A vast majority of us do no think about gender. We know what the word means, but seldom take the time to think about its implications. That could be because you have given hope of it ever getting better (which is where most women are) or because you are completely oblivious to the fact that there is even a problem with gender (which is where most men are). I too did not think about gender. A few months ago, gender was to me like one of those expensive stores in a mall; I knew it existed, but I had no business thinking about it, let alone walking into it. That was until I read this essay by Chimandanda Ngozi Adichie. The night I read it was the day a man had locked my friend up in a room for 4 hours and forced himself on her. The night I read it was the night I realized that I, just like millions of other men, was tone-deaf to the problems that women face until it happens to someone we love. The night I read it was the night I realized that not only are we not doing enough, but we are hardly doing anything at all. The night I read it was the night I realized that there is a huge difference between being a man and being a woman, something that I was clearly aware of but to whose ramifications I was completely oblivious.
I read it, and it felt as though I had finally been nudged awake from a slumber. I picked up my phone and called the only friend with whom I can discuss such things. I said to her, “Chichi, what’s it like to be a woman?”. She laughed -a “I know you are not serious” laugh- but went on to explain when she realized how serious I was. She said, “Back in high school, I got the highest score on a test out of everyone in my class. The teacher went on to praise a boy, who I had gotten a higher score than, for doing so well and did not say a word to me. He asked him how he let a girl beat him. You know how I always call you whenever I’m walking home alone in the night? I call you because if something were to happen to me, at least you’d know. Before going to a party, I have to ask who is going to be there before picking out an outfit because I know that some outfits might attract attention from certain people and that means danger. I cannot wear this pretty, short dress I really like because that would get me labelled as a slut or better yet, get me assaulted. I sometimes want to take walks in the night but I’m afraid of what might happen to me. I must respond with a ‘Thank you’ to catcalls and comments about my body in the street even though they make me feel uncomfortable because anything other than that would get me barraged with insults. And those are just young woman problems. I don’t even know what awaits me when I get older. Will I miss out on jobs because I am a woman? Will I even be taken seriously in my workplace? Will I be pressured to get married? Will I have to constantly fight the assumption that whatever I own comes from a husband?”
See, I wasn’t hearing all this for the first time. I had heard all these things before. But it felt as if I was hearing them for the first time because it was the first time I actually listened. It was the first time I put myself in those shoes, and I felt suffocated. I thought about living in a world where I couldn’t wear whatever I wanted, a world in which a constant fear of mine was that I could be raped anytime. I thought about living in world where I had to stand hearing comments made about my body on every street, a world where my body was this object that was constantly lusted over as though it were not attached to an actual human being. I thought about living in a world where I had to fight just to be taken seriously, a world where my gender spoke before any of my merits. I thought about living in a world that told me what I could and could not be, what I should and should not do. I thought about living in a world that constantly said to me, “Cover your body, close your legs,” as though I had already done something wrong by being born into that gender, one where the things that happened to me were deemed my fault. I thought about living in a world in which my body was constantly sexualized as though it could never be anything more. I abhorred the thought of living in that world. I trembled at the thought of living in that world. How would I survive? Then I marveled at the strength of every woman who has to wake up and face that world every single day.
Then I was angry. I was angry with myself because I simultaneously knew all this and was oblivious to it at the same time. I was angry because this was the world in which every woman I know and adore lives in. And I did nothing about it. I hadn’t even been aware of it. You know what the sad thing is? It’s that men are at the helm of creating such a world, a world in which caution is a necessity for every woman. Yet billions of men are still oblivious to the existence of such a world. Billions of men do not realize that this is how women, human beings, live. Billions of men do not realize that the world they enjoy is as a result of a gender system meant for them to thrive and live comfortably, while the other half is constantly victimized. Billions of men do not even think about gender. Billions of men do not realize that they are privileged enough to not have to think about gender because it barely affects them. They do not realize that they are privileged enough to wear what they want because what they wear does not come with labels, it does not get you assaulted; privileged enough to walk the streets without hearing disgusting comments about their bodies; privileged enough to go out and not have to think, “What if I get raped tonight?”; privileged enough to have some sort of inherent respect wherever they go; privileged enough to think, “Well, what’s gender to me?” So they sit in their castles surrounded by walls of ignorance while women deal with the crap that other men throw at them.
You know why all these things continue to happen? It’s because not only is the vast majority of men oblivious to the direness of the situation, but because those who are aware of it feel that as long as they do not do any of these things, then they are doing enough. They feel that to be a good man is to be one who does not do any of these heinous things and so they stay silent. They do not realize that their silence speaks a thousand words, that their silence does not say, “Do not do these things to women,” but instead says, “I do not do those things, but you can go ahead if you want.” These things will continue to happen because it is left to women, not men, to police men’s actions. These things continue to happen because the response from most men is, “Well, not all men do these things,” as though that in itself were something worthy of praise. Our silence as men perpetuates all this. In fact, our silence supports it. Not raping women does not make us “good men”. Not harassing or assaulting women does not mean we “respect women”. That is basic human virtue. Those are things that should be expected of us anyway. Must we then be praised for not being murderers as well? We deserve no accolades for it, and we must stop claiming otherwise. On the contrary, it should be our job, as men, to police other men’s actions; it should be our job to hold other men accountable. We can so easily make men who do not like sport feel out of place and uncomfortable. Yet rapists, wife-beaters, harassers live comfortably among us, dine with us and play with us without a worry in the world. Have you ever wondered why? Could it be because we have created an environment in which they feel comfortable, one in which they do not feel threatened?
All these things continue to happen because the response to women’s issues is “Oh, but men have problems too.” Yes. Yes, they do. But does that then diminish the severity of the problems women face? These things continue to happen because men are in denial. We are in denial of the fact that we all have a part to play in this. We are denial of the fact that gender, as it is, is set up for us to thrive. We are in denial of the fact that gender as it is needs to change, to be reassessed, and that all begins with us, the privileged side, taking a stance.
I will not claim to be a perfect man who has all this figured out. But I am a learning man. I am man learning that it is on me, as much as it is on anyone else, to be the change that I want to see in the world. I am learning that my silence is not enough, that my silence worsens the situation. I am learning that it is on me to police my own actions and the actions of all the men I come across. I am learning that it is on me to educate myself, to unlearn some things that I learnt. I am learning that it is on me to shut up and listen more. I am learning to speak up more when I see things being done. I am learning that you cannot stay silent if you want the world to be a better place. I was told that that makes me a feminist. And I said, “Perhaps we should all be.”
Shouldn’t we all be feminists at this point? Perhaps to be feminist should be a prerequisite to being human. Because it surely should be a human thing to believe that every one of us deserves to live in a world in which we feel safe. It should be a human thing to believe that women too deserve to live in the world that I live in, a world in which the last thing on my mind is how my gender puts me in danger. It should be a human thing, not a feminist thing, to see all the pain women go through and say, “Yes, it really is upon me too to work with you and make it better for you.” I am petrified of bringing a daughter into a world that is unsafe for her, a world that is ready to make her feel less, a world that is ready to swallow her whole at any turn. And if at this point you aren’t afraid of the same, you clearly haven't been paying attention. Perhaps we really all should be feminists. Perhaps the definition of a feminism should be “Someone who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.’” Perhaps it is time we all saw that there indeed is a problem and sat down to talk about it.