They say humans are creatures of habit but the same elusive they also claim that change is the only permanence. Human beings are constantly in a flux – our emotions, our habits and our state of being constantly shift, often without warning. We grow up being influenced by the people we surround ourselves with; hence why we often hear about how we should only befriend those who have a positive influence on us. Yet, there exists the word ingrained in our vocabulary. It is the word we conveniently use to the pin the immense blame onto the ancestors and previous generations for customs we find questionable. It’s the word we use to steer the conversation away from difficult topics we more than usual do not want to face. Ingrained sexism, ingrained racism, ingrained homophobia – of which the former will be the difficult topic I’ll attempt to tackle today.
As per usual, dear reader, my words draw inspiration from snippets of conversations that stay with me or interactions that impacted me in one way or other. This article is a culmination of conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks. The idea had been germinated quite long ago but it always takes a particular event to convert the idea into words, to bring them into proper creation. This one is a by-product of a raucous family event where an aunt had been avidly describing her daughter’s acceptance into Stanford University and then carelessly threw out one line that irked me – she proudly proclaimed that her daughter had accomplished what a son should have, that her daughter is the equivalent to her son.
While Asians as a whole have a different degree of conservation that others often find difficult to understand, I believe that it manifests itself in different forms within each culture. I’m more familiar with my own, of course. I find that Indians in particular put sons on a pedestal that only results in negative impacts on the entire community in terms of perpetuating sexist attitudes. My aunt’s comment compelled me to think about the ingrained nature of sexism – how we use words and actions that are more often than not accidental to cement this sexism that pushes the girls down and places sons on an undeserving platform.
The constant differentiation between daughters and sons is a problem any family would face, especially Asians one. It happens by accident and usually without thought – it’s casually ordering the daughter to do the household chores while requesting the son to do the same menial tasks, it’s the extra one hour advantage of curfew time the son has over the daughter without any added questioning, it’s the bombardment of questions the daughter will receive over a particular Facebook post or photo that the son will rarely experience, it’s the nitpicking over dress codes and constant asking to cover up that the daughter will hear while she watches the son parade around the house without a shirt on (and without a glance of disapproval from the family). Our actions, often carried out by habit or by logical reasoning that our own parents may have imparted to us, continue on this ingrained nature that we have never been able to shake off. Sexism, in particular, is bred and passed on.
Sexism then is nurture over nature. No one grows up looking at the other sex and placing them above or below us. No one grows up inherently thinking that one gender is attached to a particular social role and the other is not. In fact, we are blank slates to be filled up and sexism is a rampant scribbling by a permanent marker that often alters how we think. At the end of the day, your ingrained sexism is learned. Thus, of course, it can be unlearned.
Fielding the question to my friends – have you ever been sidelined accidentally in favour of a male? – received such strong responses that I knew this opinion piece was in order. Other casual sexism I’ve heard of experienced in daily life, once again much more pertinent to Indians perhaps, is the question of marriage. My recently graduated senior, who had secured a very respectable job with a competitive salary, had been asked when she was going to marry when she had called her grandfather to inform him of the news. A friend of mine explained that she wouldn’t be able to make it for a night out because her father was sick and when questioned why her brother couldn’t take care of him, she only gave us a pointed silence in response. A cousin had been very recently questioned about her exes and her sex life by her potential in-laws, when our entire community had been well aware about the past escapades of the boy – no one brought it up of course. An older friend had decided to give up her career in favour of taking care of her growing family, a decision taken almost instinctively by the couple.
It’s easy to unlearn sexism though it may be a long process. We are, after all, creatures of habits and no matter how habits are changed, the change does take a while to occur. Remember that you continue the ingrained nature when you throw out casual sexist jokes, when you assume that one gender is meant for one task and not the other, when you privilege one gender over the other without a second thought, when you reward a gender explicitly for a task.
I had always been of the belief that I’m particularly privileged – not because my problems aren’t as pronounced or extreme as the ones I have heard of, but also because I have constantly been surrounded by positive influences who have only pushed me onwards in the face of setbacks. Not all of us are so lucky. I’d start championing for the benefits of sending your daughters to a girls’ school, to build up her self-esteem and confidence without the constant struggle of forced romanticism and underlying sexism, but I do believe it’s a topic we’ll explore together when we meet next time. For now though, do consider the small actions that you have been carrying out that have led to a contribution to this ingrained sexism that we often gloss over, as if discussing a mythological creature. Perhaps it’s that unintended backhanded compliment you gave, or the unsolicited advice you offered to someone about smiling more, or the marriage question you fielded over to your older cousins without any consideration. Remember that both genders are implicated in ingrained sexism and that both genders are susceptible to it as well. It’s an uphill task when evening the playing field means negotiating the differences in privileges each gender is entitled to.
As for now, small steps of minding our actions would have to do. The only way to win over nurture is to revert back to nature. No one is born a sexist; they are merely nurtured to become as such. The future generations need to be nurtured such that they have a non-sexist attitude towards both genders.