Time and again, much has been said, written and done by women around the world to defy the age-old syndrome (read mental disorder) commonly referred to as male chauvinism. On the face of it, men and women are regarded as `equals` (or so we like to believe) -— yet as a society we are caught between two stark extremes and as people we continue to swing like a timeless pendulum, between two contradictory worlds.
On one extreme, there exists the liberated, modern woman of today representing the affluent strata of society — who has the courage, confidence and the means to forge ahead in life despite the cultural taboos and gender biases surrounding her existence. Undaunted by traditional mindsets, she plunges herself headlong into her pursuits and has firmly managed to carve a niche for herself in the real world despite the set-backs facing her. Women like Pakistan`s first woman Prime Minister — the late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto — the bold human rights activist Asma Jehangir and the controversial Sherry Rehman, are a few trailblazers representing the liberated Pakistani woman of today.
However, the fight against gender inequality for the downtrodden women in the feudal areas, who are made to suffer in the most unimaginable ways at the hands of men, is not quite as easy. For such women, victory is a rare feat that few can dare to achieve. And so, most of them resign themselves to an existence where the men around them consider it their birthright to humiliate and suppress them.
According to research, male chauvinism is `learnt behaviour` that originates from home and is a direct result of traditional mindsets and certain values that are consciously (and at times unconsciously) inculcated within men from a very early age. As a result of this conditioning, most men living in traditional environments grow up with the `expectation and understanding` that as a rule, women must submit before their husbands and be “obedient wives.” They are also led to believe that in every role, women will always remain inferior to them intellectually, physically and emotionally and under no circumstances can they be treated as equals.
It is therefore not surprising that most traditional Pakistani men expect their women (as well as the women around them) to meekly bow down before their whims and fancies, and act like passive dependent slaves without a mind of their own. However, such men are in for a rude awakening when they enter the real world and find themselves pitted against women who are far superior to them intellectually and professionally.
Nonetheless, this does not necessarily hold true for all males as, at the same time, there also exists a rare breed of men that is pro gender equality. According to Shazad Ghani, a thirty-year-old professional of Pakistani origin working as a spatial planner in London, “Chauvinism is strongly linked with culture and tradition, which has a bearing on how people behave.” Ghani believes that chauvinism begins from home and is shaped by factors such as the upbringing of the male child, the approach the father takes towards the mother and the mother`s role at home.
He is of the view that “It is the environment at home that moulds a child`s thinking pattern during his formative years, that later determines his outlook towards women. Factors such as whether a mother is treated as an equal by the father, or is considered a subordinate also play a major role in how the son will later treat his wife and perceive women.” Ghani also believes that chauvinism is inevitable in households where a mother offers her son better educational opportunities and more freedom than her daughter, and wants her son to take over as the head of the family in the absence of the father instead of the eldest daughter who should rightfully assume that role.
Thirty-six-year-old Mohammad Kashif who works for a leading Pakistani television channel believes that, “Chauvinism depends upon the values imparted at school, and social groupings. Does the school the child goes to promote gender equality, or do they segregate males and females? Do they allow males to participate more in sports and after school activities as opposed to females? Do they teach the male child that the world is his oyster, whilst teaching the female that her opportunities are limited? If so, then you are practically teaching a child to be a chauvinist.”
Twenty-six-year-old Hassan Khan, a young professional working within the banking industry has similar views. “Traces of gender prejudice can sometimes even be seen in men hailing from the most liberal families.” Narrating an incident where his best friend berated a girl for “stealing a job that he felt rightfully belonged to him!” Hassan maintains that sometimes, even the most educated and normally brought up men can be absurdly chauvinistic in their outlook towards women.
Hassan attributes chauvinism to irresponsible projection of women in the media as well as the prevailing culture that is part and parcel of our society. “Men think it`s their birthright to be given preference over women and everything that we see on television somehow reinforces that. I therefore think that the media definitely deserves much of the blame for instilling chauvinistic values amongst people. Why are women on television mostly projected as glamour dolls or in submissive roles as opposed to being portrayed as forces to be reckoned with intellectually?”
All factors considered, it cannot be denied that the women within our culture are primarily responsible for propagating chauvinism and gender inequalities. Traditions, cultural values and the role of the media may form part of the equation but ultimately, it is the mother who brings up a child and has a profound influence on his or her formative years. So if an innocent eight-year-old child has been taught by his mother all his life that he must never enter the kitchen and leave the household chores “to the women in the house” then, why blame him when he becomes a hard-boiled chauvinist at thirty?
All said and done, will the traditional Pakistani mothers and grandmothers please sit up and take notice?