A boy and his father get into a car accident and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies on the way and the son is in a critical condition. His surgeon walks into the operating room and exclaims, “I cannot operate on him, he is my son!” How could that be?
Maybe you know the answer to this riddle or maybe you don’t. I for one was ashamed that I called myself a feminist and couldn’t think of the possibility that the surgeon was his mother. This seemed like a failure. Not in learning any new skill-set, but in ‘unlearning’ deep routed sexism which I thought had long been eradicated from my mind.
Nevertheless, it’s moments like these which make us realize how modern-day sexism has made its way into our lives. We often take too much credit for our ancestors’ victories of establishing women’s right to education, abolishing child marriage and other such unspeakable practices. People who worked relentlessly to uplift women must be celebrated and idealized, but let’s think about this: are we doing their honorable memory an injustice by not taking the feminist movement into the 21st century?
It is easy to blame rigid social structures for the lack of equality, but it’ll get a little easier if we identify those small and seemingly “harmless” remarks we make every day at an unconscious level. Language is a power tool humans have developed to communicate with each other. The kind of language we use to convey our thoughts have an effect on our behavior and on our belief systems.
Take an example of this little boy who was running around with his friends in the playground. He fell down, and started crying for help and comfort. When one of his parents sees him crying, the boy receives a remark, “Oh don’t worry my dear, you’re going to be fine. Don’t cry like a girl!” The parent’s intentions are only to comfort the crying child, but the language they use implicates that boys are the stronger beings and it is girls who overtly show signs of weakness by crying.
We don’t realize that we are not comforting men but telling them to suppress their feelings to maintain dominance; it is only going to hurt them in the long run. This ‘like-a-girl’ phenomenon is widely used across cultures by men and women alike. Don’t run like a girl. Don’t be shy like a girl. Why are you wearing pink!? Don’t dress like a girl. Calling a boy ‘girly’ is used as an insult while calling a girl ‘tomboy’ is almost a compliment. These types of remarks restrict men from expressing themselves and put women down.
The reverse can be seen while observing the language used in giving compliments to women. If a woman works out and stays physically fit, she’s told that, ‘you’re quite strong for a girl.’ We need to realize that, ‘‘you drive really well for a girl’’ is not a compliment, it’s an insult to every other woman who drives. And women are equally responsible for letting this vicious cycle of ‘compliments’ continue by not objecting to it whenever they receive it. Instead we (women) have resorted to a much comfortable option of not identifying with our own gender. We often hear women say things like, ‘I’m not like other girls’ or that ‘I cannot handle drama which is why I do not hang out with girls, I prefer being friends with guys’. There’s of course nothing wrong in having a preference regarding who you want to befriend. But justifying it by blaming it on woman is simply feeding the patriarchal narrative that women are ‘eccentric’.
Another crucial detail we can observe is how women are still reminded that other people have control over their decision making. We often hear people say, “I allow my wife to work’’ or that “She’s allowed to wear whatever clothes she prefers’’ and these statements come from a position of authority. The people who say this may or may not want to establish the fact that they are in control, but it sure appears that way. Women are reminded that even though they have the freedom of choice it is not an inherent right, but it is something which can and will be taken away if you displease the authority.
Research shows that sexist language is learned at an early age and it can be considered a linguistic habit. And unlike traditional sexists who explicitly support inequality between genders, modern sexists express their beliefs quite subtly through the language they use. These are little things we can avoid easily if we’re aware of them. This ‘unlearning process’ might prove to be more difficult than any learning process you might have gone through. You might even be reluctant to admit that it actually happens. But it’s a small step towards honoring the revolutionaries who fought so that we could live in a better society.