#DespiteBeingAWoman, Why “_______ woman” Isn’t a Compliment At All, and Why Being a Woman Isn’t a Handicap

It was the misinterpreted compliment heard around the world that made Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the type of famous he never wanted to be; four words that blew a giant hole in the pro-women rhetoric he’s been spewing since being elected. Despite being a woman, Modi’s Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina had declared that she had zero tolerance for terrorism, and Modi was happyDespite being a woman. He had to add those four little words. He couldn’t just be happy about the policy, he had to be happy about the policy and that it was being enacted despite the gender of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister. Ladies and Gentleman, being a woman is evidently a handicap.

But what exactly is that handicap, and where is it hindering us? Does Modi think that women inherently have a propensity toward violence (thus the zero-tolerance policy for terrorism is pleasantly surprising), or is it just astonishing that women can do anything at all?

Prime Minister Modi meets Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Prime Minister Modi meets Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Let’s keep going with the subject given to us by the media; Modi is a representative of one of the more sexist parties in India (the Bharatiya Janata Party), and it’s common to hear sexist remarks from their members (but that doesn’t mean any of the remarks should be forgiven). To make matters worse for Modi, back when he was running for the Prime Minister position, it looks like he was supposed to do something about women in India being raped due to an anti-Muslim pogrom that took place when he was the Chief Minister of Gujurat, and he did nothing. That article also details further antics of other members of the BJP when confronted with horrible rape cases all throughout the country. Ironically, the party claims to be in the forefront of Indian political parties when it comes to women’s issues. Undoubtedly in an effort to clean up the BJP’s image, Modi has put on a new face in regard to women’s issues in India and has been campaigning against rape by telling parents to teach their sons to treat women better, and tackling the country-wide problem of female infanticide.

Of course, we can’t complete the picture without the wonderful woman he complimented, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Hasina is no political newbie; she’s the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the first president of Bangladesh), she’s held the office of Prime Minister since 2009, and this is her third term (her first was from 1996-2001, then again from 2009 to now, when she was just recently re-elected). When Hasina isn’t the Prime Minister, she’s the opposition leader, and her chief competition is Khaleda Zia, who has held the Prime Minister position when Hasina hasn’t had it, and get this –she’s a woman too. Going back to Hasina, the woman has survived an assassination attempt, been arrested for corruption by the military and charged with murder (which was immediately followed by a landslide victory in her second election as Prime Minister), and she’s ranked 59th on Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women in the World (47th last year). She has many honorary degrees from around the world in addition to the degrees she earned from actually sitting in rooms with textbooks. She holds many honors for her humanitarian efforts, including two awards from UNESCO, one being the Peace Tree award for her efforts toward women’s empowerment and girl’s education. Hasina currently sits on the Council of Women World Leaders among her adversary Zia, Portia Simpson-Miller (previous Prime Minister and current President of Jamaica) and many others. Of course, this is all absolutely expected of a powerful, driven woman who has had a political career that has lasted over 30 years and shows no signs of slowing down. For the sake of a more well-rounded presentation; Hasina married nuclear scientist M. A. Wazed Miah, who passed away in 2009. The pair had two children.

Comparatively, Modi’s awards need a bit more of a boost. He was given the e-Ratna award from the Computer Society of India, and made Time’s 100 list of the world’s most influential people for 2014. He is also the second-most-followed leader on Twitter as of September 2014. He’s even on Forbes’ 15th on most powerful people in the world (comparing him to more of a Bollywood star and not a politician) and 5th on Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders (notably beating out Taylor Swift). If we don’t count his years as a party underling (campaign manager, etcetera) for the RSS, Modi has essentially been in politics for about 14 years. Modi too has a degree of higher education, and was married, but never consummated the marriage (he’s now separated) and has no children.

