The Hardest Joke to Crack: Casual Sexism

One morning my partner and I were driving to work and as usual the clock was pushing towards the 9.30 in-time faster than it should have been. While we sped at 10 km an hour in the midst of fruit vendors jostling their daily fair, and a million cars crawling through traffic together, two women ambled slowly across the main road right in front of us with not a care in the world. With an irritated tut my partner exclaimed, “Auraton ke dimaag ghutne mein hote hain kya?” Meaning, literally, are women’s brains in their knees? A funny phrase, perhaps when translated thus, but implying that women are of low intelligence.

At first glance, this is just a comment in passing by my frustrated partner trying to navigate the tricky roads of Pune. However, what the comment does essentially, is target women on the basis of their gender. He could have said perhaps, “inke dimaag ghutne mein hain kya” or are their brains in their knees. He would still be venting his frustration of having to deal with these two individuals and their lack of concern about the road being a public place and not their personal garden, and the purpose would have been achieved without targeting their entire gender.

Such comments are hurled in passing so often that we hardly take offence any more. “You’re not like other girls”, says a boy to a girl he likes in appreciation of her, thereby actively demeaning her gender.

Some would say, I am overthinking it. Lighten up, it’s just a joke. You know he didn’t mean it like that. Some would even get defensive saying he’s such a good partner, you don’t know how lucky you are, at least he isn’t violent or abusive, and so it continues. Casual sexism feels like a break for men from all their restraints and social pressures of having to behave “properly”- to have to not be violent and abusive.

My work at Equal Community Foundation involves putting up content on digital platforms about the work we do with adolescent boys in Pune. I often use big words like enabling boys to become more gender equitable but what does that really mean? Yes, taking action against violence and abuse is important but it is not limited to that. It also involves being able to identify how subtly language works, how sexism creeps into our everyday actions, seemingly routine, seemingly normal, seemingly normalizing gender inequality.

In our conversations with boys, our Programme Mentors often talk to them about swear words and cussing. They tell us that the words they hear and repeat so casually are words they’ve never actually given a second thought to. That every other abuse is woman-centric is deeply problematic. Recognising different forms of violence is important, and what is least visible to us is our language, our jokes, and the deeply engrained veins of patriarchy.

I can proudly say I know adolescent boys who are standing up against societal injustices against women, and I take heart. So when I hear a comment in passing that demeans women, however subtly, I will call it out. I will not take it lightly.