There have been enough debates and writings about patriarchy over the course of human civilization. So is there anything new that I can add to this debate? I doubt it. But I am going to try and show how patriarchy has led to benevolent sexism, and how it is as likely to prevent female empowerment as overt sexism. There is no better way than to give personal examples from the world I live in.
I will start off by making a confession – I was a benevolent sexist till my early 20s. It wasn’t until a friend finally told me “Dude, stop trying to make me feel helpless. Let me feel the self-respect of accomplishing something by myself.” Not only did I realize my mistake, but it started the process of understanding benevolent sexism. It appears to be beneficial to women, but it actually makes them feel helpless. Chivalry, although it has acquired a romantic notion, was a form of benevolent sexism. Women were considered weak and they needed to be protected by men. They needed to be saved by their knight in a shining armor. A single woman wasn’t expected to take care of herself. A woman was incapable of doing something and so should be helped. These were the notions of chivalry, notions that our patriarchal society has continued in a benevolent form of sexism.
We are being sexists when we say women should not be able to do something because they are emotional. When we put women on a “lady-like” pedestal and tell them what a “lady” should or shouldn’t do, we take away their choices. A tough woman working in the fields was never considered a “lady”. It is the woman who was taken care of by a man who was a “lady”. When we say a good woman is a good wife and a good mother, we take away their choices. And “good wife” has hardly ever meant as an equal partner, it has always meant as an obedient wife. And not every woman wants to be a mother, nor are all women good mothers. Isn’t our society littered with troubled adults because they had horrible mothers (and fathers)? Yet we have many societies that look down upon women who do not want to marry or do not want to have kids. Unlike overt and hostile sexism, many of us give in to benevolent sexism unknowingly. I certainly have been guilty of it and I still have work to do on it.
Recently I experienced something that once again opened my eyes. A young girl was carrying a few bags and I instinctively offered to carry some of her bags. She replied, “no, I got it. I am an independent girl”. I was actually impressed by her. This story can be spun in two ways. I might have made an innocent offer to help her and she turned it down rudely. But I also had to think, would I have made that instinctive offer if it were a male carrying a few bags. Or did I make it because I wanted to help a girl. It certainly wasn’t an inconvenience for her. But I thought it might be. Offering help to someone isn’t bad. In other examples, I hold the door open for everyone. But I can also see why specifically doing extra for women can make them feel as if we are treating them as helpless adults. It exists in cultures when we say that women shouldn’t have to work outside. It exists when we say they shouldn’t be doing tough jobs. In the end, benevolent sexism treats women as weak and as people who need a man to be their protector.
So why does it seem to be popular in many places? Firstly, it has been instilled in us from childhood about the nature of women, which is weak and emotional and in need of protection. Secondly, women support benevolent sexism in places where hostile sexism is highly prevalent. In places where women are made to feel inferior and have much of their rights denied, benevolent sexism where they can be protected becomes more alluring.
Sexism harms both genders because it focuses on negative gender differences. I will be the first to admit that the two genders aren’t the same. When we average the 3.5 billion men and women on the planet, we do have many differences. But everyone does not fall within those generalizations. And sexist attitudes and gender roles affects those who do not follow those norms. That is why a woman who wants to focus on a career gets ostracized. Benevolent sexism is when a man who cannot support a large family all by himself is made to feel like a failure. It tells girls that they must give up career for husband and children. It tells boys that they must not show emotions. It calls assertive women as bossy, and sensitive men as weak. When we talk about weakness, we usually equate it with feminine traits and feminine body parts. When we want to talk of strength, we talk about “being a man” or some male body parts. This inherent attitude that women are weak and men are strong is what defines benevolent sexism. It doesn’t allow individuals to be themselves, but to follow norms established by society. And if we can’t be ourselves, how are we ever going to be happy?
And sexism, like anything else in life, is practiced by both genders. Hostile sexism is highly beneficial to men. They get to keep women below them and make the rules about what men and women cannot do. But benevolent sexism is also embraced by a lot of entitled women who feel they deserve a lot of benefits from men just because they are women. They might complain about overt sexism that curtails their rights, but they have no problem with the sexism that allows for men to provide for them or support them. While hostile sexism puts stress on women to fit in to an “ideal” female role, benevolent sexism puts stress on men to fit in to an “ideal” male role. Both attitudes curtail choices, freedom, and our individuality. “Women are supposed to…” is no different than “men are supposed to…” Maybe many do want to follow the norms and it is their choice. But when we make it societal expectations, we invade the space of individuals who do not want to or cannot follow those traditional roles. We will always have hypocrites who will want only what is good for them, while not offering the same to the other side, but we cannot have a society that determines what an individual must or must not do, and we certainly can’t have a society whose idea of the woman is “weak” in need of protection, and whose idea of the man is “strong” and as the protector. We certainly do not live in the jungles where men need to protect women from wild beasts.
For both genders to move forward, we must stop imposing gender norms, either overtly or benevolently. Each gender has its strengths and weaknesses, as does an individual. Let us complement each other as different genders and as individuals. Let us focus on our strengths. We cannot treat half of humanity as if it is weak and needs protection. Let us empower women as leaders, preachers, parent, workers, soldiers, doctors, teachers, and legislators. Let us do the same for men! To move forward, let us give the individual the freedom to be who they want to be, and the best they can be. Benevolent sexism favors neither gender. So let us put an end to the notions of such gender roles.