When you look at the two side by side, Modi’s “despite being a woman” comment looks absolutely ridiculous. If anything, we can change the hashtag to something more appropriate like #DespiteBeingInPolitics and list Hasina’s other accomplishments:
#DespiteBeingInPolitics Sheikh Hasina still found the time to have a family (perhaps even fulfilling her “womanly duty”) and Narendra Modi couldn’t be bothered.
#DespiteBeingInPolitics Sheikh Hasina managed to travel all over the world and get a whole bunch of honorary degrees because her actual degree wasn’t enough.
#DespiteBeingInPolitics Sheikh Hasina can sit on the same Council as her political adversary and not blow things up.

I’ll go out on a limb for a moment… Modi’s comment isn’t entirely his fault. There. I said it. Think about it -Modi lives in a culture where most women aren’t supposed to do much, and even in places of the world where it’s accepted and normal for women to work alongside men (no matter the field), unintentionally sexist comments are rampant. We as a people are somewhat conditioned to accept that the workplace isn’t necessarily for women, or that certain activities aren’t necessarily for women, that women need help doing certain activities and that men are supposed to help women doing these activities even if they don’t really look like they need it. How many times have women been given praise like “you’re such a reliable woman” or “you’re so dependable for a woman?” More often than not, these comments get overlooked, and the “reliable” or “dependable” part of the phrase gets all the focus. What about being a woman makes us inherently unreliable or not dependable? Why is it so necessary and accepted to just tack “woman” or “for a woman” or “despite being a woman” onto compliments like our gender is a hindrance?

With deeper research, we can discover that simply being a woman is “fault” enough to be kept away from things. How many times have we heard the argument of “do we really want someone on her period that close to the ‘blow up the world’ button?” when someone talks about electing a woman as the President of the United States, never mind the fact that the existence of the “blow up the world” button has never been debated. Menstruating women are exiled from their villages in Nepal during a practice called chhaupadi, which dictates that these women are so sick and unclean (regularly, without fail) that they can make men physically ill with just a touch, so they can’t go near people (except for other menstruating women) while they are on their cycles. The practice is only just starting to become against the law in some regions, and menstrual health is being regulated to prevent infertility and other feminine health problems. Before women really started entering the work force after World War II, women were expected to take care of their spouses, have a family, and raise it. If a woman produced daughters, she raised them to follow in her footsteps. If she had sons, she pushed them to be businessmen, doctors, lawyers, to win bread for his future wife and family because that was his place. Women were not expected to carry briefcases, they were supposed to carry handbags.

The more I heard #DespiteBeingAWoman take over social media, the more I thought about my own experience in work and in life as a woman, and what sorts of prejudices I had experienced. I was raised by a single mother, and I have no siblings. She never called me “smart girl,” I was always just “smart.” I wasn’t necessarily sure if that was because there was no other gender to differentiate with at home (“no, smart girl, strong boy.”) but I didn’t doubt my mother purposefully raising me to believe I had the ability to do anything a boy could do. If I was ever exposed to the gender-specific-suffix, it was at school, or at work. “You’re such a smart girl, you’ll go places.” “You’re a very determined young woman.” “You’re a strong woman.” My mother taught me that I was smart. The rest of the world around me reminded me that I was female. Most people think that adding on “young man,” “young woman” or other nouns to adjectives makes them that much more important, but in reality, we’re just extending the length of time we’re talking. There’s no difference between “you’re smart” and “you’re a smart woman” other than the gender modifier. If anything, it makes one question the gender’s ability to be smart, as though the person receiving the compliment defies the stereotype.

Just to be safe, I consulted my source, and I called my mother, who took my call (despite being a woman) while eating her lunch on her lunch break (a multitasking woman), because she would rather continue treating patients as an Occupational Therapist than retire (a stubborn woman). My suspicions were correct; she never added “girl” onto any of her compliments when she dealt with me, but this was something she learned from her parents who had seven children of both genders. Every child was “smart,” “brave,” “strong,” or “made me proud, kid” no matter the gender. When I told her what I was writing about and what news event inspired it, she paused for a moment, and finally said this, “I’ve never thought of being a woman as something to overcome. I would consider coming from poverty as something to overcome, but certainly not being a woman.” 

