Within every research, one will face questions that, seemingly, aren’t the ones that help you solve the main problem. They may occur as an irrelevant obstacle on your way, like a mud puddle on the road, your feet get stuck into. It is valueless for whatever you’re heading to and extremely slows down your journey to get there. Seemingly. Because only when you wrestle yourself out of this, it hits you that in any way you had to go through this mud puddle to get on the right, paved track again.
And so the story goes for us. In our previous blog we described our struggle with defining the research question, one that would capture the complexity of the topic we’re trying to get a grip on: improving women’s safety in Indian public spaces.
After deciding our three broad focuses, the short term, long term and unify, a new round of blowing up and deconstruction followed.
For the long term focus, this came down to a closer look into masculinity. How can we understand the Indian masculine culture? How can we understand the patriarchic society? What in this man-dominated way of life can we point out as a factor for sexual harassment of women?
Obviously, deciding on capturing this focus within our research that sheds light on the more deeply rooted cause of women’s harassment in Indian public spaces, we couldn’t proceed without having these questions answered. Therefore, an understanding of how and when masculinity, and its counterpart femininity, were established is also required. This is where gender made its entrance. And this is where that mud puddle came on our path.
By digging into numerous articles about feminism, rules of masculinity, and gender construction we threw ourselves into the deep. Yet, with this theoretical framework, carefully selected and composed by Nivi and Sruthi, we managed to keep our heads above the mud. The matter was fairly comprehensible and yes, in the world around us we could recognize the social rules of gender construction that were addressed in these papers. But needless to say, this way of understanding stays rather on the level of a spectator’s notion, containing an outsider view on the case. A more deeper conception of how gender operates within all aspects of society could only be achieved if also looked into the topic from an insider’s perspective.
With some simple, though effective experiments, Nivi and Sruthi taught us to think about the deviation of male and female, masculinity and femininity, that is apparent in our own private everyday life.
To illustrate. Close your eyes. Imagine yourself going to work, doing groceries, hanging around with friends. Just doing your daily routine. But, dressed in a pink skirt that goes swish-swish. As most of our team members are male, the following overall facial expressions floated between alienation and horror. Why? Why were we feeling highly uncomfortable with only thinking of ourselves in a pink skirt? Do we think this pink skirt threatens our manliness? If so, then why? Out of this, we were asked to answer the question, “How do you define a man or a woman?” for ourselves. What do we picture if we think of a man? What do we picture if we think of a woman? It was this seemingly innocent, small exercise that made us realize that we couldn’t keep our heads above the muddy surface at all.
Because all what we listed as a characteristic, quality or association for a man or a woman couldn’t be attributed to only men or only women, for we knew there were also men and women that didn’t have those characteristics, or, do have characteristics that are assigned to the other sex.
For example, girls have long hair, soft voice, don’t like sport, but are more fond of signing. Does this mean that there are no guys with long hair and softer voice, preferring singing above sports? And if girls do like sport, does that make them a boy then? Do we consider a man more of a woman if he doesn’t have broad shoulders?
Clearly, no we do not. Then what makes a man a man? What is the definition of a woman? Are we sure we can define a man or a woman?
It appeared that neither the people around us nor ourselves could fulfill all aspects in our own lists. So we tried harder. But the harder we tried to make this list exhaustive and the harder we tried to define rules for the exceptions on the rules, the more complicated the matter of gender seemed to become. With every step the mud surrounded us more and sucked us deeper into the puddle, trapping us with every attempt to move in any direction.
We obviously didn’t succeed in sketching an all-embracing image of a man and a woman. Yet, we definitely could determine people around us being just one of those two. Also, we definitely considered ourselves a man or a woman. If this deviation between men and women isn’t that binary and boundaries therefore are very blurry, what then makes us so sure of our capability of defining a man and a woman? What is here at play, that we, almost unconsciously, construct these sets of criteria that indicate a man or a woman?
We bumped into grand narrative, a concept I hope will be described meaningfully here. Grand narrative is the set of rules no one can clearly explain nor pinpoint, but everyone knows them. This set of rules gives one an identity within society and a corresponding code of conduct. This is already defined for you, and therefore gives comfort and a notion of confirmation. Also, it provides one a set of attributes the ‘other’ hasn’t and one can exploit in his or her advantage against the ‘other’. This way, an unwritten social law becomes evident. One can conform to this social law, one can also discard it. But one can not completely escape from it. It is fluid, always changing and therefore both inclusionary and exclusionary. Complete refusal and non-conformation of it indirectly shows an acknowledgement that it is there, which eventually still makes one a part of it. Within interaction with each other, we get confirmation in our social roles we are set to behave to, for others are treating us according to these roles as well.
For instance, a woman parked her car wrongly and is fined by a police officer. She then takes the classic role of the damsel in distress, helplessly put in the subordinate position, hoping for the police officer’s grace so he will withdraw the fine. However she may highly object to this behavior in other situations, she knows that this role may work in her advantage now. She knows that her particular behavior, confirming him in his more powerful position, might affect the officer and will persuade him being the gentleman and forgive her. No one taught those two their roles. Only through interaction with others they know about it.
Slowly we got a grip of this phenomena that, frustratingly, we couldn’t articulate before. Because although we indeed knew those rules (without being able to explain where we learned them), they seemed too much of a matter of course, that we did not even think about pronouncing them.
So, having explicitly named the rules at play within gender construction, now what? What was the benefit from this struggle? Obviously the mud puddle had trapped us and we did not like to bust through it. But, although we might not want to admit it, having knowledge of this complex matter was an eye opener. An eye opener that is needed to continue a project dealing with these invisible social structures. Recognizing and then questioning this grand narrative, gives us insights in how gender is constructed, maintained and operates in society. And therefore we can now view masculinity and femininity from both an insider and an outsider perspective, being able to deconstruct and evaluate them more thoroughly.
We can now see the value of our fight with the mud. We managed to get trough the puddle, let’s follow that paved track again.