Men and the Conspiracy of Silence Around Sexism

"Liberal" and "progressive" men who do not voice their disagreement with sexist acts are just as implicated in the culture of perpetuating institutional sexism.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde, one of the authors of the op-ed demanding an end to impunity for sexist men. Credit: Reuters

IMF chief Christine Lagarde, one of the authors of the op-ed demanding an end to impunity for sexist men. Credit: Reuters

Former ministers in France have recently launched an attack on sexism in politics. The group consists only of women and includes current IMF chief Christine Lagarde. The women presented their collective voice in an op-ed in a French weekly, Journal Du Dimanche. Despite their political differences, they unanimously agreed on one thing: sexism simply has no place in any society. “Like all women who reached circles that were once exclusively masculine, we have been forced to fight against sexism. It’s not for women to adapt in these circles; it’s the behaviour of certain men that must change. It’s enough. The immunity has finished. We will no longer shut up,” the article said. This bold move is refreshing in the arena of politics, where successful women are usually expected to tolerate what has been described as “casual sexism”. These range from casual jokes to an institutional and systemic sexism that assumes that an all-male political establishment or absence of women at the upper echelons of power is simply normal. The demand for more visibility and presence is regarded as favour rather than an entitlement or right.

Different forms of sexism

Casual or everyday sexism is subtle and more difficult to tackle than explicit sexual coercion, blatant bigotry or overt forms of sexual harassment. It is the experience of more indirect forms of discrimination on a daily basis that women are expected to tolerate – it includes subtle everyday slights and gendered expectations in the workplace, where women are expected to perform maternal or domestic tasks. And yet it is equally humiliating, subordinating and infuriating.  What is most evident is that actions to counter it, it seems, must always be taken by women – though in India there are no signs of women in the political establishment coming together on any shared platform regarding sexism. But what is more troubling is that despite the presence of liberal men in positions of power and in nearly every profession, there is no sense of responsibility that they need to take any affirmative action to call out other men on their behaviour or to take the lead in bringing about the requisite institutional reform that can produce positive change. When measures are adopted in the name of women’s rights, these are invariably protectionist, implemented most often as a reaction to a particularly appalling event or act of sexual violence, or as a cultural intervention to restore women to a position of “honour and respect” that they enjoyed in some mythical past. This is not the recipe for increased respect or freedom for women. Safety and security measures have almost nothing to do with gender equality, which is a right, not a privilege. And culture has become a stultifying edifice invoked by those who seek to safeguard their own privileges and positions of power.

France’s female politicians have taken an important step in encouraging all victims of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual aggression to speak out and complain. The fact that Lagarde has lent her support to this opposition to rampant and pervasive sexism is particularly significant in light of the disgraceful behaviour of her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was forced to resign after he allegedly attempted to rape a hotel employee in New York. And it follows on the heels of complaints by nine women accusing the deputy speaker of the French national assembly, Denis Baupin, of sexual harassment as well as the admission by French finance minister Michel Sapin of inappropriate behaviour towards a female journalist.

Need for men’s intervention

In India, the focus on sexual violence and criminal law has almost completely overshadowed the ways in which sexism is pervasive, institutionalised and experienced by almost every single woman across religion, ethnicity and caste in this country, though the experience is intensified because of these differences. It exists on university campuses and in the workplace, within the political arena including the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, as well as in the public and private sector. The fact that many women do not speak out is partly out of fear of damaging their careers or losing their jobs.

But what is so egregious is the absolute silence amongst men – even those who claim to be liberal, progressive men – who either fail to provide a supportive environment or remain complicit in the silence. They may be fully aware that their colleague – a fellow doctor, professor or senior counsel – has indulged in these offensive and humiliating practices. These men are as implicated in the culture of sustaining and perpetuating institutional and systemic sexism where “respectable” senior colleagues in the legal profession, medical profession as well as academia are exonerated for what under any circumstances would be deemed as offensive, disgraceful and shameful behaviour.  Without this support it is left to women to either organise against it or to simply adapt to it. Sexism flourishes not simply because some men get away with it. It flourishes because most men refuse to call out their colleagues, friends and family for indulging in it. Sexism is not exclusively a woman’s problem. It is first and foremost a problem of complicity amongst men. Sexism is widespread, persistent and insidious discrimination that will not be repaired through more laws or sexual harassment policies.

Women who refuse to participate in this culture of silence or decide to complain pay a heavy price. It remains appalling that in the 21st century women continue to have to fight for their humanity – the very right to be treated as humans who are entitled to dignity and respect. Yet it is also simply impossible for women to bring about this change on their own. It requires a conscious exercise of male privilege in a direction that makes them better human beings who are respected rather than feared, who do not find their masculinity in the humiliation of women or refuse to speak against such behaviour.  It requires an attitudinal change that must be brought about by men and not just women, who are in positions of power. Men need to become role models in demonstrating respectful treatment towards women as fellow colleagues rather than as worshipped maternal figures or their personal domestic help in the workplace. These are men who do not find the validation of their masculinity in denigrating women or accepting that they are hardwired to harass women. It is a performance of masculinity that earns its respect through finding such male behaviour unacceptable and intolerable, from those who are determined to challenge and change it.

The French politicians have demanded an end to male impunity, for men to change their behaviour and be called out on it if they don’t. The op-ed concluded: “It cannot be said by a colleague that a woman, whatever her status, whether she be an employee, student, unemployed, housewife or elected representative ‘apart from her magnificent breasts, what’s she like?’ It cannot be said with a grave voice, ‘your skirt is too long, you should shorten it’ or ‘are you wearing a thong? And when a woman says no, it’s no’. Women have had enough. When will men also feel that they are no longer prepared to put up with such treatment of women any more and initiate similar campaigns to make public spaces respectful and welcoming for women? How long will the liberal man stay silent and remain complicit?”

Ratna Kapur is a professor at Jindal Global Law School.