Subtle sexismLooks harmless from the outside but could have a sinister impact on everyday lives
I am a woman. A perceived cisgender, to be precise. At the cost of sounding pessimistic, the privileges I have had in a religiously monochromatic, inherently patriarchal and virilocal Nepali society can be numbered. Keeping this in mind, one can only imagine the intensity of marginalisation of gender minorities in Nepal. But my issue concerns a larger mass that we term under the umbrella lens of women, and the dilemmas of everyday life surrounding subtle sexism. Roxane Gay in her book Bad Feminist provides a platform for discussion on what it means to be fitting and unfitting in a colour chaos society, and the overt and covert sexism that occurs on an everyday basis.
There are various forms of sexism—blatant, covert and subtle. Blatant sexism is unfair and unequal treatment of women in comparison to men, and covert sexism is a hidden form of unfair and unequal treatment of women. Subtle sexism looks harmless on the outside but could have a devastatingly sinister impact on our everyday lives, or on the lives of people who are continually made to enter the bubble of it. A traditionally conditioned form of language learnt through various stages of socialisation embeds itself as an example of subtle sexism.
The very verbal language that we use as a medium of communication is a gendered one. The subtlety of subtle sexism goes very well beyond the gendered rhetoric of verbally communicated symbolic interactionism, and addresses its use in a contextually specific situation by unravelling the nuances of the embedded patterns of use of such gendered language. For example, when a man and a woman are interviewed for a job position that involves travelling
continuously for fieldwork, a woman is more often than not asked if she has plans to get married, have a child and so on.
Yes, given the dominant virilocal and patriarchal structuration of Nepali society, it feels inevitable for a prospective employer to present the question, but to what extent is the question. In a similar manner, another example of subtle sexism would involve assuming—as a consequence of internalisation of certain hegemonic patriarchal norms and values— that during an office get-together, the male personnel would be in charge of managing alcoholic drinks while the female personnel would be expected to ‘put the party together’.
Some sociologists and social psychologists believe that we enter the realms of our everyday lives with inherently preconceived biases. This very lingering and wrongly, but seemingly, thought to be innocent bias is another form of subtle sexism which plays a large part in the hiring of women in only certain ‘essentialist’ job positions, ones that involve less ‘destructive roles’. The job descriptions for more destructive roles involves characteristics like being rational, decisive and assertive. Recently, I got mansplained by a senior colleague when I raised some very important questions about issues of violence. My visit to this much senior colleague stemmed from my being bureaucratically naïve in certain job spheres wherein age hierarchy is seen to be a unanimous hierarchical division topping the very essence of logic and reason.
I was reminded of a few things, especially those that deal with my positioning in Nepali society, by this senior colleague. One, a blatant reminder to me was presented of my biological existence by talking to my breast and reconfirming my status as a preconceived cisgender female. Two, by calling out in a covert manner possible that a nonsensical concept like feminism had ruined Nepal. Three, in all manners of subtleties, calling me a ‘bahini’ and placing his arms around me to show that he is family.
No you are not family to begin with, and no you need to know the appropriate physical proximity that governs my relationship to you as a colleague of an institution that structures itself in age hierarchy. Irrespective of being a cisgender or not, for many men in Nepali society, the idea of touching a female person has been severely normalised and for those men, when a woman showcases her discomfort, he is amused! To speak of combating subtle sexism, two essential and inevitable phenomena need to be considered. People who are currently living in the bubble of defining sexism in its essential form, or in the manner of blatant sexism only, need to be aware of the subtleties of sexism that pervade our everyday and the nasty consequence that occurs.
The first step is to acknowledge that there prevails subtle sexism. Second, once the awareness of that sets in, the development of agency to combat the sexism in its various forms needs to be processed. One can only combat these subtle sexisms by owing to one’s own agency and by garnering the courage to be a rebel. I combated the sexism and mansplaining with an answer that the other party seems to have taken as a compliment! I told the manterpreter that I had no idea that someone of his capacity was still holding a position in an institution like this, and that it was truly an interesting conversation. I thanked him for enlightening me. We all possess various intensities and levels of agencies. All that needs to be done is to realise that we as agents of society are fuelled with agency, and one, if utilised in its rightful manner, has the power to alter the very realm of ‘reality’ that we are currently inhabiting.
Ghimire is a sociologist.