On an assignment taking photographs at a government meeting, the session had adjourned for coffee when one of the district representatives approached me and asked my name and my position. I answered that I was an intern, and shook his hand. He held onto it long after was socially acceptable, rubbed my ring finger and said he noticed I ‘wasn’t wearing a ring, so obviously I was single’. Trying to be polite but firm, I said no, but I was happy with that, and attempted to pull my hand away. He refused to let go and asked why someone like me was working when they should be married and that he was willing to fix my singledom for me. When I finally managed to disengage myself physically, he followed me around the room asking why I wasn’t replying to his proposal until the meeting restarted.
Though not shaken or threatened by the experience, I was annoyed. I had dressed properly for the occasion and conducted myself professionally – not that either of these issues is an excuse for unwanted attention or improper behavior. I also know with certainty that in no way I had indicated interest towards this man. Had I approached any professional working man in the same manner, I would have undoubtedly faced sanctions from my boss. It bothered me that someone could be following me around, in clear view, giving me insistent unwanted attention and that it was accepted as normal because I was a girl and my gender trumped my presence there as a working professional. Yet what most frustrated me was that I was completely unsurprised. Since 18, I’ve been aware that I live in a culture that classifies me as a single woman first and a professional colleague second.
This is a common enough scenario faced by women in the workplace, on the street and in schools. Both at work and at home, women have made significant strides, and are, in general, given much more credibility and respect. Yet in many places, in many cultures, an underlying tendency towards sexism and relegating women to a second-class status persists.
Having grown exasperated with this herself, Laura Bates founded the Everday Sexism Project, an online platform which documents the quotidian nature of sexism though brief descriptions of everyday acts. They range from irritating-but-innocuous to strikingly misogynistic to downright violent. Women describe everything from being catcalled, harassed on public transportation, on the street, during job interviews or in offices, being physically struck for refusing advances and detail multiple sexual assaults.
Though empowering to many, Bates has suffered hate mail, death threats and rape threats as a result of founding the site, as well as a number of unflattering articles labeling her as ‘whiny’ and complaining about ‘first world problems’ instead of getting a ‘real job’. Other women have attacked the site, calling it, “a nag’s charter of modern day feminism.” It is true that the Everyday Sexism project does have the unfortunate side effect of vilifying men, many of whom are as pro-women’s rights as Gloria Steinham herself. But the message behind the project isn’t to paint men as the enemy, but rather to shine a spotlight on the very real, very strong presence of misogyny in a culture that would much rather pretend it no longer exists.
It is true that, to a certain extent, both men and women experience sexism and sexual objectification. However, what the everyday sexism project shows and what women’s everyday experience tells us is that for women, the attention is more often violent, more often threatening and most disturbingly, more often accepted. The most chilling part of the everyday sexism project is how rarely onlookers intervene. It may be that this the result of the natural tendency to remain separate from public scuffles or create tension in the workplace. But if we as a society are more comfortable with remaining quiet about behavior that threatens, demeans or harms our female colleagues, friends and family members than we are outraged that such behavior takes place at all, one has to question oneself about the kind of society we are constructing.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Hossam el-Hamalawy (image listed under Creative Commons)