Mansplaining as explained by a woman
We, women, are familiar with a peculiar quality in the men of the subcontinent. Until 2008, we did not have a name for it, but every girl, young adult, woman, mother, sister, wife, grandmother is familiar with the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, a term attributed to the 2008 essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ by Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist. It happens everywhere, in our homes, the street, the workplace, in every conceivable situation that one can, this habitual gender-based condescending language style is not limited to the English-speaking world but can be vouched for most of the subcontinent languages and cultures, four of which I can speak, read and write.
Growing up in a patriarchal joint household where the men made decisions and the women just followed suit, with the added complexity of a Muslim culture, ‘mansplaining’ showed some very remarkable traits of spreading itself to areas of non-interest and non-concern such as women’s rights over their bodies, their clothing and even the choice of parenthood, marriage, and what kind of tampon, clothing or sanitary napkin to use. The way I recall my teen years, I never grew angry at the men but at the silly way the women (my aunts, grandmothers and mother) did not use their reason and just went along with the men. Of course, it’s taken a good part of my life to understand that the very phenomenon keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare. It crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains women in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence. Hence, the women in my family could not have known they were being bullied into acquiescing, conformity and silence, it not being the age of cable TV let alone the Internet.
But coming back to the phenomenon, my personal observation is that this condescending and patronizing manner particularly flares up when women venture to speak up of political affairs and religion, domains men think, believe and demand they have an exclusive expertise on. It has been five years since I discovered I had a voice and opinions and views and that I could articulate them in simple language and “put it out there”. Right from day one, there was a barrage of ‘mansplaining’- a mixture of mannerisms which clearly indicated that the speaker had less respect for my stance as a listener because of the assumption that I was a female. It took a while to recognize that most of it was being done for self-aggrandizement — holding forth to me, a female listener, already presumed less capable of, just for the sole purpose of appearing knowledgeable by comparison.
Now I consider myself fairly well-read. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s of Kashmir Valley, there was not much by way of entertainment or socialising due to the rising conflict and one could only turn to books in the era of the BBC Urdu Service, the Times of India, Srinagar Times, Doordarshan and Indrajal Comics. Despite the lack of today’s technology and information boom, my generation was into encyclopedias and world literature and could fairly hold their own on current affairs and culture. So when I first started “deviating” from the main narrative of Kashmir’s occupation (as I am often reminded of) I began to suspiciously recognize a pattern to the reactions of males especially when it came to the realms of religion and politics.
Of course, with due credit to men, I always sought them out because it was men who were interesting and doing meaningful things like reading, discussing, writing poetry, retrospecting, reflecting and even fighting in the 90s. Sitting at home among the Olympically dim-witted women who thought only of clothes, make-up, shopping, mehndi, and the soap operas of TV, I would be bored to death and often enough sought the company of men much to the chagrin of my sister who thought I was “promiscuous”, a sting that never really quite healed. It was a group of young male artists who first listened to my opinion and encouraged me to write and “put it out there”. There were ‘mansplainers’ in the group too but because by virtue of my personality I was more of a listener than a talker, I would end up being the cherished friend, shoulder-to-cry-on and soundboard to throw ideas at.
As long as I stayed in the domains of criticising the state and its policies, other cultures, the capitalists, the women themselves, I was tolerated at best. But the day I started going inwards and deeper into the history, culture, anthropology, politics, religion of my region and voicing my opinions is the day I also got a display of overconfident and clueless men creating a conspiracy of silence and disempowerment. I found men had very strong views about the ‘hijab’, street harassment, sexual harassment at the workplace, marital rape, incest, religion sanctioned bigotry, origins of religion and so on and so forth. They didn’t spare even motherhood or the choice of whether to have kids and how many. They had decided opinions what women should wear and why it had been sanctioned and how it was the women at fault who got raped, or harassed or became victims of abuse or incest. I began to see through the pompous stance of men that a man will normally be more knowledgeable, or more capable of understanding, than a woman and this happened as soon as I started getting frank about my experiences, my memories and my life in general only to have them dismissed. I still reel at the thought of it — telling me exactly what I must have felt with no regard to my words or my description! It still happens, I have learnt to dismiss it in reverse.
