The Endless Struggle to be “Heard"

Greater Kashmir

“Every woman has known the torment of getting up to speak. Her heart racing, at times entirely lost for words, ground and language slipping away – that’s how daring a feat, how great a transgression it is for a woman to speak – even just open her mouth – in public. A double distress, for even if she transgresses, her words fall almost always upon the deaf male ear, which hears in language only that which speaks in the masculine”, writes Hélène Cixous in The Laugh of the Medusa. If you think patriarchy is a thing of past, you are mistaken. The fact that many of us hesitate to use the term ‘patriarchy’ is one of the reasons that enables it to survive. Patriarchy is everyday sexism, but it is more than everyday sexism. Patriarchy embraces misogyny, but relies on more than misogyny. Patriarchy produces gender inequality, but its consequences run deeper than gender inequality. The historical nature of gender based violence confirms that it is not an unfortunate deviation. Rather it is systematically established in our culture and society, reinforced and powered by patriarchy. In a research conducted by UNICEF, it was concluded that 57% of Indian boys felt it was justified for a man to beat his wife. Astonishingly, they were aged between 15 to 19 years.

Male aggression against women is justified by the deeply rooted thought that men should assert their dominance over women. The moment a woman steps out of her home it means being prepared for potential molesters, stalkers, moral policing.  Wittingly or unwittingly, such behaviour of men is constantly normalized through seemingly innocuous phrases like “men will be men”, “why did you provoke him”, “behave like a woman”, “you can’t challenge nature”. Here it becomes vitally important to emphasize that the boundaries that this “damsel in distress” is considered to have crossed are not determined by nature but by patriarchal system that situates man at the centre. The technique of silencing has been an effective strategy to subjugate and control women’s speech, behaviors, bodies and activities. It stems from age old traditions, cultural practices social constructions and negative stereotyping.

Resistance to woman’s voice does not remain confined to homes, workplaces and public spaces. The gender based resistance now extends to digital domains. Be it social media platforms, discussion rooms, comment sections, women face extreme hostility for raising their voice. They are intimidated, shamed and discredited. The most recent example being that of  some women who took to Twitter in the context of a certain even in India. It suddenly created mass hysteria. Trolls didn’t spare any of them. They were subject to sexist, racist barbs and misogyny of the worst kind. How can ‘the second sex’ have an opinion of her own?

As free thinking individuals, each one of us (irrespective of gender) is entitled to an opinion and ideology. One is free to agree or disagree with your ideology or perspective. But such blatant and insane misogyny in the “attacks” against these women is nauseating. It is nothing but complete moral bankruptcy. And this doesn’t apply to a few nameless trolls. What is more disgusting is the way some “respectable men” respond and partake in this mudslinging. They find it hilarious and harmless.

Our voice is one of the most important aspects of our personality (With voice I do not mean the sound produced by our vocal cords but the right to express our opinions and preferences). Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand. Unfortunately the history of silence is central to the history of women. The thinly veiled misogyny that colours our everyday existence becomes apparent whenever a woman expresses her opinion publicly. Unless her views do not correspond and coincide with the views of men, these are regarded as gibberish. Because trolls now know that  their methods are effective and carry only minimal chance of social stigma and essentially no other punishment, they have a “tag” and a “label” for every women who does not fall in line with their ideology. And the only purpose of this shaming is to silence women.

When it comes to politics, women’s views are often left hanging out to dry as they are either conveniently ignored or dismissed. In our patriarchal set-up, articulate women don’t have it easy. It takes a lot of courage to brave all the odds and speak your mind, especially when you don’t know what kind of backlash your response may elicit.

There is a long historical precedence of inhibiting or even prohibiting women’s speech and writings for public consumption. During the 17th century, in England, Mary Astell made an observation that men were trying to prevent women from writing. Women writers had to hide their identities and adopting male pseudonyms in order to combat sexism and prejudice. Using a male pen-name often helped a female author get her foot in the door of the publishers who didn’t think the literary world was a place for women. In his work, Mrs Hutchinson, Nanthaniel Hawthorne states that ‘the hastiest glance may show  how much of the texture and body of cisatlantic literature is the work of those slender fingers from which only …fanciful embroidery has heretofore been required’.  In 1833, Maria W. Stewart, the first African-American woman to make public lectures and probably the first woman to speak to audiences of men and women, was greeted with “hoots, jeers, and a barrage of rotten tomatoes.” Mary Wollstonecraft was called a “hyena in petticoat” when she tried to speak for women’s liberation and gender equality.

The current online harassment against women, especially prominent and successful women, is a continuation of this tradition of silencing through intimidation and harassment. Like the historical campaigns against women’s public speaking or writing, those who attack women online seek to stop women from fully participating in the new public venue called Internet.

An overwhelming number of abusive and derogatory comments toward women online relate to women’s physical appearance and sexuality. In gender trolling attacks, the most painful and shameful words are attributed to women and they are body shamed by calling them ‘ugly’, ‘fat’, ‘black’ and much worse. But should this barbarism and brutality deter us from speaking? Well, we have two options. We can let the fear and angst mute and shut us up. Or we can be everything that patriarchy doesn’t want us to be– outspoken, fearless, brave, confidant. We can use our voice to question the socially and culturally constructed inequalities. We can speak because our little voice has power to change the world for better:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Rehana Bhat is Assistant Professor Post Graduate Department of English, Islamia College of Science and Commerce, Srinagar