“Sexism Was Worse Before” Should Be a Lesson, Not an Excuse

Photo by Huyen Nguyen on Unsplash

As a white woman living and working in India, I get asked a lot about how I deal with the sexism over here. The question comes in one of two forms, either how do I bear this sexism — held up as so much worse than anything we have back in the West - or how can I still complain about sexism in the West after seeing countries with real problems, like India.

In the West, we like to presume that we are so much more advanced than the rest of the world when it comes to questions of gender. It’s more complex than that. There isn’t a single-tracked railway line to gender equality (or the abolition of gender as a concept), with the West a lot closer to the finish line. Each country has its own issues.

While the Southern States in the US are questioning abortion, in India, it is a widely accepted procedure. Here, a greater issue is the fact that female fetuses are often selectively aborted. Unlike the majority of European countries, India recognises a third gender, to acknowledge a historic community of trans women who are held in awe and considered auspicious at weddings and births. Yet this community faces challenges of its own — many members have been shunned by their families for their gender identity.

There is a wide spectrum of gender issues, which differ from country to country, making comparisons irrelevant.

And countries don’t only move forwards on the path out of the patriarchy. There is backlash and setbacks. Women’s rights are often considered as won, but things can turn around at scary speed.

Today, India remains a sexist country, where sexism is sanctioned at every level, from the society to the state. But it’s worth remembering that it was a good deal less sexist before the British colonised it, bringing along their Victorian morals (and laws like that banning homosexuality, which was only repealed last year). As Shashi Tharoor shows in The Great Indian Novel, before India was invaded by the Mughals then the British, during the first millennia of Hinduism, strong female goddesses were worshipped, women could have sex with as many men as they wanted, and their sexual pleasure was considered important enough to warrant a place in Kama Sutra.

Often, the idea that things are worse elsewhere, or were worse before, is held up as an excuse, to justify how bad things are still. Ie: don’t be hasty. Or it is used to dismiss the causes being defended — ie, women can vote, why are you complaining about having to do the dishes? Put like that, it sounds ridiculous. That is because it is.

Really, how bad things are elsewhere or how bad they were before should not be an excuse, it should not demotivate us from fighting. It should be a lesson, we should see it as a sign of what we are trying to leave, and push to get away even faster.

Things may have been worse before, they may be worse elsewhere, but still, they are not good enough. And we will fight until they are.

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