Is Whispering Nothing?

Sometimes I randomly accede to the frivolous demands of boredom, but more frequently I am goaded, and approach not of my own volition, but like Don Quixote, hoping to right some wrong. At those times I am, I like to think, teleology’s servant. I assume that it is the purposes they end up championing, rather than the initial inciting events that deserve my interest. After all, Curiosity is the lust of the mind, as Thomas Hobbes reminded us.

So, when I happened upon an article questioning whether women were less important than cows in India, I was intrigued: I claim no omniscience of societal customs –not even of my own, perhaps- and I have to admit that my background is in Gynaecology, not Anthropology, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist the allure of a sociological pentimento. Is a mask really meant to deceive, or merely illustrate a reality that is otherwise hidden? Unnoticed when undisguised?

‘The striking photos are the brainchild of Sujatro Ghosh, a Delhi-based photographer, who believes that Indian society values the lives of cattle more highly than the lives of women. In order to call attention to endemic misogyny that he feels disfigures cultural life in India (where authorities, Ghosh says, are more likely to punish the mistreatment of a cow than the abuse of a woman or a girl), the photographer invited his female friends to pose for photos wearing a cow mask […].’

The idea of metaphor to illustrate perceived inequity whether social or gendered, is certainly not new of course –not even in art: ‘Ghosh’s photos echo earlier efforts by artists to expose the sexist instincts of cultural institutions. Preferring the visual pun provided by gorilla (as opposed to cow) masks, members of the all-female collective known as the Guerrilla Girls have, for the past three decades, been committed to raising awareness of issues of gender (and racial) bias in the international art world.

‘Relying on street art to communicate their message, the anonymous activists are perhaps best known for a series of arresting posters from the 1980s that have become as recognisable as any works of contemporary art from the period. […] The Guerilla Girls’ provocative poster was rejected by city officials from display on New York transport on the grounds that it was too risqué. The banner satirises French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s lounging portrait of a concubine, La Grande Odalisque (1814), slipping an ape mask over her head and turning the image into one that is impossible to ignore.’ In fact, the striking metaphor has not been lost in other venues, either: ‘Placed alongside Ghosh’s viral photos from this week, the Guerrilla Girls’ memorable poster corroborates a recent claim made by another incognito icon, Banksy: “If you want to say something and have people listen, then you have to wear a mask.”’ (Banksy –to quote Wikipedia- is ‘an anonymous England-based graffiti artist as well as a political activist.’ His ‘works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.’)

I suppose we are all inclined to read between the lines at times. To wonder why a particular thought needs to be portrayed covertly. There is a thrill in deciphering a metaphor, I think –first of all in knowing that it is indeed a metaphor and not really meant to trick the wary… More to beguile them. But more importantly perhaps, the ability to peek behind the curtain suggests membership in a cadre of like minds. Or at least an awareness that someone else has noticed something that is often masked. Something usually hidden by equivocation or, to use a word I can rarely justify, sesquipedalianism –obfuscation, in slightly less confusing terms.

Sometimes we need to be jolted by the unexpected, the unusual, to even notice something. We are, by and large, creatures of context; it is where we feel most comfortable. Incongruity is unsettling and, as in harmony, we feel a need for a resolution of any dissonance. But whereas in music we can passively await the adjustment, in art there is a need to actively pursue accommodation. To decide what it is that makes us feel uneasy and why. It is a goad that brooks no turning away.

It’s no accident, that art has been with us from the beginning of Time, I suspect. That we have been compelled to draw things on whatever surface was available, speaks to our need interpret whatever we felt was important. Whether it was animals in motion, the beauty of the sky, or the mysteries of pregnancy, a visual representation seemed as necessary and important as the thing itself. And as full of meaning. Who knows what metaphors hide within the Palaeolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, or in the Venus of Laussel?

