Look, I don’t have time for this. I have an ongoing daily series on Sufism (shameless plug alert: Check it out here) and the only reason why I am talking about this today (apart from the fact that it is an off-day for my series) is that it has gone long enough.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind having those doors opened for me; and those chairs pulled; and the hand on my back ushering me in; despite the fact that last I checked, my being a woman did nothing to hamper my ability to open the door or make sure my ass finds that chair without hitting the floor or, you know, just get through the damn door without being ushered in.
Then, there are times when I am left utterly confused as to whether I should be offended or flattered, because the intent is sweet but the gesture is so utterly idiotic and patronizing. For instance, this one time, a dear friend (not a misogynist to the best of my knowledge) insisted that he’d escort me down a hill slope during a hiking trip because “I shouldn’t be going alone”.
It was broad daylight. And the slope was less than 100 meters long. The jungle around was a parody of the idea of woods and I was in no evident danger of being eaten by wolves, of animal or human kind.
He was, however, convinced it was how a lady should be treated and, also, he was actually concerned about me. Both were a strange mixture of adorably sweet intent and annoyingly patronizing alpha male instinct. I settled for it being adorable, but made it a point to tell him that it was kind of patronizing.
Because all things considered, all this “gentlemanly” stuff is kind of nice. It is also one of those rare instances where apologetic patriarchy is at play, whether the players are aware of not.
Really, what did you think all that “ladies first” crap is all about? It is nothing more and nothing less than patriarchy saying ‘sorry we have screwed you over for centuries, here have this consolation prize!’
Except even the consolation prize is phony and can very easily double as just another device for nursing male ego, another excuse for patronizing bullcrap marshaling as good manners.
It is not the good manners that I have a problem with. As I said, they are kind of nice as long as they are legitimately used as a means to show respect. Not because women are some kind of divine entity bestowed on this planet, but because they are humans. And humans are supposed to be accorded respect and consideration and dignity and kindness and basic minimum politeness.
I pull out the chair for my mother. I pull it out for my elderly uncle. I hold the door open for whoever is behind me. On airports and railway stations, if I see someone, be it an elderly person, a pregnant woman, or basically anyone who is struggling with their luggage and look like they can use some help, gender notwithstanding, I try to lend a helping hand.
It is not chivalry. Or maybe it is. But if you really need the excuse of “being a gentleman” to do such basic stuff for fellow human beings, then here is a newsflash for you: You are no gentleman. And you’re definitely not a lady.
“But you’re a strong, independent woman. You can manage your luggage/yourself/your troubles, no?” is one of the stupidest rhetoric that patriarchy has ever come up with. It is also one of the most effective ways to make the idea of feminism become a victim of its own mythology. And it is unfortunate that it is not uncommon for even well-meaning feminists to fall right into that trap.
Because needing help is not weak. And lending help is not a favor. There is a term for it — it is called humanity. In fact, being in a position where you can extend your meaningful help to someone is one of the greatest privileges of human existence, gender notwithstanding. Anyone who thinks otherwise is, to put it mildly, a douchebag.
Being a strong, independent woman does not mean we have to fit into a predefined notion of what a strong, independent woman should look like. It does not mean we give up our right to be vulnerable, or have flaws, or be weak sometimes, or just generally be functioning humans. The whole concept of an ideal feminist is an oxymoron, and counter-intuitive in every way possible.
Because feminism at its very core is nothing more than a demand that everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, be allowed their dignity, humanity and equality in each and every aspect of life, without any discrimination on any ground whatsoever.
It is that simple. It is that complicated.
Young, impressionable girls who are made to believe that being strong means giving up a part of their intrinsic personality are no better placed than the ones who were/are brought up on the idea of being rescued by their knight in shining armor. Because in both cases they are being given a model they are supposed to emulate instead of being allowed to discover who they are.
Being strong is not a predesigned model you cut yourself to size to. Being strong doesn’t mean you never cry, have no emotions, or soft corners, or that you have one constant boss-woman setting that you operate on. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t cook or can’t choose to stay at home or, you know, giggle like an annoying teenager. And it definitely doesn’t mean you hate the whole male species.
