In The Spirit Of Kindness
I was reading a paper by the Genpact Centre For Women’s Leadership named “Predicament Of Returning Mothers”. The paper intents to explore reasons due to which women drop working in corporate offices after their maternity leave elapses. The researchers undertook this task by interviewing women who work in corporates and media houses. The paper came up with a set of reasons that might cause women to leave their workplaces after their maternity leave elapses. The reasons were agreed upon by most women interviewed. One of the reasons that stood out for me was ‘a feeling of incompetence’. Reading further, I found out about where this feeling of incompetence might root from. There is a tendency in multiple workplaces to not assign heavy duty work to women after their maternity leave. Assumptions like, ‘she might not have the time or the energy’ to a benevolence to grant the woman some time to adjust, made by the managers often leads to a feeling of alienation felt by these women. Coupled with the fear that you might not be taken seriously, and a split between family associated guilt and fear that your career won’t advance because of the types of jobs handed to you seem trivial, a woman eventually leaves her job.
This benevolence by the higher authority, which is based on preconceived notions of what is best for others, actually has a name. Benevolence Bias occurs when our efforts to be kind results in us limiting an individual’s autonomy, because we make decisions for them. The notion of what’s best for others, stems from our preconceived notions, presumptions and stereotypes. A manager might feel that a woman who just returned from her maternity leave, might be emotional, tired, or not ready to take up big projects, but instead of communicating what they think, the manager might presume and give the woman a trivial project. However, this might sit heavily in the woman’s mind and she might feel undervalued or incompetent. This bias is not restrictive to gender. Another common example is when a person might have recently hit their stride at the workplace, and to encourage them, their seniors might give them more work, however this can turn stressful for said person and can lead to burnouts or mental stress. This bias is quite commonplace and can be avoided by communicating. This communication needs to come from both the one making the decision and one getting harmed by it. While this bias is harmful, its stem causes are solvable. Instead of presuming, asking things, not letting our biases take over, be it from gender/caste/culture stereotypes to instinctive thinking.
However, while reading up on Benevolence Bias, I found something that resounded with me way more than this Bias. I recently read two brilliant novels discussing two very distinct fields and their relation with women. The first book, “Why Loiter” by Shipla Phadke, which revolved around the exclusion of women from accessing public spaces. The second book, “Cyber Sexy” by Richa Padke, talked about suppression of sexuality of women. Both the books reshaped the way I saw the life of Indian women. And while both these books covered issues that cannot be more distinct from each other, an underlying theme of most of these issues involved Benevolent Sexism. Benevolent Sexism is a subpart of Ambivalent Sexism, and can be described as evaluation of gender that might appear positive when seen at its face value, but actually damages people and gender equality more broadly.
As described by Shilpa Phadke, a very common practice in Indian households is to take away a woman’s choice to take a risk. Here, risk encompasses anything from wearing what a woman desires, to going out of the house at any time she wants to, and taking whatever route she wants. This practice starts from home, where usually men take up the responsibility of survellying their house’s womenfolk, but this menatly transcends into law and policy making as well. Take for example, UP police’s plan to set up cameras that would detect distress on a woman’s face and alert officer’s. Or MP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan suggesting women to register themselves in local police stations and that they leave their house only when a work opportunity arises, to ensure their safety. Instead of making public spaces better for us we deny them entry to public places. It is a common idea that crowded places are safer than emptier ones, thus the start of Reclaim The Streets Movement. While the women try to repopulate the street by daring to step out and taking a risk, by the idea of benevolence, the men feel the need to accompany them, or come up with surveillance techniques that invade their privacy.
The second household practice that is done exclusively to protect women but causes extreme harm is the association of a woman’s virginity and honor and the need to protect it. Richa Padke has beautifully penned it down in her novel. How the idea that a woman’s sexual innocence is a virtue causes us to invade her privacy and not allow her to develop sexually. A woman would hide her sexual preferences from her partner, and when she would venture into this territory, she is ridiculed, shamed, even coerced out of and harmed in multiple ways. This characterization done at home, to separate good women from “bad” women led to the creation of provisions of the Immoral Traffic Act, 1988 of the India Penal Code, where any woman appearing to invite the gaze, or is perceived to be a a wrong place on wrong time is booked for soliciting. Or the Karavali Sex Scandal, where a woman who was filmed during sex was denied her job offer a the Intelligence Bureau, because her caliber was questioned. Her having sex and being a victim of such a crime was enough to not think her worthy of being in the Bureau. While an idea that women would get corrupted by being exposed to sexual content and hence needs to be protected from it seems harmless to those who practice this, such acts amplify to an extent that in cases of rape, a promise of protection of woman’s honor by marrying her to her rapist, or having the raped tie Rakhi to rapist is seen as sufficient justice. The violation of her body is not punished, but the protection of her ‘honor’ is given precedence.
We see that unwarranted benevolence can be harmful, and while these examples show the extremes of the same, us individuals also follow these practices. No matter how small the scale, these practices can demoralise our peers and family members, make them doubt themselves, and build into harmful practices. Giving women choice has been a mainstream issue addressed by femisnist from years and now while we want to make sure that women are represented in all fields and and able to access everything needed by them to develop their personal horizons, we need to stop assuming what’s best for them and start asking what they want instead.