A couple of weeks ago, as part of Ungender, I attended an event on women's safety in Delhi NCR. We were so overwhelmed to see that more men had turned up for that event. As we spoke about different elements of women's safety, this gentleman from the crowd comes up and starts explaining the nuances around the security of women in our country, taking references and cues from history. When he was explaining how women feel unsafe, a lady interrupted him saying, "Hey, please do not mansplain me." While he was at his best pompous self all the women in the room mentally just rolled their eyes.
For a second he was perplexed by this interjection. The confusion showed on his face. He was championing for the safety of women and was trying his best to participate in the conversation but he was slammed for being a mansplainer. Owing to his limited understanding of the term he could not comprehend how he was "mansplaining" the whole thing. Though we are immensely thankful to him for engaging enthusiastically but what he missed here (maybe inadvertently) was that he was addressing a female audience about their lived experiences and who in all probabilities are better informed than him.
Days after this event, I kept wondering about the many impediments at so many levels that hinder the process of understanding gender rights better.
Starting from mansplaining to everyday sexism, from the male gaze to sex-shaming, and most importantly viewing life from a cisgender, androcentric lens (male perspective) that limits us in detangling socioemotional dynamics between genders.
Through a series of articles, A Few Words For Men From Women, The Logical Indian in collaboration with Ungender aim to contribute to awareness and kick off a discussion to change the way we treat each other and talk to and about each other. These series of articles are an attempt from our end to enable men to participate in more enriching conversations. This is not some old battle of the sexes but an effort to grasp how seemingly small things that we do or say add up to a larger issue. Through our first write up we want to address how men can change the narrative and move from mansplaining to being an ally (a concept where a man pushes himself and takes those extra steps to do as much as he possibly can within his context to ensure that all genders are not just treated but also valued equally).
To begin with, let us understand What is Mansplaining?
Very few men understand what mansplaining means. Some think it is a word coined by feminists to vilify and oppress men while others, mostly men, dismiss the term as "men putting their views across".
The term "Mansplaining" is credited to Rebecca Solnit for her 2008 essay, which later became a book in 2014 - Men Explain Things to Me. In her book, she talks about an incident where a man condescendingly suggests her to read a book without knowing that she is the one who has authored it. Though this term was not particularly coined by Solnit, the book crystallized the concept and eventually, it joined the lexicon till it was picked up by feminists across the world to express frustration at this commonly occuring phenomena.
The Oxford Dictionary defines mansplaining as the practice of a man explaining something to a woman in a way that shows he thinks he knows and understands more than she does.
On an average men mansplain things to women at work six times a week. That's 312 times a year. The struggle is universal and real, varying in its degree from bedroom to the boardroom or from family dinners to the concourse.
Men often drown out qualified women, interrupting repeatedly, they tend to explain things unasked, even when the woman is the better qualified one in the conversation. To put it simply, it is like telling a woman how periods work. We appreciate how men are trying to understand issues that we battle each day, but what they have to understand is that there is absolutely no need for men to articulate it for us.
Let's look at a few scenarios to understand mansplaining better.
Instance 1: A company was planning to launch a new app for women. The manager called in a meeting to discuss the product. When a female employee said that the user interface was not very friendly, the developer (male) said, "Madam, do you even know how mobile applications work, let me explain….?". This woman has been developing mobile applications for the past 16 years. Is this mansplaining?
Instance 2: A male editor told a female writer of his team about the angle he expected her to take for an upcoming article. The article is on a gender issue intimately associated with women. The woman writer felt that she was better capable of deciding the angle and said that the editor was mansplaining to her. When an editor explains a point on how an article needs to be written does that become mansplaining or it is just an instruction flowing from an editor to a writer?
Instance 3: A 32-year-old woman visited a male gynecologist and told him that she was going through tremendous pain during periods but the doctor smirked and said, "cramps are usual during menstruation." Did the gynecologist just mansplained to her or was just merely talking from his expertise?
Coming back to the first incident, it is a classic case of mansplaining. This gentleman felt it was more important to push his opinion on her rather than checking if she had competence in the subject matter. Mansplaining is also a form of sexism where a man explains something to a woman with unwarranted and unfounded arrogance.
