Gender and the City: Reflections One Year On

By Kaammini Chanrai

“I am a person who believes in asking questions, in not conforming for the sake of conforming. I am deeply dissatisfied – about so many things, about injustice, about the way the world works – and in some ways, my dissatisfaction drives my storytelling.”

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

***

I like to think that a lot has changed this year but I often wonder whether what has changed the most is my own, very narrow perspective on life.

I like to think that more people are aware of gender-related issues and that as a society we are beginning to understand the reality of inequality and structural sexism that exists. I like to think that we are beginning to discuss LGBTQ+ rights more and that these rights are being brought to the forefront of governmental agendas. I like to think that as a society we are becoming more aware of intersectional experiences and that we are recognizing the benefits that the nuances of race, religion and ethnicity possess.

I like to think all of this because my experience has allowed me to. At Gender and the City, all of these ideas become very real. We debate, we deliberate and we defend our beliefs in a context where these are the most important issues. There is a general consensus amongst us that what we are discussing is good and right.

And yet, I feel as though I have been lulled into a false sense of security, whereby the majority of us identify with feminist ideas and a significant amount of us are activists of equality. We are defined by the idea of homophily in which we tend to associate with like-minded people. We pat each other on the back for our achievements and encourage each other to continue as, of course, we believe that we are correct. This is a dream from which I have no desire to awaken.

But as I continue to lie on Cloud Nine in relative comfort, I can feel the sky thinning beneath me and I can hear the chaotic sounds of the real world begin to wake me up.

***

What a year it has been for Gender and the City. As of today, we have published 52 articles, received nearly 13,000 views and gained relative prominence through our Facebook and Twitter pages. I would like to thank you all wholeheartedly for your support and I would especially like to thank the Gender and the City Team and writers for making us what we are.

I wish I could say we have come a long way. And if I speak specifically about Gender and the City, I can say that we have. We have heard honest and personal accounts of a transgender experience, sexual assault, familial pressures and parenthood. We have read articles, recited poems and watched films. We have focused on the politics of sexuality, the theories of postcolonialism and religious ideologies. We have, in my humble opinion, achieved a lot.

And yes, as a society there have been developments in achieving gender equality and increased awareness of related ideas. However, without meaning to sound overly pessimistic, many such changes have been trivial or tokenistic because what we face is structural, entrenched into institutions and embedded into the discourse of everyday life.

So instead of continuing to write about what we have achieved, I would like to propose a question: what more can we do?

There are a few simple answers to this question. Increase awareness, have difficult conversations, campaign, sign petitions, attend protests – I could go on. At Gender and the City we’ll be doing just that and more – we’ll be making some changes on Sunday 1st November, so please watch this space.

But to reflect on what Angela Davis once said, “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” We need momentum. We need dedication. We need sacrifice.

So, where do we go from here?

‘Suffragette’ and the Visibility of Privilege

By Anonymous

I have never been called out for my ‘privilege’.

This is unsurprising for two rather visible reasons: I am a woman and I am non-white. However, I am also one of the most privileged people that I know.

Without reeling-off a long list of my advantages in life, there are two key features which I believe illustrate this privilege quite obviously. Firstly, I went to a private school, which was not funded by a scholarship. I have personally witnessed others’ remarks being undermined for this reason and yet it seems that because I don’t fit the average stereotype for a privately educated individual, my opinion is allowed to remain untouched.

Secondly, I went to university. A privilege not just for financial reasons, university equips you with skills for the future that often place you in a better position later in life. Perhaps the reason why I am not called out on this, however, is because most of the people using the language around ‘privilege’ have been educated on these terms – they might even have gone to universities themselves. Try and deconstruct that dichotomy.

As a population, I have found that we are often reduced to making judgements based on what we see. Yes, it is possible to detect the ‘posh’ accent of my voice and see the pictures of my graduation on Facebook, but I would argue that on a face-to-face basis, these criteria are often ignored.

On this note, I would just like to make an observation. I have found recently that we throw the word privilege around more frequently that we should. Yes, there are situations where it may be entirely necessary to dismiss someone’s comment because they have no empathy for a situation that is someone else’s reality. I am not denying that ‘privilege’ has a place.

However, increasingly I have found that this “my voice is louder than your voice” rhetoric has come full circle. Just because someone may be in a position of privilege, it does not mean that they do not have something of value to say.

Let’s take the example of Suffragette. Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing this film, which centres around Maud Watts, a laundrette worker in the 1910s, who joins the suffragette movement after some initial hesitation. The narrative is upheld by the collective voices of several women from a variety of backgrounds – all of which are important.

Controversy has shrouded the Suffragette film since before its release date last week. To start, the ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ T-shirts worn by the cast were heavily criticised for their implications about slavery. Additionally, the film has been somewhat condemned for its focus on white women.

But let’s not undermine the fact that this is a significant story. Women winning the right to vote continues to be one of the most historically important turning points in the fight for women’s rights. What I find to be the most shocking thing about all of this, is that this story hasn’t been told sooner.

For those who have made objections over the linear perspective that Suffragette portrays or the lack of non-white characters in the film, I urge you to reflect on your argument. There is always a danger in telling a ‘single story’. However, there is a greater danger of not telling a story at all. And whilst Suffragette may not represent every voice of that generation, it is not intending to silence those other stories. If anything, I hope this opens the door to more films being released, by and about women and our rights.

Which brings me back into the argument on ‘privilege’. I know that society is patriarchal and that those at the top of the food chain tend to be white. But let’s not use intersectionality as an excuse to dismiss the reality of others. Privilege isn’t as simple as black and white.