Being strong simply means that you have the courage to stand for yourself and who you are, and embrace the truest version of you, warts and all, opinions and stereotypes notwithstanding.
21st century chivalry must recognize that being chivalrous doesn’t have to be about protecting, but supporting."
All this talk about strong women was not a digression. Understanding the idea of a strong woman is fundamental to understanding why the whole idea of chivalry has become a sore thumb; and why even well-meaning men find themselves gobsmacked when it comes to understanding what is expected of their chivalrous selves.
The problem with chivalry is that it casts women in the role of delicate, fragile creatures, automatically assigning men the role of benevolent protectors.
Chivalry is the place where the cliches of damsel in distress and knight in shining armor were born. It is also the place where they should go to die.
21st century chivalry should recognize the flaw with the traditional roles and adjust accordingly. 21st century chivalry should admit that women are no damsels and men are no protectors. 21st century chivalry must recognize that being chivalrous doesn’t have to be about protecting, but supporting; it has to be about respecting women not just as, well, women, but as individuals with their own will, personality types, and preferences. And most importantly, 21st century chivalry must recognize that any chivalrous gesture, whether old fashioned or otherwise, is not and should not be an exercise in veiled patronizing and assertion of superiority. Every chivalrous gesture can and should be an expression of things like “I respect you, I care for you, I support you” and so on.
True chivalry is being secure in your identity, and masculinity; and respecting women in your life enough to let them take the center stage in their own right and fight their own battles, while you stand by as her pillar of support ― silent, non-intrusive, but there. Always there.
And these ideals are not a figment of my imagination. Most of these are based on real men who I had the privilege of having in my life. Like my father, who would always let my mother take center stage, whether at a party or in a major decision ― financial or otherwise ― while being the strong, non-intrusive support by her side. Or a boss who I deem as my mentor and who never mansplained, or even boss-splained; who let me deal with affiliate agencies as I deemed fit and take independent calls on important matters, while always keeping a close watch. I always knew I had him in my corner even if things went south, and as a young, freshly out-of-college, extremely naive professional, the kind of confidence I drew from that idea was empowering beyond words.
Chivalry is when my co-founder drops me home if it gets late, because that is necessitated by the scary times we live in. It is also when our gender identities are not allowed to impact the way we work together as a team.
And of course chivalry is when my brother doesn’t even bother to pretend to help me cross the road despite being aware of my abject phobia of traffic. Because that is what annoying siblings do. It is when he isn’t even remotely bothered if I am coming home late, or why, except to the extent that I have a safe commute. And chivalry is when he tells me, along with the rest of the family, that whether I choose to get married at 35 or 50 or never at all, he is going to support my decision, because it is the obvious thing to do, and because he respects the fact that it is my life and my decision.
Chivalry is what I would do for people I love, friends I care for. In essence, it is just another name for treating people in your life, including acquaintances and strangers, kindly and with respect.
Chivalry is not and should not be gender specific, its historical roots notwithstanding. Because updating an idea with the changing times is not equivalent to either appropriating the word or erasing its historical context. Every word and every idea has contextual relevance, and because language is supposed to be dynamic, it makes sense to update our understanding of an idea if and when the context changes. As far as the 21st century is concerned, gender identities and gender roles are in a flux. And if old world values and concepts like chivalry, with all their bonafide intent, want to remain relevant and applicable, they will have to make way for this flux and change with the times.
As I said before, it is not the fact that you pull my chair for me I have a problem with. It is why you do it that bothers me. Check your reasons. Ultimately, it may be the gesture that counts, but it is the intent that lingers. Be chivalrous, but for only the right reasons.
As for the incident that triggered this post, there was simple solution to the dilemma. My friend in question should have reasonably and straight up asked me if I needed/wanted to be escorted. There is a possibility that I might have said yes, if not for safety than for company. The end result would have been the same, including the chivalry part, except it would have been chivalry done right.
After all, chivalry is not rocket science. It is common sense, with a dash of good judgement and respect.