A Mans’ World

“You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.” MayaAngelou

Last year, I had decided to move to Adelaide, a city I had never been to before, didn’t know anyone and had no idea what to expect. It was a conscious decision in search of a new adventure. I found a beautiful place to stay, bought a car that I love (very vain! I know), made a couple of friends (covid doesn’t like friendships), hiked the hills, walked the beaches, all the while managing a highly demanding job. I didn’t enjoy the part of dealing with the car sales agents though. Don’t take their word for anything.

Once I had settled into my new city, I looked up for a Vipassana centre, and it was only an hours’ drive. I signed up for a short 3 day vipassana course.

Vipassana is run by volunteers and I haven’t had a chance yet to volunteer. The only thing I have been able to do was offer a lift for anyone needing one, since more often these centers are remote. I put up an offer of lift. A guy and another girl, both Indian, reached out.

Even before I started, I knew I would hear the words “do you want me to drive” from the guy. I didn’t know him, but I had no doubt. Four decades of living in a patriarchal structure prepares you for what to expect. On the scheduled day, he arrived. Before we set out, he casually mentions, ‘we can share driving if you get tired’. It was a 2 hour drive :). I said I am usually good for about 4 or 5 hours.

Lo and behold, 5 minutes into the drive, the first turn I missed, I heard the words ‘do you want me to drive’. I replied no, I am fine. The offer was repeated at least 4 times in the next hour, despite me mentioning that I am prone to motion sickness and prefer the driver seat. I picked up the other girl, and she didn’t have the same confidence issues the guy had on my driving.

At some point my GPS lost connection for a bit and the navigation played up. Apparently I took a less direct route, but I had no way of knowing. Besides, I couldn’t care less because it was a beautiful drive and it still takes me to the destination. Of the 3 of us, he was the only one who had been to the center before . But instead of suggesting the route, he kept up with an unhelpful ‘where are we going’ every 15 minutes with a frustrated sigh!

Apparently women are perfectly capable of driving themselves around when there are no men around, but the moment a man joins, it becomes his prerogative to takeover. When you decline it, the frustration shows in one form or other, in this case, his unhelpful annoyance on the route. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been equally frustrated at a male driver who offered him a lift. He still kept up a friendly banter though.

Don’t get me wrong. He was one of the ‘nice’ guys. The ones that are polite, friendly and seemingly considerate. He helped me put up the sun guard for the car, carry my bags, and can have a decent conversation which involves a woman speaking too. But, he somehow expected me to be grateful and take up his offer to drive.

Men would prefer to believe it as chivalry, instead of seeing it for what it is. The stereotype on women driving is so deeply seeped that most of them don’t even realise how sexist they sound, even when they think they are complimenting. My first love was my scooter, and anyone who knew me knew my deep seated love of driving. My scooter felt like ‘freedom’, and I breezed through the roads.  But the number of times I’ve heard things like “you drive like a man”, “for a girl, you drive pretty good”, from well meaning family and friends, where even my dumb brain, and theirs, thought it was a compliment until I realised it wasn’t.

How did compliments meant for women were always a compliment for men, but insults to men were actually insulting to women (‘wear the bangles’ ‘stay at home like a woman’).

The other pet peeve of my fellow meditator was his children and having a family. From the time he set foot in the car, he talked about how difficult it is to meditate or do anything when you have children. I totally sympathise with it. Parenting is not an easy job and it changes your life, and I repeatedly affirmed that. As someone who has a degree of self-awareness, I knew I could never be a parent or want to be one.

Unfortunately for most Indians, becoming a parent is a milestone to get through rather than a life changing decision that should have been thought through. My fellow meditator however attributed the problem to no longer having the ‘óh so lovely joint families’. He proceeds to explain to me how raising children was never an issue when joint families existed.

Ha! the stereotypical glorification of an era of oppression of women. The reason men didn’t see any issues with taking care of children in joint families was because men never had to take care of children. The great tradition of joint families thrived on telling girl children that they are ‘paraya dhan’ (someone else’s property), treating them as such,  marrying them when they barely touched puberty, and leaving them at the mercy of strangers. Their job was to cook, clean, have kids, and meet the needs of every family member other than their own. Joint families and marriages in general thrived on silence and oppression of women.

When I responded that joint families thrived on suppression of dreams of women, much to my surprise, he said ‘I never thought of it that way.’ My mind was temporarily surprised that he didn’t come back with a defensive justification. Even before I recovered, he added  “but you know, women are women’s worst enemies’. I mean, c’mon. Is it too much to ask for one stereotype at a time?

He spared less than 10 seconds to move on from ‘I never thought of it that way’. Zero inclination to explore the possibility of the ‘new’ thought for him. He then went on to explain to me how a sasur (father-in-law) never had a problem with bahu (daughter-in-law). It was always the mother-in-law that had problem with the daughter in law. I mean, really, you want to throw me an ekta kapoor serial to justify that statement?

