooms around campus.

Lindsay said...

TD, until this post I never knew you were female. Indeed, I think I avoided mentally assigning you a gender at all.

That's very sad about what you experienced, and I think you're right that this kind of barely veiled physical intimidation and routine demoralization constitute most women's experience of oppression --- at least, in those countries where worse forms have been largely driven underground.

I will also echo Kelsey in saying that men do not scare me --- I was harassed a lot in middle school, so in high school I started lifting weights. A *LOT* of weights. I kept it up through college. I went from being stick-thin to weighing 180 pounds and being able to lift and carry people and things as big as me.

The funny thing is, I was a lot more paranoid and belligerent before radically altering my body than after. It's counterintuitive, given that testosterone (which strength-training increases) is thought of as the "aggressive hormone," but I became a very peaceful and serene person in high school, and am one still. It's like, now that I probably *could* win a fight, I have no reason ever to get in one. Which is fine.

Anyway, while everyone's body is different, and not everybody can turn into The Incredible Hulk (or She-Hulk) by pumping a bit of iron, I would like to emphasize that much of female defenselessness comes from socialization. Compared to other mammals, human men and women are fairly close in size, and the gap in muscle mass can be narrowed by exercise. But since girls are taught from birth that they mustn't get into trouble or do anything dangerous, messy, or unladylike, they do not learn to use their bodies in the same way boys do.

Kelsey said...

I was harrassed in middle school too, but I solved that by reminding the boys that I could outrun any of them (I was a track star), and, though it was probably not the best way to get my point across, I knocked out three bullies at one point. They pretty much left me alone at that point. HIlariously, one of the bully's mother called my mom to yell at her for raising a daughter that would do such a thing. I remember my mother's response to this day: "Are you sure your son would appreciate you making a big public deal out of the fact that he was knocked out by a girl?" and then hung up. My mom is awesome.

Anonymous said...


I was reading ur blog posts and found some of them to be very good.. u write well.. Why don't you popularize it more.. ur posts on ur blog ‘thinking difference’ took my particular attention as some of them are interesting topics of mine too;

BTW I help out some ex-IIMA guys who with another batch mate run where you can post links to your most loved blog-posts. Rambhai was the chaiwala at IIMA and it is a site where users can themselves share links to blog posts etc and other can find and vote on them. The best make it to the homepage!

This way you can reach out to rambhai readers some of whom could become your ardent fans.. who knows.. :)


thinkingdifference said...

Thanks Kelsey and Lindsay for your thoughts on this. I reflected a lot on that incident, as you can probably guess. And over the years, I thought a lot about feeling defenseless and being a woman - I agree, there is no reason why the two should be 'intrinsically connected'. But in my case they are, probably because I was raised in a patriarchal context, I am a rather petite person and I was always reminded (sometimes in a very harsh way) that I'm rather weak physically. I think socialization plays a huge, huge role in this - from shaping your body (never played any sports myself) to shaping your mind. And most importantly, creating a context of 'what is accepted'/ 'what is expected'.

Kelsey said...

I think that something that may have contributed to me developing the way I did (in that I have no innate desire to conform, or necessarily to rebel, but instead just to be myself and that everyone else can just deal with that) is that I had very little socialization as a kid. I was an only child, and while I had a few friends (who were also tomboys), I was not a very social person. I never really felt the need to have friends - I was actually generally happier playing on my own. So, I never really went through all that existential angst that most people seem to go through about wanting to fit in, so that they will have friends.

Also, I have added you to my blogroll, by the way.

- Driftingfocus

Add to Technorati Favorites