Monday, July 4, 2011

If I called you a misogynist, would you hold it against me?

Is it just me, or is it more socially acceptable to be a misogynist than a racist?

Most people seem to have heard that being racist, at least openly with people you don't know are also racist, is not socially acceptable. Judging people based on their race, hating them or assuming things about them, is relatively widely known to be unacceptable. But generally people at least look a bit sheepish after saying something racist, they realize they've said something that contradicts social norms, and sometimes even apologize.

Why isn't this also the case with misogyny? Somehow it hasn't gotten quite the same publicity. I've had several experiences over the past few weeks that have shown me that while women here may drive cars and go to university, feelings about their inequality with men not only exist, but are the standard. To start with a light example, I have been driving here, a stick shift on the left side of the road for that matter. But I had, up until this point, only driven myself and a friend, whenever the two men I work with were in the car they drove, in my mind because they know the area better and are used to the different traffic laws (and can read the street signs). But then I drove one morning, and both men sat in the back. One of the men continuously called me lady-driver, calling himself and the other man in the back ladyboys (or transgendered). So my driving feminizes you? It makes you more like a woman when a woman drives? It makes you less of a man? Hmm...

Then we were talking about corporal punishment of children. This is a contentious issue in many places, including in the United States, as parents maintain the right to hit their children to teach them discipline. A group of men voiced their disagreement with the promotion of Child Rights here, as it makes children object to being hit, and leaves parents without a means to teach them right from wrong. I commented that this might be true, but on the other hand, the same excuse has been used for hitting women. "I only hit my wife to teach her a lesson, and never with a closed fist." Ah how kind of you, good thing you know so much and can train your wife to act exactly as you want her to, in a situation where she is essentially powerless. As I said this I glanced into the back seat and saw one of the men I work with nod. Nod. As in a "yes yes, but it's only to teach her" nod.

Then today at dinner we were chatting, and another team member brought up a story of a girl who was raped in a rural area of the province. She expressed shock that a member of our team agreed that in this and other similar incidents of sexual assault, the girl always carried the blame. She should not have worn that, been there, enticed him so, smiled at him like that. Girls are sent away in some rural areas after being raped, partially because they have dishonored their families by having pre-marital sex, and partially as punishment for enticing a man to have pre-marital sex.

I know what I would do if either of these situations occurred when I was in the US. I would express my outrage verbally, focusing on the lack of blame placed on men in either of the last two scenarios, despite the fact that they are the violent aggressors. I would ask the men if it would be similarly acceptable to do such a thing to a man, to hit him to teach him a lesson or to rape him because he smiled and wore his shirt a bit tight. Oh no? Why not? He might hit you back? He is your equal? He doesn't need to be taught a lesson because he already knows the right way to act?

I know no one has ever changed such an ingrained opinion over the course of one conversation. No one will decide that women are victims and survivors of sexual violence, rather than its cause and consequence in a day. But I would also be unwilling to bite my tongue, because I would equate my silence with tacit acceptance.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

But what about when the people you're talking to are of a different culture? I don't believe that violence against and hatred of women can be justified via cultural relativism. Cultural norms are important and necessary, but are not worth preserving when they violate the basic human rights of others. But what about when they are people you work with and must continue working with? How do you balance you personal beliefs and morals while maintaining tranquility among colleagues, who will likely only dismiss what you have to say as Western anyhow, claiming you do not understand the Culture here? Can you keep quiet without feeling guilty?  I don't know.

But I do follow the cultural norms here. I don't shake your hand, we gently touch fingertips and touch our hearts. I am quiet when appropriate, as our local male researchers lead introductions and explanations. I express doubt at their overt and covert misogyny, enough to have expressed how I feel, but just little enough to avoid a debate that I know will go no where. Then I come here. And I tell all of you. And then I get in the driver's seat, and let them fight their own feelings of inadequacy, because those are not mine to fight.

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