How the Other Half Lives

The #MeToo campaign forced Fayes T Kantawala to ask some difficult questions.

How the Other Half Lives
When I am not wasting my life wearing stained sweatpants and binge-watching cooking shows, I like to think that I am a somewhat cultured person. My ongoing obsession with toilet humour does not sustain this delusion, but this week I got the chance to get all fancy and go to the opening night of the opera here in NY. (See? Fancy.) They were staging a production of Turandot, one of Puccini’s operas. It is set in ancient China and tells the story of a beautiful princess whose father wishes her to take a husband. She agrees to marry, but only if her proposed suitor answers her three riddles. If they get the riddles right, she will marry them but if they get one wrong, they will be put to death. So it goes that many come and try but no prince survives her icy inquisition, until our young hero comes along.

It’s a lavish, beautiful production. Although I kept having to remind myself that opera is the one art form actually allowed to be operatic. There are three characters that come in occasionally to provide some levity: Ping, Pang and Pong. They are like a triad chorus-meets-jesters. Not one of the actors who played the roles was of Asian descent, though, and it got me thinking whether or not the whole thing isn’t slightly racist. The opera first debuted in the early 1900s, a time well before this climate of political awareness, or “being woke” as the children now say. I asked myself whether or not that makes it OK or do this now – staging an opera derived from (or “inspired by”) an OrientaI culture but with no Oriental people in it. I came to the conclusion that considering China and Japan have their own storied operatic traditions, something like this is treated now as a sort of historical relic – the same way that the inherent racism in books like Gone with the Wind is happily explained away as a sign of the times.
'Boys will be boys' is a more palatable iteration of a catchall defense for the indefensible

There is something very disquieting about that explanation. It suggests that temporal attitudes can be forgiven in retrospect, and I don’t always think that is true or right. If it were, Harvey Weinstein’s repugnant explanation for his being a sexual predator wouldn’t have been as rightly and widely derided as it was. He said he was a product of a time where this wasn’t a big deal. It’s easy to forget, now, that we are surrounded by self-possessed and successful women all over the world, that there was indeed a time not long ago when women couldn’t vote. America, for all its racial tension, gave black men the right to vote before they gave it to women. That’s an attitude that hasn’t really gone anywhere, as the raging misogyny in the last American election showed us.

There isn’t a single woman I know who has not been on the receiving end of invasive sexual advances. Some from strangers, most from people they knew and trusted; some too horrific to write but all part of a universal problem that is treated like a part of our reality. The #MeToo campaign that took social media by storm last week is one that asks all women who have ever been sexually harassed to use the hashtag on their social media platforms as a way of showing that the Weinstein attitude towards women as sexual objects is not something limited to Hollywood but rather endemic to society as a whole.

Women all over the world used the #MeToo hashtag to point out how
widespread sexual harrassment is

It’s certainly not fair. As a male I am lucky enough that I have rarely feared for my safety late at night, or asked myself whether what I am wearing will be used against me, should another person try to attack me. I don’t take for granted that I have to put up with sexual innuendo in the workplace or be on the receiving end of a sick power dynamic that is institutionalized to let people take advantage of me.

So I ask myself, as a well-intentioned male, how can I be an ally? How can I try to change the fact that every single woman I know – Every! Single! Woman! – has suffered this at one point or another.

I’ve survived an all-boys schools and let me tell you, they don’t teach boys to respect girls. Being called a ‘girl’ is an insult to your masculinity (just as looking or acting like one is an affront to theirs). Effeminate, feminine, womanly, aurat, these are bad words in all-male environments. To lose to a girl is considered somehow worse than to lose to another boy. It’s toxic, and it’s taught, to both boys and girls. This goes a small way to explain how misogyny is institutionalised in our country and others (along with racism, bigotry and homophobia), but what I can do as an individual to change it?

The first thing is to not wait for women to have to call out such behavior, but to call it out myself. Some people fault women victims of abuse for not coming out early enough with accusations. The fact is that if the people in power they could go to were women too, they probably would. But despite that, the onus to change this unequal power dynamic is on the party it privileges, in this case, men; we have to identify a system that favours us, acknowledge that it is biased to its core, and work actively to dismantle it. That means when you’re sitting down in a drawing room and someone goes on about how a girl has a “reputation” you call them on it. If they have no problem with boys sowing wild oats (and they rarely ever do), they sure as hell have no business poking into anyone else’s sex life. If you see one of your male friends making unwanted advances towards a woman, shame him. When someone assumes you obviously wanted a boy when you’ve birthed a beautiful baby girl, call them out. It’s not OK. ‘Boys will be boys’ is a more palatable iteration of a catchall defense for the indefensible. It’s the sentiment of superiority that was used to subjugate whole races, justify the murder of gay people, or, in a more recent Pakistani event, attack Ahmedis in the National Assembly. It’s the same logic that allows a sexual predator to currently sit in the White House and it is wrong.

The bigotry of another era doesn’t become OK just because you’re surrounded by a more tolerant present. The present only becomes tolerant when you force it open.

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