Our face, a genteel masquerade. Sometimes opaque, at other times transparent. Beneath, a scarier, second face. Which the face, which the mask, can we tell?
Like online trolling, anything can become the norm if enough people have grown used to it, approve and give it mass approbation. Even an evil like misogyny. But unlike online trolling, misogyny has been manifest, as a form of offline trolling so to say, for centuries perhaps aeons. So much a part of us now, it’s a bio-cultural entity we have absorbed and turned into a second face. For some it is feudally grotesque, angrier than most. For others, it’s an urbane facade.
Last week something happened that made this second face jump out at the world. We were all suddenly very, very aware of it. While for some of us this was an aha! moment, for most it was just an excuse to trot out old feudal chestnuts to mansplain, even ‘womansplain’ (when a woman rationalises patriarchal norms) this second face. Because they grew up with it, and were so used to it, they were not happy that it was being called out as bad, evil.
On July 10 this year, a rich and famous actor was arrested in Kerala, south India, for allegedly hatching a conspiracy to sick a gang of sexual assaulters on a fellow actress in February. The police say he insisted the perpetrators make sure they filmed the attack. Why? Because he held a deep-seated grudge against the young woman and wanted to put her in her place.
I am from Kerala, though I do not live there anymore. I was riveted by this story, because I have heard the same words my whole life. That a woman has to know her place and has to be kept in her place. Defying this cultural diktat can prove to be a perilous act, fraught with dangers like being named and shamed, being labelled stubborn, cruel and arrogant for insisting that everything is not quite right in that world, for demanding reparation. Such a woman will be marked out as an aberration.
Try talking to someone who belongs in that culture about its inherent misogyny, there will be assured umbrage, or a defensive “it is the same elsewhere in India”. They like to say, this is our culture, this is our way. And always the clincher: “what you want is western”.
Everyday subliminal misogyny can be an implicit bias just like racism, or in the Indian context caste prejudice. Many people in India do not realise that they treat women in this manner. Take one minor example from daily life: women drivers in urban Indian centres, advantaged compared to the majority of Indian women, will inevitably have male parking attendants explain parking manoeuvres to them even if they don’t need help. Learning to drive itself can be a hard-won skill for these women, their paths strewn with outsize obstacles all derived from thinly-disguised misogyny.
Many Indian women depending upon their position on the rungs of privilege or entitlement are culturally conditioned from birth to accept this bias against them. They learn helplessness. They are told how they must dress for modesty, exhibit submissive body language and be soft-spoken lest they be mistaken for fishwives, a sexist pejorative like so many other words in our collective languages.
I must confess now that the umbrage of the people I face cows me despite my “stubbornness and arrogance”. The pressure is sometimes so great I grow mute, tumble deep into myself, my voice quelled for that moment. This pattern repeats itself ad nauseam: misogyny, protest, labels like hard-hearted and stubborn, followed by fruitless periods of despairing silence.
People are also very smart. When a woman is detected as standing up to the cruelty she has faced in her life, she is oftentimes told she’s cruel. It’s like when those who peddle fake news turn around and call the real news fake. This is a stymying strategy, and it is a difficult ask for most women to find their way around this minefield of emotional machination.
We could try to break with the feudal covenant and attempt to talk about it. But no one will hear us out, nor do they want to know about the constant brainwashing. The unrelenting psychological wrangling to wrest our silence, and since, as the woman who speaks up, which by definition for the lay misogynist is an act of “arrogance”, they do not want to hear us out as punishment for this presumed arrogance.
So we are in a way damned; riddled with doubt and insecurity like no man or perhaps a woman of high privilege will ever be, the only certainty in our lives the knowledge that support will never come our way. The lay misogynists, both men and women, always pass for civilised in the outside world, but inside, deep within the family hearth it is a different story. All affectation of respectability will fall away, as the outer mask is removed and the inner facade exposed.
Outside, genteel misogynists gang up innocuously against anyone sharp enough to discern the second face, borne of medieval custom and tradition, and this culture of persistent misogyny gathers pace. Till it reaches a tipping point.
The visceral gargoyle beneath, the camouflaged second face surfaces. It has become so big, of such swollen, monstrous proportion that it can’t help but come out to claim cultural space.
This is what happened in Kerala in the case of the actor that allegedly hired a gang to sexually assault his fellow actress. At this juncture, society needs to blink back. It can’t afford to stop with token words of sympathy for the actress and let things go on as ever. The demon inside is aeons old, we need to face it down.