The Inescapable Web of Mansplaining

If we call them out, then we are 'feminazis'. If we don’t, they just get away with it.

Recently, I was invited to be a speaker at an event about menstrual hygiene. There were five women and three men on the panel. A few days before the event, the organisers asked us to do a Facebook Live as a panel. I was grouped with two of the male speakers and a female host. During the course of the discussion, the host asked me why there was so much shame around menstruation and I explained my theory of female sexuality, which I have also detailed in an article.

One of the male panelists Navaldeep Singh, who is a poet with no background in gender rights, seemed impressed with the concept and even thanked me for bringing it to light. But a few days later, on the night of the event, the tables turned as he went up to speak before me. From the podium, he started mansplaining my concept to the audience, to whom, by the way, I hadn’t even been introduced yet.

In his seven minute-long speech, more than half the time was dedicated to talking about his misinformed and condescending notions of female sexuality – on the other hand, it had taken me years of research and reading to form a certain perspective. It was humiliating to watch him bungle the explanations, co-opt my narrative and repeatedly utter my name on stage as if I had given him permission to use, or rather misuse, my content. I was powerless. All I could do was say, “Please don’t mansplain” when he was done speaking. When I finally went up to speak and perform my poetry, I had to dedicate a sizeable chunk of my time to repair the damage he had done.

I was appalled by the audacity of this man. Even after I called him out, he did not apologise, probably because, like most men, he didn’t even know what mansplaining was. So, I decided to research it and break it down. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia:

“Mansplaining (a blend of the word man and the informal form splaining of the verb explaining) means “(of a man) to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner”.

In the Atlantic, Lily Rothman defines it as “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman”.

Author Rebecca Solnit ascribes the phenomenon to a combination of “overconfidence and cluelessness”.

Rebecca Solnit. Credit: Facebook/Alternative Economics

Rebecca Solnit. Credit: Facebook/Alternative Economics

In its original use, mansplaining differed from other forms of condescension in that it is rooted in the sexist assumption that a man is likely to be more knowledgeable than a woman. However, it has come to be used more broadly now – often applied when a man takes a condescending tone in an explanation to anyone, regardless of the age or gender of the intended recipients – “a ‘mansplaining’ can be delivered to any audience.”

I felt this description was inadequate, especially in the context of how men get away with it, be it physical or online spaces and day-to-day interactions. I decided to look for real life examples and anecdotes from urban women in Mumbai who navigate not just physical spaces but also online spaces where mansplaining is even more rampant.

My first interview was with author, storyteller and poet Ramya Pandyan. I asked her if she had been a victim of mansplaining and how she dealt with it. Ramya shook her head, flashed a knowing smile, and said, “Whenever I introduce myself as a ‘writer’, men feel the need to tell me what I should write about without even knowing what genre of writing I do.” I asked her if she had an anecdote outside the writing world and this is what she told me: “I have been swimming almost all my life and I find it very relaxing. But one day a man kept following me in the swimming pool while I was practicing my dives and insisted on commenting on my technique. The man himself couldn’t even swim one stroke without splashing around. I swam away to the deep end super fast, knowing he wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

It may seem like she ran away from the situation, but ideally, the onus of correcting the man should not be on her. I find her approach to ignore the person quite healthy in terms of conserving emotional labour and mental health, but I wanted to know if someone had engaged with their mansplainer. Enter journalist and writer – Deborah Grey. She narrated her experience of arguing with a shopkeeper: “A guy whose job is to pack medicine at the pharmacy once tried to mansplain menstruation and sanitary napkins to me. He said, ‘Nowadays, companies only manufacture extra large pads because women bleed a lot during their period.’ This was right after I told him I wanted regular sized pads, not extra large ones. He actually said ‘Aapko nahi pata madam, humein pata hai. Hum roz ladies ko pad bechte hain! (You don’t know Madam, we do. We sell pads to ladies every day).’ I walked out of his shop, took a picture of the store and threatened to tweet it. Ultimately, the owner of the shop apologised, but said he couldn’t take any further action against his employee as it was difficult to find ‘good help’ these days.”

Next came my conversation with radio journalist and podcaster Chhavi Sachdev, “I matched with someone on a dating site and our first conversation was about what we do etc., so I mentioned I had just filed a story about demonetisation, which to me, would signify that being a reporter, I had good knowledge of it through research plus interviews with economists and people who have been affected by it. But, to him, it signified that he should explain it to me, for 45 minutes! I only stayed on the call because the trainwreck of a situation was fascinating to me.” Chhavi ultimately disengaged with the person, though it was tempting for her to continue.

Judging by the sheer number of stories I got as a response to just asking who had faced mansplaining in a Facebook post, it was evident that the mansplainers are everywhere. They’re on stage, in shops, in swimming pools, on dating apps, in our offices and schools.

If we call them out, then we are ‘feminazis’ and if we don’t, they just get away with it. The overconfidence that mansplainers have is instilled early on in life – through upbringing – in families, the father is considered the ultimate authority figure; from schools – where kindergarten classes are dominated by female teachers but high school classes have male teachers; and as we go higher up the ladder in professional settings, we only see men occupying top positions.

Pop culture hasn’t helped the situation either, where, in movies, it is always the “sluts” who are schooled and rescued by the “hero” who drives the story with women as props to help him. Whether it is the manic-pixie-dream-girl scenario or the women whose humiliation becomes a plot point, women function as sidekicks. Manplainers seem to enter any space pelvis first, with no regard to what damage it does to the confidence of the women affected. That one day mansplainers will actually realise their mistakes and apologise seems like a utopian dream. Until then, stay dry, stay safe, because it’s raining mansplainers.

Ishmeet Nagpal is a dentist turned social activist. When she’s not smashing patriarchy through her articles on gender sensitivity, she creates poetry and theatre presentations to get the message across. She is a trainer on gender issues, and an advocate of reproductive rights and LGBTQIA rights. She is co-founder of SXonomics band and Communications Manager at Save The Children India.

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