Dealing with Women

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” cried Chicken Little running around frantically when confronted with an unexpected knock on her head. There are any number of versions of the story but all, seemingly, involving females who misinterpreted some benign event as being catastrophic. Fearful. Outside of their comfort zones. In other words, acted inappropriately given the circumstances. Worse, they acted hysterically. The message as I read it being twofold: the obvious and more polite one is that sometimes we overestimate a danger and panic; but the covert, unstated, and more troubling one, is that it never seems to be the rooster that is panicking.

It is interesting that we seldom notice this; the observation seems trivial because of the folk tale’s obvious purpose of decrying overreaction. And yet that is the point: it seems trivial because we are distracted by the message; the messenger is merely the vehicle for its dissemination: a believable advocate for jumping to unwarranted conclusions, reacting with alarm, not intellect. Bewilderment, not analysis… And looked at through this lens, I see stereotyping –undeclared, of course, and easily ignored, and yet like a persistent but faint shadow, visible when pointed out.

We still live in a barely camouflaged misogynous culture where unattractive attitudes are often left unbathed and then dressed in cleaner clothes. Things unsaid are still implied; it is a kingdom of the once-removed. The wry smile. The innuendo. Of course it’s a thin line that separates description from interpretation and I don’t wish to be accused of usurping Chicken Little as a twenty-first century Rooster Little, but I think it is becoming increasingly obvious that roles –as well as expectations- are ripe for change. The old allusions are wandering from the mark and ring hollow, even when they hit. It’s hard to understand why it has taken so long to notice -or am I, too, overreacting? Seeing things I am convinced exist -a flagrant example of Confirmation Bias? Perhaps, but every once in a while, even in quiet corners, I sense a change in attitude -and  I hope, like a row of dominoes, once one male bastion falls, the rest will follow, however slowly. However reluctantly…

And yet, it is not the weakness in the castle walls that surprises me so much as the attitude of its inhabitants. Behind those ramparts, cultural beliefs and self-serving, unquestioned suppositions, are guarded like Samson’s hair, because to modify them, even in the slightest way, courts a potential diminution of power. A waning of privilege. A loss of control. Or maybe, worst of all, a loss of quality.

Stuff and nonsense! Too long have we been satisfied with the low-hanging fruit while the tree, unconcerned with gender all along, has been offering so much more. And yet for some reason it still seems to come as a surprise that females, given the opportunity, can be the equals of males. A good example, I think, was the recent nuclear talks with Iran.

I was drawn to an article in BBC News that felt it had to point out that there was a significant and necessary role played by women in the negotiations: I loved the fact that somebody noticed the role they played, but I have to confess I was a little disconcerted by the fact that it had to be pointed out at all –as if to say ‘Look what they can do if we let them…’ As if negotiations –serious negotiations, important negotiations- were the sole prerogative of men. A male-only club.

In fairness, however, I suppose there were other constraints to the active involvement of women in these particular negotiations that are obvious only on closer inspection –those of religion and the customs both it and its culture impose. For example: ‘When an agreement is struck among parties, it is standard practice to “shake on it” in order to seal the deal. But when a historic nuclear accord was reached in Vienna, Austria, on 14 July between Iran and the P5+1, the Iranian negotiators could not shake the hands of their female interlocutors due to the country’s strict religious customs.’

When compared to the historic accord that was reached, these are minor things, however. As Wendy Sherman said (‘She was one of the chief architects of the Clinton administration’s North Korea nuclear policy and had taken the lead on the US team’s nuclear talks with Iran since 2011’): “I grew up in Baltimore where there’s a large Orthodox Jewish community where the same is true, but I think we all understood how to speak to each other without shaking hands and understanding each other to the extent that we got an agreement.”

Bravo! The excuses for excluding women were always a house of cards. Let’s hope that not only do the cards fall, but to paraphrase Macbeth’s tortured description of the by-then-dead Duncan: that ‘After their life’s fitful fever they sleep well’. And this time, there should be no guilt. Only hope and celebration.

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