The risk, I suppose, is the temptation to view every creative act as serving a purpose other than the sheer joy of craftsmanship, the ecstasy of virtuosity, the fulfilment of imagination. And yet, to assume the cause might be merely one of portrayal, or even propitiation, is to denigrate the accomplishment, I think. We all see the world through our own eyes, naturally, but it is the ability to share our view and allow it to seep silently into other eyes, that is the gift of art. And if that opens minds –or, perhaps, even alters them- then maybe the circle is complete.



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.

A Feminist Resurgence?

Women’s Liberation -that’s what we used to call the women’s movement when I was a teenager. It sounded like a good idea to me, even though I didn’t really know what it was all about. Girls had always seemed to bring out the best in guys, so I was all for it. I still am. But I have to confess I never dreamed there would be a fifth column. Feminism v. anti Feminism? I didn’t even know there were two sides to the issue until the Cat thing surfaced:  I have to admit that the humour sucked me in…

Like most men, I know only some of the basic facts about the Feminist movement. For example, I know about the three waves: the First one got women the vote; the Second was the Sexual Revolution of the sixties; and the Third one… Uhmm… Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but I think it tried to make us all the same somehow – apart from genitalia everything else was culturally engendered. I suppose that all three are all equally important, but it seems to me that the first two were progressive –goal-oriented- while the third was…well, speculative at best, ideological at worst. A dogma.

As a male who loves and respects women, that last wave sort of washed over me. I always thought we made our own paths through life according to our unique talents and motivations. Where there was discrimination, we challenged it; where there was misinformation, we educated; and where there was something for which we were not suited, we adapted. Life is compromise –for both sexes.

But I fear I am embarking upon a road where even angels fear to tread –male ones, anyway. I mean no harm, and I take no sides, but I am truly baffled. The Movement, as I understand it, was an attempt to redress the obvious inequalities in societal attitudes to women. Such things as voting rights, education, safety from violence and equal pay for equal jobs are obvious. They needed a voice –time on the dais. What was perhaps swept under the cultural carpet, however, was a woman’s right to have a say in personal things: life style, contraception. Abortion. The right to make an informed choice when something affected her. And not just a right –rights have a habit of disappearing aux moments critiques– but a mechanism of enforcement. Laws that work. Feminism was a boon: not only did it lay the ground work for legal protection, but by dint of its strident voice, made it heard by those in power.

But rights must also extend to those who disagree. And as a movement ages, it risks a continuing evolution of the needs of those it was originally intended to serve. It risks having to justify itself to its adherents. In other words, it risks having to change along with them. And, increasingly, this does not necessarily entail cultural or political confrontation so much as cooptation: if the other side has something valuable, or is doing something worthwhile, make it look as if it was your idea all along… and then make it your own.

Times change. When I first started in practice as a specialist in gynaecology, I had the good fortune of having a female colleague as partner in the office. But it was a time of assumed misogyny, I’m afraid. A time of confrontational politics and patients. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be mistrust of male doctors. Mainstream Feminism was struggling through the brambles of disparate ideologies –some were conciliatory and accommodating while others were, well, reactionary and contumacious. I was young and inexperienced in the specialty and the times were aflame with societal struggles.

“The tables are turned, eh?” one of my recalcitrant patients said after refusing to be examined. She had agreed to see me when my partner’s waiting list became too long and her pain too great.

I sighed, closed her chart, and sat back in my chair. I didn’t know what to do.

I could see a worried look creep onto her face. “Look, I’ve told you my problem and you’ve seen the ovarian cyst on my ultrasound… Why can’t you just book me for the OR?”

I smiled bravely. “I suppose I could, but if you don’t trust me enough to examine you, why would you trust me to operate on you?”

She thought about it for a moment. “Well, you delivered my friend’s baby…”

“From the doorway?”

Her eyes narrowed for a moment, and then she laughed. “You turn tables back, too, eh?” And with that she got up and walked into the examination room. “Changed my mind,” she said and closed the door behind her.

A reputation is only as good as the first mistake; an ideology only as relevant as the experience it serves. I am a feminist if it serves my patients; I reserve the right to disagree if it does not. But I live in hope that I have misunderstood, and that evolving feminism is still as relevent and as crucial for society as ever. And I can wait -will wait- as Shakespeare advises: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”