Don't take it casually!

Anjali Jhangiani
Saturday, 27 January 2018

Among the many battles that women have to fight daily is casual sexism. Anjali Jhangiani talks to celebrities from different fields to know why we should not brush it under the carpet but instead try to shed our deep-seated patriarchal conditioning and help establish a more equal society

When can women make you a millionaire? Only when you’re a billionaire. Did you laugh at that? If you did, let us tell you that it wasn’t just a laugh, it was casual sexism that is deep-seated in your psyche as a result of years and years of patriarchal conditioning, oozing out in the form of a chuckle. Now that feminism is here, you would be conscious about not doing something that would make you a sexist. You wouldn’t ‘openly’ discriminate against women and agree to the ‘notion’ that men and women should have equal opportunities and rights, but joking about it seems to be perfectly fine. Well, it’s not. No matter how much humour you wrap sexism in, however casual you make it, it’s still a form of sexism that must die to make society a more equal one.  

And because casual sexism is so casual, it becomes difficult to decide whether to call it out, confront it subtly, let it go or laugh it off. We speak to a few established professionals to find out how to deal with this issue that most of us are unintentionally indulging in.

 For different people, causal sexism comes out in different forms. But essentially, it is nothing more than one’s own notions, prejudices, beliefs based on patriarchal conditioning, and it’s not very hard to notice it in mundane events around you.

Nupur Asthana, director of the 1998 TV series Hip Hip Hurray, the film Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge and web series Romil and Jugal based on a gay love story, says, “Statistically, maximum accidents that you read about in the newspaper, are caused by male drivers, still you always find people talking about women drivers. It really annoys me. Most women drivers diligently follow signals and other traffic rules, which tend to irritate those who point out ‘Look! Must be a woman driver!’ because they’ve made their own traffic rules to follow.” She adds, “Nobody wants to say they’re sexist, it’s become a politically incorrect thing. Casual sexism is very sneaky, it’s insidious.”

From a male perspective on this matter, comedian Sapan Verma says, “Sexism is one of those things that you don’t realise you’re doing, but you are. Because we’ve seen it before we think it’s a norm and we don’t question it. A typical situation would be if you’re out drinking with friends and one of your female friends orders a whisky on the rocks, there will be men in the group that will go ‘Oh! Whisky! That too on the rocks! I thought she’d have wine or vodka.’ Why? Because that’s causal sexism.”

Author Kiran Manral aptly explains, “If you’ve ever said, ‘Don’t behave like a girl,’ you’re being casually sexist, if you’ve expected the woman in the conference room to organise the coffee, you’ve been casually sexist. Every single time you’ve created a binary in your head about what women do and what men do in everyday situations you’ve been casually sexist.”

What is wrong with it?
No matter how much women achieve or how much they struggle to be on an equal footing with men, people’s ‘light-hearted’ casual sexism will hold back the feminist movement. Feminism is about men and women having equal rights, not about society pretending that men and women have equal rights. The difference between being sexist and being casually sexist is the intention — in the case of the former one consciously discriminates and in the latter, one is unaware of the sexism in their action.

Kiran points out that casual sexism is all around us, a lot of it is due to internal and social conditioning over the years, and we need to call it out not just in those around us but also in ourselves. “When you go to a restaurant, the menu will be handed to the woman but the bill will be handed to the husband. Or getting ‘mansplained’ all the time, like you bleed out your brains with your menstrual blood every month. The icing on the cake was one smart alec, who ‘mansplained’ the concept of giving birth, because, of course, the offspring was dropped into my arms by the stork!” quips the mother of a teenage son.

Mansplaining became a ‘thing’ when actor Ranbir Kapoor interrupted co-star Katrina Kaif in the middle of her answer to a question about their then upcoming film by host Karan Johar in a talk show. At an interview with comedy group All India Backchod later, Ranbir admitted he didn’t know that he was ‘mansplaining’, but took it as an opportunity to learn about it and now try to refrain from it.

Nupur says, “I’ve been directing for years now, but if there’s a technical issue with the lens or the lighting, just because I’m a woman, people assume I won’t understand it and I find men trying to talk over me in such situations.”

Actress Nushrat Bharucha, who acted in gender-war films like Pyaar Ka Punchnama (PKP) and its sequel, points out, “Because it is fictional (casual sexism in the movies she’s been a part of), it is fun and games. But it bothers me that if someone can write those dialogues, it hasn’t come from another world, obviously somewhere somebody’s heard it or has been in those circles where these things are talked about. My problem about it is that nobody will downright say, ‘Oh we are or this is sexist,’ they will make it casual, create a joke about it and if you take offence, you’ll be the spoilsport and people will wonder why you’re being so serious.”

She adds, “Now everything is become very ‘behind-the-curtain’ and people are hypocritical. From sexists, they’ve become casually sexists.”
One of the best people to point out that casual feminism is not okay, is the man who became famous because of it — actor Kartik Aaryan, known for his casually sexist monologues in his debut film PKP and its sequel, about how hard it is for men to deal with women. He claims that casual sexism in his movies does not represent his personal feelings.
“In the films, it’s the perspective of the character. When the first film came out with the monologue, it was supposed to be taken with a pinch of salt. I see a lot of sexism in real life, and I don’t preach it. I think equality is important and healthy for society,” says Kartik adding that sexism, even if it’s casual, makes society regressive.

Call it out or let it go?
Feminism is something we are all learning about for the last couple of years, says Sapan. “Five years ago, we were not as vocal about sexism in India. When I look back, I see some of my own jokes from five years ago had an element of casual sexism. Now, I wonder what was I thinking! I was not aware that I was being sexist back then, but as we keep learning about feminism, reading and talking about it, we realise that we’re changing for the better. Pretty much all the comedians that started out a decade ago have done sexist jokes, you know wife jokes because that’s what we’ve grown up watching in movies, reading in books, seeing at our homes. Casual sexism is in our upbringing, so things come out like that. But now because we’re talking about it, more and more people are becoming aware of the issue and about how they are wrong.”

The comedian believes that once in a while, there will be a slightly sexist joke by a comedian, and they won’t even realise it till someone points it out. But the good news is that times are changing. “Even I’m casually sexist once in a while, but when I am made aware of it, I am mindful of it,” he says.

Calling it out, or reprimanding the culprit might not get you the result you expect, instead it might put the culprit on defence. He thinks the best way to point out casual sexism is, well, casually.

Nupur too feels the same. “How you tackle the issue of casual sexism varies from situation to situation. Today, we have the first generation of liberal men who think they’re very liberal, but they’re not. If a woman earns more than you, and that intimidates you, you’re not a liberal. Your frustration will come out in the form of little, yet hurtful, retorts. So, of course one should call it out, but you might not be able to do it every time,” she says, pointing out that if your boss shares a casually sexist joke, it might be difficult to confront him without blowing things out of proportion, or it is really difficult to introduce the idea of feminism to very old people who are set in their ways. But if it’s a peer-to-peer situation, one must not back down from pointing out casual sexism with a polite conversation.  

Kiran has some tips up her sleeve. “I tend to call it out with a joke or a quiet statement most times. Sometimes it also depends on the person who is being casually sexist, sometimes it just doesn’t matter and one just lets it go, because after all there are only so many battles one can fight in a day. But more often that not, I think I tend to make a point about it, gently but firmly.”

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