Sure, we women do have our “drawbacks.” I personally am a whopping 107 pounds standing at a soaring 5’3″ (on a good day), and I currently work in fine dining. The men in my establishment are just about conditioned to say “let me get that” or “do you need some help with that” whenever I appear in their periphery carrying anything that looks like it might be over 10 pounds or is the least bit cumbersome. I give them a pass most of the time, let me reiterate, I look incredibly flimsy, like if I’m caught in a decent gust of wind, I might fly away like a piece of paper. However, my looks are quite deceiving. My muscles are lean and well hidden. The only reason I carry a maximum of three highchairs at a time is because I can’t see over the fourth. My coworkers often call me “princess” and “beautiful” and my personal favorite: “Miss Modesto” after the hometown emblazoned on my name tag. I like to think it’s because I walk around with a perma-smile and I take some time out to put on foundation on days I work. I’ve been told by people that know me that I’m very intimidating, but that happens after I open my mouth. Needless to say, the people who call me “princess,” “beautiful,” and “Miss Modesto” have not found themselves in a word-battle with me, otherwise I doubt they’d still be calling me those names. This last bit probably goes without saying, but I have been told in performance reviews, and even promotions that I was being recognized because I was “such a reliable woman” or “you’re such a determined young woman, and you’re going places, and we want you to go places with us.” I think the only time “woman” wasn’t added to the end of something was when it was a negative review, like the negative behavior was already being expected of me because of an extenuating circumstance (perhaps my gender).

Let’s change my gender, and revisit that last paragraph. Assume I’m a 107 pound 5’3″ male carrying anything, perhaps even struggling with the weight, and I probably won’t get any assistance unless I request it. Those cutesy nicknames disappear. Come to think of it, the only time I’ve ever heard men using a nickname at my place of work has been because of an inside joke, or it’s an actual nickname (like a shortened version of a name, or someone using a middle name instead of their first name), or there are literally four people who all have the same first name and we have to get creative. With those performance reviews, perhaps I could have “young man” tacked on the end of things, but men get to just be “reliable” or “determined,” don’t they?

Women are flat-out viewed differently in society, regardless if it’s in the workplace or the doctor’s office. Pantene released this video commentary of how gender is viewed in society, and where the spheres for each gender seem to revolve, then later released this video commenting on how women are constantly apologizing for things they shouldn’t be apologizing for. We’re viewed as things that need to be protected, need to take up less space, cannot interrupt men because we’re not supposed to, and if we need to be anywhere and “log more hours,” it needs to be with our families. Women and men are fundamentally different, physiologically and psychologically. Males and females have different brains. The chemistry is different, the processes are a little different, even the sizes are a little different. Males have more grey matter, females have more white matter. In a nutshell, that means males have larger specific, focused centers of the brain, which is why they get tunnel vision. Females have larger networking centers of the brain (the part that connects all the specific parts), which is why we multi-task and transition quickly from doing one thing to another. It’s also an accepted idea that while males have larger brains, females use more of the brain matter we have, comically explained by comedian Ralphie May with the simple idea of “[men are] dial up, [women are] DSL.”

So what’s hampering us in a work setting, regardless of where that work takes place? In customer service (my current field), women are seen as more approachable and compassionate to a consumer. We have that edge over men, in yet “reliable, determined, strong, woman.” Sheikh Hasina was arrested at the hands of a terroristic branch of her military, was re-elected as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, has done a great deal of humanitarian work, can serve on a council alongside an immediate political adversary (which is probably a bigger threat than the proverbial “blow up the world” button) civilly, in yet Narendra Modi is pleasantly surprised at her efforts against terrorism because she managed to do something “despite being a woman.”

If there’s anything holding us back, it’s a new hashtag entirely: #DespiteBeingUnderstimatedByMen

Photo Credit from Wikimedia Commons

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