The Consequence of Tiny Compromises

By Nazanin Kaur Rai

My father is, in many ways, a textbook hero. He did not have the privileged start to life my sister and I enjoy – far from it. He grew up with almost nothing, worked very hard and gave his children better lives. In many ways, he forms the essential pillars of his family – providing support to his siblings, children and extended family members time and time again. He is giving, loving and deeply religious. He was able to go from worrying about where his next meal would come from to creating enough financial and social stability for his children to study abroad in the UK. In prioritising his children’s education and his family’s needs, he has been able to provide more opportunities than he himself could ever have had growing up. He is an admirable man: knowledgeable, focused, disciplined and diligent. If you are sensing a ‘but’, you have good instincts. Here it is: he has been oppressive to the women he loves.

The oppression to which I refer cannot be given a singular definition. It is manifested in attitudes and incidents that have formed the basis of the gendered status quo in many households across the world. I will focus on one particular, arguably minimally intrusive, aspect of it in this article. At this stage, I would like to stress that I am not an expert in social sciences. This is an article about my own personal experiences, and those of close friends. It is focused on my relationship with my father. It is relevant that we are part of the Indian diaspora and we have held on to many cultural values.

I would argue that my father has more liberal attitudes towards gender-based issues than many of his peers. For example, he has never given me the impression that he believes I must get married to a man in order for my life to be complete, he believes in a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion and he would never tell me to choose one profession over another simply because I am female. He has always, however, had very strong views on how my mother, sister and I should dress. There have been many fights, tears and even public outbursts of anger over the years which centre on what we choose to wear. His main issue is with sleeveless clothes and ‘low’ necklines. He does not seem to have a problem with the shorts and skirts I choose to wear – it would appear that the level of thigh exposure I engage in is OK. Shoulders and cleavage, however, are a different story. Again, it would seem that, compared with so many of his peers who would flinch at the thought of a girl wearing anything above the knee, my father is liberal and not asking for too much. It may all seem trivial, but it is a symptom of a much larger issue.

Over the years, my mother and I have managed to care less and less about my father’s attitudes. Very wisely, my mother always let me decide for myself how much I was willing to fight against my father’s clothing impositions. I am proud to say that after years of restricting my choice in clothes to my fit my father’s definition of modesty, I was finally able to tell him that his views were sexist and oppressive. But while this has appeared to put an end to his comments on what I wear, I do not feel that it has solved the problem. I have to hope, however, that what I said has caused him to at least consider his views from a gender-sensitive perspective. Though I cannot hope for an apology, or any logical (as opposed to emotional) discussion on the matter, I may have taken a very small step towards addressing a fundamental attitude towards his exertion of control over the women in our family. When you consider this issue in the grand scheme of everything my father stands for and has achieved, perhaps it seems like a very small, forgivable ‘but’. In fact, this is the argument that has been put to me multiple times by friends and family who face similar issues with their parents: when you have a father who has given you the world, who has provided for you and supported you, who has made sacrifices and placed your needs before his more times than can ever be counted, why is it so difficult to do the one small thing he is asking of you? This is how many of my friends choose to view the situation.

I would guess that some of you (even some of you in the ‘West’) may agree with my friends. You may think that wearing a t-shirt as opposed to a tank top or avoiding a push-up bra so that I don’t have a cleavage are very small sacrifices to make for my father’s happiness. If that is the case, you are probably thinking (not necessarily incorrectly) that whether something amounts to oppression is a question of degree, and that compromises can and should be made for the people you love. We feel that we ‘owe’ our fathers something for all they have done for us, that they get to have a big say in how we live our (adult) lives because they feed, clothe, educate and support us. Moreover, there is a poisonous, associated guilt complex – we feel we are hurting our fathers by not conforming to the ‘little’ things they want. This, I think, is to do with independence. Somehow, my father is personally affected by what I choose to wear. This is very different to the dynamic in many of my ‘Western’ friends’ houses. There, parents are emotionally affected by the consequences of their daughter’s decision where some detriment has come to the daughter as a ‘result’ of her decision, rather than because they themselves feel hurt by what she has done. It is so difficult for my father to see that I am not doing something to him by wearing a tank top.

I cannot agree with my friends who tell me to make this small compromise. To do so would be to allow myself to feel guilty about having independent thoughts. Perhaps a good argument could be made for ‘owing’ our fathers respect and gratitude for all they have done. But we do not owe them control over what we choose to do with our independent lives. It is not an issue of how much control over our bodies we should compromise, it is the fact that we are asked to make any compromises at all. No matter how small or large the compromise appears to be, the point is that we should not have to compromise our inherent right to have control over our own bodies, especially not for those whom we love and who love us.

Belonging

I no longer feel safe here.

I try not to cry,
But I choke on my tears
Trying to be brave.
I want to go home,
But home is no longer that which I remembered it to be.

Why is it that I feel like I am an outsider in someone else’s land?
It is a disgrace
That as humans we want a safe space
But do not want others to have such a place
Based on race,
The colour of their face
Or the trace
That they may be different
In another way.

Why do we not embrace
Woman or man,
Gay or straight,
Rich or poor?
We use this as a basis
For our justification that is profoundly unjust.

Why is it that even then we are sometimes made to feel like we do not belong?
I am made to feel like a woman in a man’s world,
Shamed for not obeying, second-class, objectified for worth.
But this is all of our earth
So why are we defined by the place of our birth
Or the sex we are given?
Why are we driven to believe that we must fit a mould that does not exist?

What’s yours is mine,
And what’s mine is mine.
There is a fine line between when
We are happy to share and when
We become selfish in despair.
How strange it is that
We cry for strangers
And the tears we weep are drops in the ocean
Of the danger that they drown in?

They wait in line,
We decline
Responsibility.
We may be like ships that pass in the night,
But this is all of our world
What right do we have to say no
When we are willing to take but not to show
Compassion?

I want to go home,
I want to feel safe.
But I can’t.

By Anonymous