I am going to write about something I am not very comfortable with- violence against women and how we deal with it as a society. I grew up in India where I was constantly told to protect myself against violence by behaving in a certain way- I never questioned it as I thought it was wise to protect myself in a society that was less than ideal rather than become a victim; I behaved in a certain way and I have been privileged and lucky in that I have not had a single act of violence perpetrated against me all my life- perhaps some stray incident of discrimination, but never violence or abuse in any form. Also, I have been a naturally confident and empowered woman all my life and have again been lucky by the circumstance of my birth and by my upbringing to be surrounded by men who always made me feel equal. Which have all led me to think that women can be perfectly safe and secure in this world, if they want to be. Unfortunately, this is not true as is evident by the number of high-profile cases of violence against women that get played out in the media and an even larger number that do not get an airing in public.
I have been having discussions and arguments with my daughters on this topic as well and we have had violent disagreements- while I subscribe to the view that the responsibility to be safe rests with the woman, my daughters argue that it should not be so- they feel that the world should be a safe place and that women should not be expected to behave in a certain manner or ‘protect themselves’ in a particular fashion in order to feel safe and secure. I attended a workshop on ‘Violence against women’ with my younger daughter and was shocked to learn about the high incidence of violence against women (domestic and otherwise), even in a society like Singapore, which is perceived as a safe haven for women. I was shocked to learn that gender roles and stereotypes are still highly prevalent, which lead to violence because they create unequal power by putting women and men in boxes that they may not fit into. Gender stereotypes like: men have to earn more than women, women are responsible for the house and childcare, boys have to ask girls out, girls have to be thin and wear make-up and so on. As a mother of girls I have always thought about teaching my girls to be empowered and also to protect themselves when required because I believe in the dictum- better to be safe than sorry. However, I have been told by my daughter that it will not do, that I have to be a catalyst in making the change towards a better society and not a silent bystander or passive acceptor of things the way they are.
The workshop I attended upset my equilibrium, rattled my complacency, if you will. I was made to realise the problem of violence against women was much more real than I thought it was and that the language of inequality shows up in many ways including sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, victim-blaming, sexual objectification and rape culture.
What can we do to make this society a better place? I am not a mother of boys, but I believe mothers and fathers of boys and the society that a boy grows up in should tell the boys that they can make a difference in ways big and small. Here are a few ways in which boys can make a difference:
– Support women’s choices: whether it is at work or at home, or the way they dress, women should have the right to make decisions about their lives;
– Speak up when your ‘dude’ friends are sexist or disrespectful- it is not feminine to do so;
– Even if society has taught you that you can always get your way, unlearn that. Learn to take ‘no’ for an answer; learn to break stereotypes;
– Don’t take your freedom and privileges for granted just because you are a man; work towards making a woman get the same freedom and privileges;
– Violence against women is not just a women’s issue- it is a men’s issue too;
– Question a culture where aggression is glorified; being a man does not mean being aggressive, dominant or controlling;
– Don’t judge women by their appearance or the way they dress;
– Share work at home- listen to women and girls; respect their thoughts and ideas, feelings and experiences even if very different from yours;
– Seek and build equal relationships based on mutual respect and trust.
Go on, be a man- change the world you live in and make it safer for the woman!