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Gender

Ladies first

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It is usual and customary in knight-errantry that the knight-errant, who on engaging in any great feat of arms has his lady before him, should turn his eyes towards her...commending himself to her with all his heart. " Thus spake Don Quixote, Spanish writer Cervantes's mock hero, about chivalry. To the knight in shining armour, the lady comes first. Always. Ironically, Quixote's armour is rusty. Parody par excellence of legendary warriors who idealised femininity, he, the man of La Mancha, is an ageing country gentleman who fancies himself a knight. Yet, in his mad, self-willed adoption of a moribund code of masculine valour and gallantry, Quixote shows that destiny can be freely chosen because imagination has wings. Equally, by confusing a peasant with a princess and dubbing her his "lady", he unwittingly suggests that any woman is an inspirational ideal. Any woman can be who she wants to be. Today, "ladies first" is the designer coat-of-arms of knights in Saville Row suits. In commercials, men say "after you" to women. In reality, most withhold rightof-way. Take the Indian mard, who fears being unseated by evolutionary time and revolutionary tide. Does he relinquish legislative seats or even bus seats for women? No. Rather, he occupies seats on buses and trains expressly "reserved for ladies", he and his buddies being anti-women's quota.

But thank heavens ladies aren't first by male munificence. Why? Here's a rib-tickling womanly insight into the concept of "ladies first" in a novel by African-American author Alice Walker: "In the early days, if we were permitted to walk behind the man, we would run away. . . Later on...they hated to think a woman they desired would only think of running away, and so they invented chivalry. Gallantry. The lifting over puddles, the handing into carriages. "

That's truth, told tongue in cheek. Male curtsies notwithstanding, women in the old days were the "second sex". They were property, itemised;their idealised pre-eminence in romances, medieval or otherwise, was necessary spin. So what has changed? Feminine subjectivity and sexuality are still thought treacherous. To guileless Alice in erotic wonderland, patriarchy prefers Alice in chains.

Wisen up, says rapper Queen Latifah. She appropriates the chivalric motto and, in a song titled Ladies First, deploys it to rally the sisterhood in the tradition of Afro-American feminism: "Believe me when I say being a woman is great.../ We are the ones that give birth/ To the new generation of prophets because it's Ladies First..."

Only, hip-hop wasn't around in those hoary days when the idea of "ladies first" sprang in crafty heads. Consider another darkly funny take on its origin: women trudged ahead less for being precious than dispensable. In assassination bids, targeted males could have unsuspecting female shields take the blow. Did women also have the first sip at the table, so that warring noblemen could survive the fishy soup or poisoned chalice? Possibly. With "ladies first" applied to dying, feudal lords could collectively exhale the boor's last sigh.

You've come a long way, mi'lady. Fair game, you've learned to play the game. Recall how goongi gudiya Indira Gandhi, crowned pliable prime minister, didn't remain titular woman on top. First among unequals, she morphed into India-is-Indira and vice versa. Or think of Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to steer a prominent British party, becoming three-time PM and turning British politics on its head. Why, even when second in official hierarchy, ladies can come first. How does Sonia Gandhi inspire political knighterrantry in her party? By voluntarily ceding first place in the government.

In India, millions of ordinary women taking the lead in their lives, by hook or by crook, will like the sound of "ladies first". If social rules and stereotypes aren't always breakable, they're bendable. Take two random examples. One, online dating, friendship and matrimonial services are thriving. Arranged marriage is still king, underage brides are all-too-common and pre-marital courtship raises eyebrows. Yet the Internet has been laying off traditional matchmakers. As social networkers, girls are going from mujhse dosti karoge? to mujhse shaadi karoge? with or without parental guidance.

Two, bromides linking beauty with shallowness, indolence or commodification are being busted thanks to the money-talks clout of the beauty industry, frowned upon by patriarchs and their feminist decriers alike. No trivial pursuit, beauty is big, slowdown-proof business. Imagine : Indian spending on its products proportionate to income could match trends worldwide by 2025. To say the beauty trade exploits gender stereotypes, as writer Naomi Wolf famously did, is not to see that it is also empowering. First, legions of women, from city slickers to small-towners, are joining the workforce. Second, legions realise beauty can be an end in itself, not a means to the end of attracting wolf whistles.

But do women always act rather than follow? Take the gender bind of relationships. How many initiate dating, not waiting to be asked out? How many insist on sharing or paying the bill at the cost of offending male pride? How many refuse emotional pillion-rides when a man is "just not that into you" ? How many expect men to make the first move, thinking agency is man's prerogative and passivity woman's lot? How many insist men help chop onions, dish-wash or bathe the kids? Conversely, how many fix the fuse or change a tyre without SOS-ing a man?

Boys climb trees and girls play house. How many daughters break the mould, because the tree in childhood's garden is the psychological ladder they must climb at the risk of falling, so as to play house for real in equal partnerships? If so inclined, how many decline to play house at all? How many choose other tree-climbing trajectories towards self-fulfillment ?

"Ladies first" seek to lead households, communities, countries;they don't just play "first ladies", a supporting cast. In 2008, ex-first lady Hillary Clinton said 18 million votes going her way in the Democratic primaries were "18 million cracks" in the "hardest glass ceiling" to the US presidency. Cracked or no, the ceiling exists. Controlling life choices or bank balances, women have cards stacked against them. India or America, millions come "second" in education, jobs, payslips, boardrooms, classrooms, political war rooms.

But the feminisation of society and decision-making will increasingly make its own successful sales pitch. As work gets more technology-enabled and serviceoriented. As lifestyles change to stem ecological loss whose worst victims are women and children. And as humanity better sees that the choice between war and peace is the mother - necessarily mother - of all no-brainers. Meantime, ladies needn't be first by invitation. They need fair contests in which opportunity knocks, irrespective of gender.
In fiction, chivalry expresses genuine empathy for women: it celebrates self-fashioning. In life, chivalry is flattery women can do without. Spare ladies the long kiss, good knight.

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