When a woman asserts herself

We live in a culture of patriarchy, but one that is being questioned and dented with consistent conversations around freedoms, answerability, and what we in the movement refer to as ‘agency’ of choice. Yet, if we take a macro view, at how women lead their lives, and how they are seen while they do, the freedoms most exercised are those that come with validation by men and acceptance in the larger systemic patriarchy we live through.

The freedoms are constantly negotiated, and often curtailed at the altar of safety or ‘fate’. Many times, the argument of choice is used to take and celebrate patriarchal decisions by women themselves, and justified as a feminist idea of the ability to do so. There is a long way to go in changing these truths and every personal political step is critical.

Culture, language fuel perceptions and reflect the results of movements and their reverberations in personal lives. While women are working, shattering glass ceilings, these are accepted definitions of ‘independent’ women, not necessarily apparent threats to the very fragile and toxic masculinity. Yet, in spaces of work, relationships, as a woman becomes more and more assertive and clear about what she desires and doesn’t, she is perceived to be ‘difficult’ and ‘arrogant’. Why?

A woman’s ability to assert her right should not lead to her being labelled. ‘Bitch’, ‘ghamandi’ (arrogant) are often used for women who are articulate and assertive about what they expect, for those who are ambitious and unafraid to say so, for those who believe in financial independence and enjoy their money. Why is ambition celebrated in men and vilified in a woman? This casual sexism must be called out as a manifestation of patriarchal culture.

When a woman earns more than a man, at the same level, or in a partnership, she is a threat. When she decides vehemently what she doesn’t desire, she is ‘too sure’, ‘judgemental’, and is accused of a ‘superiority complex’. Ask a single woman who refuses marriage and children, her active choice of doing so is labelled most often as a ‘mistake’, that she ‘knowingly commits’. It is assumed that this ‘mistake’ is either because she is ‘inadequate’ in some way, or is too ‘stuck up’, ‘free’, ‘irresponsible’ or ‘arrogant’ to ‘settle down’. While all she is really doing is refusing to alter her life for societal validation.

Very often, the ability to reject a man is empowering, but the act of it is considered arrogant. If a woman rejects a man who has been looked at as a potential partner, she is automatically demonised as ‘difficult’ or ‘ghamandi’ because essentially, she is articulating a clear stand and choice of what she is refusing to accept. Why must she accept what she thinks is inadequate for her? This culture of expected appeasement must alter.

Can a man rejected by a woman learn to live with it? The idea of a woman being articulate and sure is intimidating. This toxic masculinity, celebrated by patriarchy that manifests itself in power play, makes it difficult for men to process the idea of women’s choice, and instead see it as an assault on their ego, turning the conversation to be again about men than about the ability of women to make a choice. Gaslighting, sexual harassment are ways of assertion of the male ego, despite the woman’s ‘no’. With impunity.

‘Choice’ in popular culture

Our popular culture hasn’t done enough to celebrate choices for women. Our popular music and Hindi cinema have almost always celebrated women who are submissive and labelled those who haven’t been. Look at the vamps that were vilified for their sexual desire, and that desire was used to objectify them by men in power.

When a woman is in control, she is automatically ‘conniving’, in any capacity — whether at home (every Ekta Kapoor TV series ever), or at work (Andaz). Even films that aim to take the gender conversation forward, despite projecting empowered women, hardly seem to work. Popular culture must normalise the idea of choice and of financial independence.

For years, women have been conditioned to believe that the man’s choice matters above all else. His act of choosing her is her luck, and she must do all that she can to justify that choice. This manifested earlier in submissive behaviours expected of women; now it does in decisions, and often curtailed independence, to suit the standards of acceptability set by men. This constant negotiation must be checked, since it re-establishes the patriarchal dynamic of power, again in the hands of men.

Conversations on language, in cinema, for instance, have to become more nuanced, and responsible to recognise these issues. And we, every time we share a WhatsApp forward, laud a film, laugh at a joke, demonise a woman for her choices or behaviour, must stop and think. What is the language that we are using? What is it that we are lauding? And whose choice is it that we are celebrating or vilifying? And against whose standards of acceptability?

(The writer is a Delhi-based poet and theatre-person)

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When a woman asserts herself

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