I am more interested in the why of it. Why is it so? And before anyone starts bashing the Muslim culture, as it is fashionable to do so these days, social networking enabled me to see it as a worldwide phenomenon cutting across race, class, cultures and sects. Whether it was Azhar Nafisi and Marjane Satrapi under the totalitarian regime in Iran, women whose experiences were immortalised in their respective books ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ and ‘Persepolis’. I saw the counter-arguments presented, published, put forth and finally flung at them by men dismissing their views entirely with very obvious condescending language and an outright blatant display of the contemptuous — “Women! What do they know”? — body language.
I read books by Erica Jong, Susan Sontag, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Adichie, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and realised how common a phenomenon it was. For me it was understandable and perfectly clear why the phenomenon would prevail in the subcontinent given its misogynistic and debilitating patriarchal values, attitudes and culture of 5000 years, but what stymied me was that it was still happening in the West, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement. Obviously, something was afoot. And then Rebecca Solnit’s essay hit the Internet and things started falling in place.
What is it about women being put in place just because they can show they too have seen through the lies, deceit, obfuscation, the conspiracy of silence over the ages and are starting to suspect this grand plan of men to keep them like chattels good only for the three Bs — bedding, breeding and baking? That we could see how religion was the one grand and powerful tool being used to create self-doubt, self-hatred for our bodies, our being, our very existence and that every time we ‘stepped out’ from the demarcations of propriety, respectability and political correctness we were demeaned, character assassinated, slut-shamed and even killed. I see heated discussions in parlours, and streams and streams of threads on social networking sites with men monopolising the discussions and telling us how it is for us! Those sure are days when I am entertained.
I don’t want it to go into a ‘us’ vs ‘them’ issue too. We have enough of that with the world on the brink of WWIII. For the basic premise of patriarchy and misogyny is that it hurts men too. Feminism, though I detest labels of any kind, benefits men too because it believes in the equal rights of all men, women, trans people, gays, the disabled, all. So mansplaining as an attitude is used in places and situations where bigoted men find other men leaning towards the views or experiences of other women too. The very nature of mansplaining is based on the belief that women are less capable of thinking for themselves or for anyone or anything else.
Go ahead and try it. Give an opinion about laws, affairs, theories, theology, which no doubt is always originally attributed to men, and watch the worms come out of the woodwork. It is also fascinating to watch liberal, feminist, enlightened men who otherwise are staunch supporters of freedom of speech and who you will find championing for minority rights, gay rights, animal rights, start getting livid when an independent-minded woman through her experiences exercises her faculties of reasoning and logical thinking and “puts it out there”.
So why does it happen? It all comes out of fear. Having been conditioned into the notion that women are inferior and hence their testaments and experiences have no value is ingrained into men since childhood through bad parenting, self-hating mothers themselves, the barrage of gender-biased media and the tilted schooling and social sanctions too. The conditioning is so deep that no matter how much educated and well-travelled and well-read the men might become, very rarely are they able to see through it. It takes superhuman understanding, insight and immense and infinite patience to get through millennia of conditioning in a single man as I have experienced with my spouse after having gone through the usual storms of an ‘equal marriage’ in a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. Of course, it took a lot of heartbreak, physical pain and disappointments to come to an understanding that this phenomenon is real. But not everyone is as lucky or as fortified as I am.
I put this out there today because as can be seen with prevalent world affairs, by following the trigger happy minds of men and their war-leaning policies we are once more on the brink of a long and prolonged war. It needs to be put out there that not a single line has been contributed to any ‘holy text’ by a woman (I am very proud of the fact) and before some ‘bhakht’ types start propounding the ancient dialogues between women philosophers and holy men in Hinduism, let me remind them that those texts were also written down by men on rocks, animal skins and barks of trees before going on papyrus and finally paper. There will never be a female Socrates, or a female Shakespeare or a female Marx, for our very biology and the patriarchal system of the world works against us. But as is evident from the new discoveries of women writers, poets, educationists, scientists, using new techniques, technology and scholarship, the male writers of history and media obscured them into the sands of time — a perfect example of mansplaining.
As the radical Queen of Egypt Nefertiti’s proposed chamber is going to be explored behind the walls of King Tut’s burial chamber using state-of-the-art technology; as Sappho, the ancient Greek lyric poet is gaining popularity; as never heard of before women scientists, technologists, cryptographers, and programmers are being discovered and given their rightful place in history, mansplaining is slowly and gradually being pushed onto the sidelines itself.