By Bhawna Sharma
Women seem to find themselves at the receiving end of inherently sexist attitudes and policies. We are told to not have sex with multiple partners before marriage and have kids before it’s too late. I can’t find any equivalent prescriptions for men precisely because there aren’t any for them.
At the end of the day, it’s women who get the short end of the stick when it comes to choosing their career and sexuality.
Women and careers: Asking for too much?
In Japan for example, attitudes towards women remain unflinchingly paternalistic despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambitious womenomics plans. Last year, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party MP Kato Kanji said that women should have multiple children, hinting that single women were a burden on the state. In fact, single women in their thirties have been dubbed as makeinu (or ‘loser dogs’) because no matter how good they may be career-wise, they’ll always be incomplete until they become mothers.
Unsurprisingly, males from the same demographic don’t suffer any consequences if they choose career over family. Women are always left in the lurch from institutionalised bias: if they focus more on career, they are pressured to give more time to family, but when they choose family, they are effectively severed from the workforce. Having the best of both worlds is a utopian dream.
Even in Singapore, ostensibly one of the leading countries in terms of gender parity, women face double-standards at the workplace the minute they leave work after giving birth. Women who take unpaid leave to care for their children are often “unreliable” in the eyes of employers, many of whom prefer workers who do not have to share their commitment between home and work. Meanwhile, having kids seems to leave men’s career prospects unaffected.
Living in the Victorian Era of Virtue
If careers are a double-edged sword women have to balance, then promiscuity is the decisive factor marking their virtue. In Asia, the onus of remaining a virgin before marriage squarely falls on women.
Women who’ve had sex in Lebanon are undergoing ‘reparative’ surgeries to make it seem like they’re virgins before marriage, and despite embracing transgenders, the Thai society still imposes on women the harsh standard of remaining virgins until marriage. What is acutely disturbing here is the way entertainment approaches it. Millions of Thais relish watching lakorns (romantic melodramas) as a nightly routine. In these stories, a major trope relies on rape as a catalyst to love, where the heroine falls in love with her rapist despite feeling shamed. The male protagonist justifies rape as a legitimate ‘punishment’ for whatever reason and often gets away with it legally. For a country reeling from high rates of teenage pregnancy due to inadequate sex education, one can’t help but notice the hypocrisy of social attitudes regarding promiscuity and sexual violence.
In fact, no where is hypocrisy of the sexes as glaring as in India. Sex remains a controversial topic, and a woman’s sexual freedom is repeatedly repressed in mainstream media. Whenever a bold film tackling women’s desires is set for release, the censorship board creates a ruckus – they even deemed 2016 Oxfam-Award winning Lipstick Under My Burkha too ‘lady-oriented’ (fortunately, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal stepped in and issued the film’s release). Nobody seems to make any fuss with Bollywood item numbers (song and dance sequences) showing scantily-clad women dancing for male pleasure, or men pursuing different women for sex. The stories often involve stalking and eve-teasing (a South Asian euphemism for sexual harassment), which are somehow prerequisites for romance. If the roles were reversed, she’d be condemned for overstepping her boundaries.
Gender Equality in the West: Fact or Fiction?
While it’s easy to pin down the promiscuity double-standard in Asia that doesn’t mean the ‘liberal’ West has achieved true equality either. A slut-shaming culture thrives in high schools across U.K, America, and Australia where young girls are derided for having more than one sexual partner. Guys, on the other hand, are free to wield sex as a symbol of popularity and power (one doesn’t need to look beyond films like American Pie to find examples).
Sometimes, it’s the school themselves that are guilty of victimisation culture: over the years, high schools in cities like Indianapolis and Kentucky have mandated dress codes, implicitly blaming the way girls dress for unwelcome male advances. Consider the tragic case of seventeen-year-old Lindsay Armstrong who committed suicide shortly after a horrific rape trial in which the defence lawyer forced her to hold her thong in court, and proved that she was ‘asking for it’. Contrast that to the 2017 case of Stanford undergraduate Brock Turner, who was sentenced to just three months in jail for sexual assault after the judge expressed ‘concern’ for his future.
The truth is that the double-standards women have to face are so insidiously enmeshed into our social fabric that sometimes we don’t even realise it. Think about the number of times you’ve seen a cooking advertisement where a woman isn’t running the household. Or how many times your friends instantly judged the way a girl dressed.
A gendered society invariably affects everyone – young girls have to cut their dreams short and young boys become desensitised towards the opposite sex. We have a long way to go in ending the double-standards imposed on women. Perhaps the best way to kickstart change is with education, because that’s what empowers people to fight for what’s right. If we continue telling girls that they can’t play football, they’re going to believe that their whole life. The journey won’t be easy, but I believe that with awareness and education, we’ll reach that mountain someday.