by Joy Icayan
I was recently in one of those hole-in-the-wall drinking places with friends from the human rights community. It was a rather decrepit place, just a bunch of plastic tables and monobloc chairs and a small booth that served dirt cheap beer and street food. In the mornings it was transformed into a canteen. The toilets in the restroom didn’t flush. Vendors peddling nuts, eggs and apples came in and out. We went there at least once a week to talk of politics and personal lives and take advantage of the cheap beer. That night, we had brought a friend—a French volunteer. She was in her sixties, spending her retirement visiting the world and talking to people. It was her first time in my country, and since she seemed game for everything, including travelling alone to mining-affected indigenous communities six hours from the city, we decided to bring her to our little hidden place.
Now this place had a videoke machine in one corner and a television forever tuned to a horse racing channel in another. The videoke machine had one of those preprogrammed reels of scantily clad women, mostly Caucasian women in bikinis running along a beach, or pole dancing or walking or fixing their hair, or pouting at the camera. It was a constant barrage of cleavage and thighs and it went on whatever song you chose; eventually the clips repeated themselves, or the same women repeated themselves in different ‘storylines’. We were used to it; there were other reels you could choose, reels of marine life or cartoon characters, but most machines played the clips of the women. That night, someone from another table had requested to turn the machine on, and started a bad rendition of a love song.
Our French visitor stared at the video going on, it was just the camera doing a quick close up scan of a pretty woman’s body. We had been talking about mining. “Stop me,” she said “before I smash that screen.”
It had been something of a joke, of course, but until that moment none of us had seriously thought about what was wrong with the clips. Annoying and silly, yes, but that was it. It was everywhere–in the cheap bars, in rural clubs, even in some homes. And there was something rather ironic to that; that we would often meet there to discuss activism and the rights of vulnerable people, that at that time one of the most controversial bills in the Congress was something on reproductive health, a bill that proposed access to information and methods of reproductive health, and we couldn’t quite understand how people, a sizable portion of the population could oppose that.
“I really am going to smash that screen,” she said, and we knew her enough at that point, respected her guts, that we thought we had better leave.
Walk the talk, we often say. I would like to think we have perhaps a better awareness of women’s rights. Most people would anyway; most people condemn violence against women—rape, sexual assault, neglect etc etc. We are all advocates for this—that is easy enough at least in theory, but to prevent the unnecessary sexualisation of women, to fight against the kind of environment that makes all these evils persist—that would be more difficult.
I was telling my male friends once that we read a social psych study in class which showed women could sometimes tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace. My female friends agreed—sometimes it gets tiring to have to fight against it all the time, sometimes you don’t want to be seen as uncool, sometimes it even gives you leverage. Sometimes you wonder if men’s energy (or boredom) just knows no boundaries. Most of the time, I’m sure they mean no harm, that they just want a quick laugh or a boost to the conversation. But is precisely these things—normalizing it, telling ourselves it’s okay that lets it thrive, that makes us blind to its existence.
My friend has formed quite an effective way to deal with it. Every time she gets saturated with talk of someone’s breasts, she blurts out, “Wow, and your dick is huge?”
It’s not something I’d advocate (since it’s still objectification), but at the very least being confronted about that kind of attitude works. The person often shuts up or leaves the room. I love it when human beings can be expected to replicate the results of a Psych101 book—refuse to reinforce an attitude or behavior and you diminish its power. It’s all about power, and gender equality only works when neither gender has more of it than the other.
And it’s dreadful how this has trickled down. I often ask my three year old niece to sing me something because I love how she gets the tune but mixes the English lyrics to the point that they become rather senseless. One time she decided she’d rather dance. And then she did something I couldn’t figure out at first—the music was upbeat but the dance was too slow. I felt something was wrong with it, it didn’t feel like a typical child’s dance—with the typical jumping and twirling and all that. Then I figured out what it was—a pole dancing routine. I was, of course, horrified. I asked her where she learned that, but she either couldn’t remember or was too shy to tell. People could call this a case of bad parenting, of the effects of media consumption, or children growing up too fast. You can call it a lot of things.
And then you'd have do something.