Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!
An unsaid code for men, a not necessarily comfortable interaction for women: What does chivalry mean in the 21st century?
4 April 2021/Mumbai/Swonshutaa Dash
The world is binary: two sexes, two genders, and two roles in society, and at home, they fall in love with each other and live happily ever after. One of them is stronger and the other is weaker and because the law of nature states that the stronger protect the weaker, chivalry came into existence.
Chivalry came out of a misogynistic binary of the strong protecting and providing for the weak.
Cambridge defines chivalry as “very polite, honest, and kind behaviour, especially by men towards women.” It is a social practice that evolved in the 11th century CE and abounds courage, military prowess, honour, loyalty, justice, good manners, and generosity. A practice obligatory to those practising knighthood this act of ‘good towards the lesser privileged’ came to be a binary practice through time (due to the scarcity of dames).
Helping a lady out of her carriage, holding doors open, offering a coat in the cold, standing up for women was associated with men while practices such as bowing to lords, submissive nature and acceptance of the supposed gentleman actions, adhering to the category of the either deceitful, sexual, innocent, or incompetent, to be an outcast and curvy, straight, graceful, and submissive to fit into the ‘normal’ margin of the society.
This curt code is the stem of several other baseless fantasies such as waiting for a prince charming, the absence of consent due to generalization of chivalry towards all women regardless of their wishes, toxic jealousy in relationships, and many others.
Through the evolution of time chivalry remained true to its core, while modes of expression change, but the baseline remained the same: men helping women. This coin also has two faces- it led to the evolution of practices such as instilling weakness in the psychology of females, barring night time adventures of women (that may turn into misadventures) without a male guardian rather than propagating self-defence practice of women, asking women to refrain from making the first move, deeming men as the breadwinners, emotionally and physically superior, suppressors of emotions, all while invalidating identities.
In Indian culture chivalry also seeped into traditional religious practices such as sons performing mukhagni for a deceased parent or and carrying the body to the crematorium. Today actions regarded as chivalry are those propagated by hundreds of years of cinema and literature, the saving a girl from a ‘Gunda’ (thug) Shah Rukh Khan style and using non-consensual sex as a medium to test love(Half Girlfriend), etc.
Modern-day chivalry lies on the two strong pillars of consent and blurring the binary lines. While you may have been taught to be a gentleman or lady as early as you started walking, not everyone wants you to open doors for them, give them your jacket or pull out their chair neither help with their grocery. There is a fine line between making chivalry and uncomfortable exchange and that is consent. Just ask if you want to help. Yes or no, your courtesy to ask will duly be appreciated. Also please stop saying ‘ladies first.’
The world is becoming a better place every day as people have started embracing their identities, disregarding the strictly binary social structure. Being non-binary or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, fitting into guidelines of religious and social practices is a struggle of every day, however, modern-day chivalry seeks to change the outlook by disintegrating the binary perspective and making chivalry a consensual and broader affair.
Let a woman be the first to ask you out, let her pull out the chair for you, rather let anyone who identifies themself anyway do it (consensually). Let men not be the ones paying on a date or shifting furniture around the house or carrying grocery bags by default: Read the situation, ask and consequently act. Modern chivalry has also come to encompass practices such as not making assumptions based on appearance or perception, invalidating practices such as stalking in name of protection and gaslighting.
Society takes time to change but it has been far too long since we’ve suffered and hidden and have undertaken socially mandatory practices in the name of courtesy that makes you distinctly available. We have a chance to rewrite this unsaid rule book, making it broader, comfortable, voluntary, and consensual. A change is needed, a change is due and it is going to start by putting rules into practice, at a young age so that we don’t unconsciously fall prey and propagate the regressive mentality of an inherently patriarchal and oppressive society.