The second case is layered and a common occurrence at workplaces. Dissecting this situation, the male editor was trying to explain to a female on how an article on some women's issue needs to be crafted. No denying that the female would have a better understanding of the issues but not every time when a man explains something it becomes mansplaining. In this scenario, the editor was merely stating prerequisites for the article from an editorial point of view. That's a requirement for the job, irrespective of the gender of the person who is doing the explaining.
In the third instance, well again the woman is speaking to an expert who has definite understanding about female anatomy. It does look like a grey area but something as basic as "cramps are usual during menstruation" falls into the category of mansplaining. He is speaking to a 32-year-old woman who knows her own body. This is a common problem women face. Additionally, this case illustrates how visual clues play a crucial role in determining the tone of the communication.
Before we delve into how the whole concept emanates from patriarchy and why it makes women furious let's first see -
Why do men Mansplain? (even if they do it inadvertently)
Mansplaining is not a gender predicament rather it is rooted in our cultural conditioning. Thanks to patriarchy that has led to strong gender stereotypes. Boys are always told to "man up" and own a facade of toughness. They have not been taught to show emotions and eventually when they grow up they are absolutely clueless as to how to endure an emotional connection or talk about vulnerabilities. Their communications are mostly fact-based, stats-driven and topical. Even when men have conversations among themselves it is primary to showcase their knowledge or competence rather than connecting at an emotional level with each other. Men, when they have knowledge about something, think they have to speak and share it with the world but when it lands on women it becomes different and provokes them.
Why does Mansplaining trigger women?
If you step in a woman's shoes you will realize why we find it so problematic. It is like you are trying to tell us something we already know. For example, men telling women how streets are unsafe at night. Mansplaining often acts as a way to silence and disrupt women's voices. The whole concept undermines a woman's ability to comprehend and negotiate the world around her. We appreciate men who genuinely try to understand our struggle but when they talk on our behalf they reinforce established stereotypes about women.
Why do we want men to move beyond Mansplaining?
Simple answer - to smash the patriarchy. Mansplaining might sound like a millennial lingo but it is a century-old grim struggle. In all probabilities, this is the oldest communication practice between a man and a woman. There's nothing wrong with men explaining things. In fact, information is wonderful, explanations are amazing but only when asked. Men who can't stop themselves from "helping out" women with unsolicited and misinformed explanations are a problem. This behavior reinforces gender inequality and gender stereotypes. It also takes away the opportunity to build further on gender issues.
There are men who genuinely try to be our allies in the fight against misogyny but at times things like mansplaining unfortunately sours the experience. Here are a few simple things you can adopt to come out of the mansplaining syndrome -
Identity - Mostly such behavior is so ingrained in our everyday interactions that men will not even realize when they mansplained something. To stop this behavior you need to be more aware, more cautious of any kind of condescending elocution. It is also essential to consider that mansplaining can happen through non-verbal interactions as well. Your body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, etc,. So identify both verbal and non-verbal communications that may be leading to mansplaining. Especially when someone tells you that you are mansplaining, just stop. Take a moment to reflect on your behavior.
Listen - Listen from a perspective to understand. You don't always have to respond from your knowledge database. When you set aside your relentless need to share your expertise it allows you to connect in more authentic ways.
Ask questions - To foster a deeper understanding, ask questions - to yourself as well as to others. Before responding, reflect and ask yourself does this really need your input? Are you making bad assumptions about competence? How is bias affecting your interpretation of the above? Also, when you ask others about their personal experience you can totally widen your horizon of how others perceive and navigate life.
Once you have mastered this and try to look for other men who do it and share your experience with them. Mansplaining may seem like a trivial issue in isolation, but in the larger scheme of things how we communicate is crucial in keeping things gender-neutral.
About the author: Vanita Bhatnagar is a law graduate from Symbiosis Law School and works at Ungender. It is a legal advisory firm building gender diversity & sexual harassment compliance framework for companies. She writes on gender neutrality and sexual harassment laws.
This is the first article in the series #UnlearningSocialBehaviour-A Few Words For Men From Women. The #metoo movement and #NotAllMen have taken the internet by storm, igniting countless debates on gender issues. At the moment, there is a disconnect - where women's views are based largely on their personal experiences and men are trying to catch up with the ever-evolving gender conversation. In an attempt to start a dialogue, we along with Ungender, an organisation with a mission to make India safe for everyone, including all genders, sexual orientations, belief systems, is a doing a series of article where women will be writing, explaining certain nuance of daily conversations, the sexist behaviour and what men can do to show solidarity with women.