The absolute first thing we need to keep in mind before we get started, and something I constantly remind myself of, is this: pick your battles.
This is by no means a guide on how to barge into a place with strict laws or religious sensitivities and try to shake things up. Wearing hotpants in a conservative society isn’t challenging norms and bravely leading the way forward for women – it’s just being an insensitive and entitled tourist (#truth). What I write about here is how and when to identify a situation where there’s a little room for subtle and non-invasive suggestions.
SAY MY NAME (AND SHAKE MY HAND)
That awkward and angst-inspiring moment when you’re clearly glossed over because of your unfortunate lack of a penis, a situation I and many females have been in but the example in this particular case originates from a dinner in Almaty, Kazakstan, where I was the only woman present.
There you are, arm stuck out like a fool, only to be passed right over like a kid who didn’t get picked for the team. And you, with your arm either still stuck out awkwardly or hastily removed from the scene in question, never got to verbalise the snappy introduction you had already scripted in your head either, which is a real shame because you know it was a good one.
Your hand, unlike your spirits, remain unshaken. The good name your parents gave you continues to be unknown. The men who surround you, however, are getting in on some serious hand-shaking action. There everyone else goes, heartily shaking each other’s upper extremities like it was their last chance on earth to exchange modern day pleasantries, yelling their names in a most masculine fashion, and all you get is a glance at best, or a once-over and an unwelcome eyebrow raise.
What’s a girl to do, you wonder? A girl stands up taller and she leaves her damn hand there and she patiently awaits her turn. She stands there, awkward as it may seem, sheepish as she may feel, for her turn to introduce herself.
“I’ve got time,” she might assure herself. “My hand, my name, and I can wait here all evening but this is going down.” Take a step forward if you must but you get out there, you shake those hands, and you say your name right out loud and proud. They’ll come around eventually. Make it so that they have to.
CONVERSATION AND OPINIONS
While attending a language class in Moscow, we were going round the class, sharing where we were from, why we had chosen to study Russian and what had brought us to the capital. Based on how we were seated, my then-fiancée spoke before me, prompting the teacher to laugh when I began my introduction, saying. “We’ve already heard from him, I’m sure your story is the same.” (Fun fact: it isn’t).
A situation that many a woman has found herself in, even today, is the assumption that if in the presence of a male partner, his opinion and experiences are representative of hers, too.
Perhaps this is a hangover from the annoyingly dominating but seemingly well-mannered “I’ll have X and the lady will have Y,” days (which I sincerely hope is no longer a thing that people still do). You can order your own food, dammit, and no, you don’t share your husband’s views on football, the recent elections or the latest season of Narcos.
Speaking of football, there is definitely a range of topics that when mentioned, are almost exclusively directed at men at the table, at the bar, or wherever you’re likely to next find yourself doing some serious patriarchy-dismantling (The park? The bus stop? In the lift?).
Here’s the plan: Insist on your own introduction. Work on being unafraid to cut in if you have to – the chance to speak won’t always be handed to you in these situations. If you’re a football fan or have opinions on something you were unfairly excluded from, get in there and speak your piece.
If you have a trusted male companion, consider arranging a team effort with him in advance. “Well, I think the results were hardly surprising given recent events, though [your name here] doesn’t quite agree with me,” he might begin, giving you a foot in the door of an aggressively male conversation.
It’s a long and slow journey for something as simple as being heard or becoming part of the conversation, but Joan of Arc didn’t help to liberate France in a day.
OUR OWN ENEMIES
Far too often, the issue at hand lies with the status quo that women have been assigned in our various cultures.
“It’s terrible when women are careerists,” a language teacher told me today. “I mean, it’s bad enough if it’s a man, but for women – you’d be a bad mother, and what about your home?”
Another language teacher in Beijing had previously expressed strong reservations when I asked her the right way to say ‘feminist’ (fun fact: it’s 女权, nǚquán). “But this word is bad,” she began. “It means strong, independent, brave!”
Here’s when it’s time to speak up, even if it’s just by making a suggestion. “Isn’t it good to be strong, independent and brave?” you might ask. Or, “What if a woman doesn’t want to stay home, or to have children?”
It’s likely you’ll be quickly brushed off – but from my own experience, the slight pause of consideration you’re sometimes met with makes it worth a try.
For some women, commanding attention and holding her ground comes easily. For far more of us, though, trying to hold your own when no one wants to shake your hand or hear your opinion can be frustrating, seemingly pointless and altogether exhausting, whether in your home or while wandering a foreign land.
Wherever you are though, small gestures can do their bit in changing mindsets and getting more women heard in the societies we all live in, call home or visit.
So we press on with our male friends and allies, with our arms confidently stuck out, names boldly declared, and misconceptions politely but firmly corrected.
It’s a long road ahead and might lose you a couple of friends – and gain you a few eyeball rolls – along the way but we persist as we work towards learning about the world we live in and the cultures we encounter, while gradually doing our best to dismantle the patriarchy, one handshake at a time.