I have realized that sitting at places you’ve never sat before can be inspiring. Recently, I had an epiphany. I was in a cafe which usually hosted young couples from the university nearby. The cafe was unusually overcrowded. It was Eid ul Adha and the university was closed for two days. The holiday might have been the reason drawing the crowd. A group of teenagers –two couples, it seemed, entered the cafe. They occupied the only empty table there. One boy sat along with a girl, while the other two went to place their orders at the counter. On their return, the boy romantically pulled a chair for the girl to sit which made the other girl, who was already seated at the table, swoon over them. In fact, the other girls in the cafe who noticed this, enjoyed the scene. That was some obvious chivalry shown by the boy and it seemed quite clear that the girl (rather girls) liked it.
I sipped down my cold coffee, read this piece on evolution of Tamil cinema, made the payment and then moved to the door. On the other side of the door, I could see three girls approaching the cafe. I, out of courtesy, held it open for the girls to walk in. Surprisingly, they stopped just one step before the entrance. I could make out from their expressions that they did not like the gesture. A moment later, I went away passing by these girls, irritated by their existence.
I asked myself, ‘Why did I even open the door for them?’ Did I really do that out of courtesy? No! I had never shown courtesy for a male before. I realized that my gesture of courtesy came out just because they were girls, and the assumption that they needed me to do it for them. That it, somehow, would’ve portrayed the gentleman in me.
I have always embraced gender equality and have tried to destroy certain notions that ‘define’ gender roles in my day to day life. So, I ask myself this question: do I really follow what I preach? But, I always accompany my mother to the market. I drop my female friends to their hostels if needed and I never let them carry heavy stuff. Rather, I carry it for them. I open doors for them. I give them my seat. I pay for their coffee and the list goes on! I wasn’t even aware that the things I was doing on grounds of being a nice guy, actually came from a patriarchal mindset. I did them because I felt I was supposed to do them.
That is chivalry: a sophisticated, softer version of patriarchy. It tells you to do certain things for the opposite gender to be a ‘gentleman’; certain things –that women might not look good doing. Like opening doors for a man, standing in a bus while a ‘man’ sits, or paying for a male friend’s coffee, and various other things that the society ‘assumes’ women should not be doing.
George Arnette, an African-American classical multi-disciplinary artist, faced a similar situation once, about which he said, ‘I then realized that her (a lady he found picking his stuff from the floor) desire for help is not what motivated me. It was my feeling that she needed or deserved my help because she’s a woman’.
The guy that pulled the chair for the girl in the cafe wasn’t doing it to be ‘nice’. No girl ever does that for a boy to be nice. The worst part was that the girl, along with the other females present in the cafe seem to enjoy such chivalrous gestures and believe that they are entitled to them.
“We’ve never thought about it this way.”, says Safia, an Engineering student at the University. “We in fact love it when a boy does this for us, we feel privileged”, she adds.
Not been able to differentiate ‘chivalry’ from ‘courtesy’ seems to be the problem. Courtesy literally means ‘showing of politeness in one’s attitude and behavior towards others’, and it is certainly not gender specific. While on the other hand chivalry is bluntly gender specific. It is an effort to provide assistance while exerting male privilege and not giving the woman a chance to make choices and simply offering them an alternative. Chivalry should be consensual.
A recent article written by a self-proclaimed male feminist brought up an interesting paradox of chivalry: when men act according to traditional gender norms, women of feminist hues get offended, but when men fail to adhere to these ‘norms’, women are disappointed that they’re not being treated better.
Women constantly complain that there are no “good” men anymore, saying that men these days are no longer romantic and are no longer chivalrous.
But how is a man supposed to be chivalrous when grabbing the check at the end of a date defies everything that the women been fighting for? A women can pull out her own chair at a restaurant, and her date knows that, so with women’s equality in mind, should he still do it? Does an act that was once seen as courteous now have implications of women being inferior?
Where are we going wrong? It seems like it’s not so much chivalry that women want as much as ‘polite gestures’ and ‘respect’. And guess what? Men deserve them just as much as women do! There we are. Chivalry must be replaced by polite gestures and respect for each other, rather than supremacy of one over the other or expectation of entitlements. And the replacement must be considered by all the sexes equally.
As Richard M. Weaver rightfully said, “Chivalry is a romantic idealism closely related to Christianity, which makes honor the guiding principle of conduct. Connected with this is the ancient concept of the gentleman.”