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With friends like these

  • Published at 06:39 pm May 16th, 2017
With friends like these

In light of the train wreck that women’s safety has become, specifically on the topic of the rape case that took place in the capital, my mother’s question was: Why did they go in the first place?

Victim-blaming or not, my mother is a product of a system that’s a world apart than the one that shaped me. I could reason with her, and any subsequent understanding she would come across still lingered as foreign.

I told her how the only method that would ensure some kind of safety for women was by doing exactly that she had suggested: Not go outside.

Don’t go to the party. Don’t go to the restaurant. Don’t. Go.

In fact, any time a woman steps foot outside her home, she’s under attack. Her body is under attack, either by eyes, words, hands, mouth.

But being at home is not a feasible solution. Not to my mother, not to me, not to the part-time housemaid. So we negotiate.

Women negotiate with their realities every step of the way -- and at the risk of sounding presumptuous -- much more so than men do.

Patriarchal bargains

In her paper in 1988, Turkish author Deniz Kandiyoti summarised that women manoeuvre around the constraints of their lives by ways of strategising in order to optimise life options and maximise their security, all the while accommodating societal norms. A process that she refers to as patriarchal bargains.

This bargaining comes in various shapes, sizes, and ways; from the clothes we choose to wear, to the tone and volume of our voices, to the things we say, the company we choose to keep. Ultimately, the handful of safe spaces we find usually revolve around our families and other people we trust -- our friends.

The friends we surround ourselves with -- the women and the men -- more or less hold similar values as us. Progressive values. Values that aren’t exclusionary, that commemorate equality, justice, tolerance.

So despite the progress, the fight for equality, all the talk of smashing the patriarchy, we still can’t shake off the deeply ingrained prejudice. And for women, even in the safe little spaces we’ve created, there is no escape

After all, they are the products of the same system that we are.

But within these safe spaces, women sometimes find themselves in perils brought on by trust. We find that maybe not all our male friends have the same expectations as we do from our friendships.

We might feel that their understandings, especially to the plight of women’s cause, and towards us as women -- despite how angry it makes them feel to see what happens to girls on a daily basis, and by how normalised this imbalance has become -- have been under a pretense of progress.

It becomes a little clearer when we see what expectations they have from their female partners, or in the specific ways they would be overbearingly protective of them.

It becomes clearer in closed spaces and tones. Gestures and body language. Sometimes subtle, sometimes otherwise. It’s when we somehow just don’t reciprocate that our eyes really open up -- and not other things.

A history of oppression

The issue of women’s subjugation and objectification has been imprinted on us, our parents, and their parents through history, mythology, culture, media, and what-have-you. Everywhere we look, women have been, without justification, the small, the fragile. And both men and women internalise that stance within themselves quite well.

So, despite the progress, the fight for equality, all the talk of smashing the patriarchy, we still can’t shake off the deeply ingrained prejudice. And for women, even in the safe little spaces we’ve created, there is no escape.

I can vouch for all women when I say we’ve been on the receiving end of sexual harassment and assault -- subtle or otherwise, from a stranger or friend, on a daily basis or occasionally. Stories abound of where my women friends, co-workers, classmates, have been subjected to emotional abuse because of their passivity, or where their sexual appeal was the only thing that mattered about them.

I can also vouch for the men in my life that they wouldn’t ever, on their own volition, be misogynistic.

But there’s an undertone that has been well perched inside, and despite us being products of the same (or different) systems, it’s still very real. And when it comes out, it’s still very sexist.

And when the men we trusted and felt safe among perpetrate the same things that they so vehemently argue against, where are our safe places? Where has negotiation gotten us?

Is it time to stay within the confines of our walls?

Luba Khalili is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune.