Stereotyping Of Women In Contemporary Society: A Feminist Discourse

Posted on March 5, 2013 in Society

By Abhinita Mohanty:

Since the feminist movement started in India, most of the educated and elite women have tried to redefine their status and identity, both in the public and in the private life but this has not percolated into the lives of those women who are outside the fringes of these movements; it won’t be wrong if I assume that even within these ‘educated‘ women there are women who suffer different forms of atrocities in their everyday life. It’s a known fact that women can become victims of violence, notwithstanding their class or age. Instead of writing about the feminist movements or the steps that are being taken by them to alleviate women’s status, I would rather like to write about the various forms of visible and invisible gender stereotyping that is found in the contemporary society. Many are so subtle that even the one using it seldom realizes that she/he is actually guilty of gender stereotyping.


How many times do we use the word ‘History‘ in our classrooms and in everyday conversation? Here, I emphasize the word ‘His‘. ‘Her‘ is thus considered as someone who do not make, contribute or forms the ‘History‘, ‘her‘ merely becomes a passive observer who adjusts to the norms of society, and it is the men who make history….their story! I am sure that, 2000 years later we still would be referring to ‘history‘ and ignoring the contributions made by the contemporary women. There is again a gendering of profession. Historically speaking, men have always been a dominant character of society due to their superior physical power and thus establishing hegemony over the construction and manipulation of history itself.

Another major problem lies within the very conception and understanding of the feminist movement itself. I would like to use a term ‘elitisation of feminism’. By this term I mean that the people involved in this movement, the issues which concern them at large and the activities undertaken mostly target the elite although they say otherwise. In this context I would like to tell about the recent Delhi gang rape case that jolted the nation and the feminists equally but where were such upheavals in case of Soni Sori (a poor tribal woman who were raped by the policemen), Bhanwari Devi (gang raped by sarpanchs and other higher caste for stopping a child marriage), and many such were raped or assaulted? These women failed to catch the attention of the media and feminists alike hence the public too did not express any outrage. I am not undermining the rape case of the Delhi ‘braveheart’ but don’t these women deserve equal attention. Delhi case involved someone who was from a middle class background, thus giving it enough attention. But the other incidents occurred in far flung places (far from the capital) and to women who were neither elite nor literate and ‘modern’. It can be said that the so called feminists and media alike have no desire to take up issues involving the rural, non-elite women. As stated in the opening discussion, these movements do not popularize the plight of such women nor do the media ever hype them. Many of such cases even remain forever buried in the piles of documents in court rooms and police stations. A movement, be it feminism or any other, cannot have much impact if it fails to mobilize individuals at the grass root level. A pattern of bottom-up should be followed instead of the illusion of a trickle down process from the ‘top to bottom’. The women who take steps to direct the feminist movements are always from the upper strata.

In the contemporary world, concepts are created by the electronic media many times even very unconsciously. In the minds of the coming generation, this stereotypical image of women is deeply being manufactured through popular T.V. ‘soaps’ and movies, which is watched with relish by most! Let me focus on any T.V. serials. The women is depicted in a ‘sati-savitri’ style (fidelity to husband), all decked up, showing respect to her in-laws even if they do not like her, forgiving or tolerating the husband’s misconducts and infidelity, listening and serving to all his needs, always in need of his support and protection, a simple home maker with no say in family business or career, very soft spoken with perfect feminine qualities. All these reaffirm both the concepts related to masculinity and feminine connotations. The public too prefer the portrayal of women in this way. Many a times she is also shown as a vamp playing ‘politics’ inside the house but no role in the public sphere. In the movies a woman (actress) has to look glam and good all the time, have perfect figure and need to expose them to seduce her man, while the man is shown to be muscular and ever present to protect the woman from the ‘villains’. The glam image of a woman (be it in the form of a modern chick or a traditional woman) is always loved by all. All these can be well reflected every day in the matrimonial columns, where the bridegroom wants ‘fair, virgin and homely’ girls’, I only wish women would also demand these traits from their men counterparts! Many think that portrayal of women’s body in advertisements, movies and hoardings are a sign of women’s liberation; it’s a misconception, a popular fallacy. In movies the fully clad hero with a skimpily dressed girl depicts the desires and fantasies of men for the female body. It cannot be vice versa as most people cannot even conceive of any ‘ideal’ female having fantasies for the male body. It is as if the vagina has no desire to penetrate! Her ‘pussy’ is merely considered to be ‘his pet’! Females are not supposed to initiate sex but only show coyness when a man initiates it. That is what is shown in our popular culture that makes our conscience. Many people believe that boys can see porn or hang the scantily clad portraits of women in their room but a girl doing the same for her favorite hero is considered as a sex maniac. Another image of ideal women is conceived in the minds of small girls when they play with barbies and other dolls. They learn that it is looks that matter the most for a girl and every effort on her part should be made to portray herself physically attractive. Her brains do not matter, it’s her appearance that can only determine her future. Her brains come secondary and her intellect is often neglected. One of my sister in law has a ringtone saying ‘hey beautiful you have got a message’. She told me she has this, just like men have something saying, ‘boss, you have got a message’. She said that very casually and unconsciously but this sums off a women’s status she can be beautiful but she can never become the boss.

Profession is many times gendered too. The word often used to describe doctors, bureaucrats, scientists, philosophers, leaders, boss, etc. ‘He’ is often used to describe these professions. Many argue that it is because these arenas are dominated by men, but can we ignore a minority of women who are a part of such profession? In that case, why our constitution and our laws did not ignore the Indian ‘minorities’ but conferred them with many rights? Note this, in the word ‘she’ the word ‘he’ is included but the opposite is not true so using the word ‘she’ for all purposes should refer to both the sexes. ‘He’ may not be required at all. People naturally refer ‘she’ when we use words like nurse, school teacher, receptionist, secretary, etc. Let me tell you a story here, the answer to which I seek from many friends who most failed to reply. A father and a son were going together in a car and in an accident the father expired on the spot and the son was rushed to the hospital. In the hospital the doctor was shocked and refuses to operate him saying ‘the boy is my son’. How? I asked. The answer is that the doctor was his mother but most could not think of this. They failed to conceive of the doctor in the image of a woman. This shows the people’s perception about a women’s job. ‘She’ suits better for ‘low paying’ and ‘low position’ jobs. Even ‘spaces’ and language in the contemporary world is gendered; men can be seen in tobacco shops, paan shops, tea stalls, gossiping in groups, mostly visible in public places. But women cannot access these places due to certain norms; women are mostly clustered within private spaces. A man can use words that are vulgar and have sexual connotations but people will be horrified if a woman uses them. She has to be soft and non-aggressive. All these norms are enforced, socialized and institutionalized by a patriarchal society to control women. I do not advocate that using filthy language is good; I rather condemn it both for men and women.

Recently, in Haryana, a democratic state government and some of its leaders actually dared to say that the marriageable age of girls should be decreased from 18 to 16! Why? This would save girls from being raped in Haryana, a place where rape cases are all time high in the country. Isn’t this outrageous? These leaders instead of accepting that they have failed to maintain law and order want laws that will chain a woman. The questions are, can’t a married woman be raped by outsiders? Can’t she be a victim of marital rape? Can’t girls below 16 be also raped? Many women even do not know that marital rape is equivalent to rape. The society think and women too perceive that a husband has all rights over a women’s body. This is a culmination of a primitive patriarchal culture that actually sanctions violence against women. Again this culture was seen in Kashmir when the all girl’s rock band was threatened and warned that a fatwa will be issued lest they should call off their performance. The terrified girls and their families not only were forced to call off the performance but went into hiding fearing a backlash. This should have been the plight of persons who threaten them; instead, it happened to these honorable torch bearers of women rights. A particular religious leader of a community said in a sexist remark that women should stay in home and sing only in front of their family members. This anguished me. Religious norms should be respected but no one has any rights to impose them on any one, be it the ‘mufti’ or the ‘Vishwa Hindu Parishad‘ villains who harass couples on Valentine’s Day. If a woman does not want to go out or sing outside or celebrate lover’s day out of her own choice it’s fine, but who are these men to force it on them? Nothing happened to people who made such sexist remarks. Omar Abdullah supported the girls in Kashmir but failed to punish the guilty. Even in this era, such people escape with impunity. All these itself shows how seriously the rights of women are upheld in contemporary society.

I do not support the slogan ‘men and women are equal’. Rather I seek for a distinct identity for woman which she rightly deserves. It’s really good to see that many of my male profs. in the Hyderabad University are feminists. A prof. once remarked that it is not necessary to be a woman to understand a woman and another remarked that just by making the laws equal for men and women, women will not become equal to men. These people are a silver lining in the feminist movements. As a passing remark, I want to add that for us it is not something fanciful to be called as a feminist, rather it’s a matter of shame that even in this advanced era we have to clamor for equal rights for women.