Why is Breaking Gender Stereotypes so Difficult?

The news about rapes in India has been very disturbing for me. 7-year-old girl gang-raped who eventually passed away in the hospital after suffering from multiple injuries. A college going girl in my hometown Bhopal was raped near a railway station at a stone throwing distance from my house. The girl was riding her scooter going back home from her tuition classes. Statistics say that there is a rape every 13.5 minutes in India somewhere.

I visit my hometown, Bhopal, multiple times a year. In the morning my mother and I usually spend time reading the newspaper having a cup of chai. We chat about many things. This time I noticed that there was a separate section on the brut

ality against women in the English daily. A separate section just devoted to news from the state reporting on rapes and molestation instances. I found this very shocking, even though I was aware of the many instances of crime against women. But in the newspaper, there it was and suddenly all this hit me harder. The section was filled with a crime against the 4-month-old baby girl to an 84-year-old woman. I just couldn’t read beyond that page. My mother discussed politics news and events in the city. She was unshaken by this page and I was wondering doesn't she find all this very disturbing. The truth is that these news articles have become a part of everyone's lives. My mother is off-course very disturbed about crime against women as we often talk about it over the phone. She and my sister run an NGO, Mahashakti Seva Kendra, in Bhopal dedicated to women's economic empowerment and the topic is very dear to them.

My question still remains, can rape be normalized? How does a society like India with more than a billion in numbers react to the crimes that are committed over and over again on women? There are protests mainly by women, men do join. My acquaintances don’t leave the sight of their young daughters. A few drop and pick-up their daughters from school and avoid buses. Other moms keep calling their daughters’ cell phones while the girls return from work. I have been told never to take a taxi at night especially in Delhi. Never to be out late at night as I would be inviting trouble. Never to do this and never to do that. My sister has often told me “Be careful, this is India”.

With all these thoughts, the researcher in me probed me to conduct a mini-study on gender stereotypes. I am by no means a gender studies expert. I come fresh with actually no perspective with no gender theories in my head. This served me well since the data will help me to find a theoretical perspective that I can relate to and not vice-versa. Asking a group of women “so what do you think of how women should be treated by men” or “what do you think of women emancipation” would have been a major failure. This was a sensitive topic layered with culture, traditions, and beliefs that are very difficult to disentangle. I had to tread on this very carefully. Since the group of women at Mahashakti Seva Kendra were coming from a very different background than mine, I had to be careful not to reveal my opinions even though the topic was so close to my heart and I was ready to change the world. I had to stop my feelings and be an external observer asking many “whys”.

I decided to take a more nuanced route of how values are formed and what are our values. Later on, I showed them some pictures that clearly will make a good topic to debate. For instance, the pictures included a girl wearing shorts and playing hockey, two lady pilots, a lady driving a taxi. I asked them to stand up and take sides rather than just stating their opinions. There were some ladies who changed their opinion quickly when they were asked to move to the "agree' side and "disagree" side. It is also important to note that many women in India are never asked for their opinion, they are simply instructed to do things. So this was a big step when they had to form an opinion and take a (physical) side to the argument. There were a few ladies who were reluctant to share their opinions because they were in opposition to the stance being discussed. My sister, who meets them on a continuous basis, made everyone feel comfortable. The ladies would often look at me to see if I approve or disapprove, but got puzzled since I took no side. They were looking for the right answer and my role was to debate the topic and not tell them what is the “right” thing to do. I was myself confused once they started discussing as I became aware of their contextual realities. I showed no signs of confusion and remain neutral.

Here are some of the findings. Values, as expected, were formed by our environments and we don't realize when this happens and internalize these values unknowingly. Roles are divided by gender. Men are supposed to earn money and work outside. Women are supposed to stay at home. Younger women seem to question some practices at home and are in the process of negotiating with their husbands or fathers on some of them. Patriarchy still exists and men take most of the household decisions. Women look to men for a validation of their decisions on the rare occasions they take the decision. There are intergenerational differences in terms of men holding more progressive stance. The family and the community environment hold back many steps that can be taken to bring gender equality.

Many of these findings hold true irrespective of economic status and educational status. Many of them hold true for me and I can relate to them. I still did not get at the question of rapes and why people opt for such a brutal action. But my research shows some underlying principles of what needs to change. Terms like gender equality, SDG goal 5, equal pay for women, women empowerment are far too removed from what needs to be done. We need to start by changing people's mindsets. We need to start with men. We need us, women, to be fearless and ask questions and make our presence felt. We need to raise our voices and be rude. Challenge our believes and values. If we don't ask, we don't get it.

One question that remains is what is my theoretical framework. In my reading so far, I find Arjun Appadurai’s notions of “scapes” and Witenstein & Saito (2015)’s discussion on “third spaces” very relevant. Mahashakti ladies are transitioning to a space in their lives where they are trying to define their identity which is very different from their home culture. Hope their exploration continues and they let me be a small part of their journey.

#genderstereotypes

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