There is a blood sport of cockfight in India. It involves manipulating the behaviour of roosters by depriving them their natural habitat, socially isolating them and subjecting them to adrenaline drugs few days before the fight. On the day of the fight, the roosters legs are tied with knives/metal spurs and are put to fight. A rooster, which under normal circumstances has no reason to kill another ends up fighting until one of them is killed and the other is left with severe trauma and injuries. Neither of the two roosters are the winners. The ones betting on them are.

Every time someone tells me the saas-bahu feud, I can’t help think of women as those roosters. Deny women any agency over their own lives, make their entire survival dependent on the men in their lives, father, husband and son, and then expect them to behave naturally? Being angry on men was not an option, so who would they turn to?

Nothing justifies one person mistreating the other. And there are a number of women that willingly become flagbearers of patriarchy if they see it benefits them. But what amazes me is the sheer audacity to have put women through centuries of oppression, deny them their basic rights, right to education, earn their living, choosing their life partner, right to property, subject them to inhumane stuff like sati, devadasi system, dowry, domestic violence, sexual assaults, and then say ‘women’ are women’s worst enemies.

A lot of us women, even with our education are idiots. We have no idea of what systematic oppression based on gender/caste/class/race/sexuality does to us, or how the narrative always benefits privileged caste/class men, or the issues with social conditioning, because the curriculum was designed by, guess who, privileged caste/class men!

As I tried to put behind the nonsensical stereotyped conversation behind and bring my focus back to breath, it dawned on me that the fellow meditators are not just divided into groups of men and women through a physical distance. The division is there even in the layers of our subconscious. While women are trying to work through decades of trauma resulting from gender based discrimination and abuse, our counterparts probably don’t have it as intense. Even in our struggles, we are different.

For a long time, I struggled to get onboard the philosophy of Vipassana. According to the Buddhist principles, everyone born as a human suffers (don’t say animals suffer too. It does not mean animals don’t. Animals suffer more thanks to us humans, but that’s another conversation)

Getting back to the point, as per Buddha, suffering is an inevitable part of life. Meditation is a means to overcome the suffering and find ever lasting peace. For a long time, I found the idea depressing, until I realized, it wasn’t. Facts are facts, and there is no way to sugar coat them. While a romanticised idea of life is pleasant, fact is, at one point or other, we will suffer. Sickness, old age, losing a loved one are facts.

So lets put this out there that everyone suffers. The only difference is that, on a social level, men were the reason for the suffering of so many women for centuries. And they continue to be, because we are yet to raise our children as equals, and men are busy being defensive with slogans like ‘not all men’ or ‘men suffer too’ etc.

Few years ago I moved into a shared home with another Indian guy. The only reason I felt comfortable enough to share a flat with a guy was knowing that he was gay. As I unpacked, the first words that my flatmate said were ‘I didn’t clear the kitchen cupboards for your stuff. I thought you would do a better job of it because girls are good at this kind of stuff’. That was the beginning of an introduction to sexist side of my flatmate which only got worse as he openly criticised delhi girls that smoked (he smoked), women are gold diggers etc. Needless to say how disappointed I was to find out my flat mate was a sexist. And so was he, when he figured that women didn’t necessarily like cooking or the kitchen.

Is it really too much to ask to listen without feeling the need pitch in your stereotypes to dismiss a collective experience? to stop glorifying an era that was by all means miserable for women?  to be open and not get defensive every time women share stories of abuse? Are men really incapable of learning, or unlearning?

The latest in the series of patriarchal nonsense is ‘marriagestrike’, where men are striking to not get married if ‘marital rape’ is criminalised. The same men seemingly also have a problem with independent women choosing not to get married. All I have on marriagestrike is, Thank God. Imagine the entitlement of men to want to be able to rape their wives and thinking that they are teaching women a lesson with marriage strike! I am trying very hard not to be amused on this one.

I do hope they are taking that oath on a Geeta/Bible/Quran or whatever they strongly believe in, and all those stories of rotting in hell if you don’t stick to your oath turn out to be true!

Neither of the two men I referred here are abusive or violent or so called ‘bad or problematic’ people. They are regular men who work hard and strive to live a decent lifestyle. But growing in a patriarchal environment embeds the sexism so deep they were oblivious to their own biases, and worse, had no inclination to unlearn even when it was pointed out.

I share this blog as a glimpse of how sexism isn’t always about the ugliness of violence and oppression. It is about how it impacts every part of women’s lives, in something as mundane as driving r being expected to arrange a kitchen by a total stranger. If your take at the end of this is I hate men, don’t get carried away! Hate requires a certain degree of care for the object and I simply have no energy to be bothered.

PS – Not all men may abuse women, but all men benefit from the abuse! Only when you are open to understanding this and doing something about it, you become allies for women. Until then, you are and will continue to be the oppressors. There is no neutrality in oppression. 

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