Women are taught pain very early. Whether that is in the form of cooking accidents, puberty, self-sacrifice or childbirth, pain is an integral eventuality of womanhood. Men on the other hand feel comfortable complaining about even the slightest discomfort, and as a woman that causes me a certain amount of resentment. This is why.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
One evening, my husband had a persistent itch in his right eye. He scratched, rubbed and washed, but even as we sat on the couch after dinner, talking, he continued to make faces of discomfort, complain and bat his eyelid as if trying to get something out of it. This next part doesn’t make me look so good, but it annoyed me. Now I’m not discounting his discomfort, I have had a speck of dust in my eye before and I know that can be mildly irritating, but there is something about the magnitude of complaints a man will make over minor discomfort that requires unpacking. So, as a means to explaining my irritation I told him about a piece of writing I had read recently, it was about a woman whose husband had made his own breakfast one morning and burnt his finger a little bit, something that happens to millions of women every day and goes completely unnoticed, through the day her husband brandished his wound, sent help home to pick up ointment and discussed it with everyone in his office, and she couldn’t quite explain to herself why her husband’s injury (and attitude towards it) made her angry instead of concerned.
I was quite relieved when I read this piece of writing because all my life I had believed that it was only I, in my glorious lack of compassion, that diminished the need to complain about minor ailments and suggested everyone just suck it up. I thought it was just my “cold” and “dispassionate” nature that caused me to become annoyed when someone had a cut or a scratch and felt that it warranted a conversation. It was not until later that I realised some of us were allowed to complain about ailments, and others weren’t. Women have the reputation of being whiny and complaining a lot (and I wonder why women are complaining a lot, it’s only rape, abuse, violence, sexism and the patriarchy) but you would be hard-pressed to find a woman who complains about a cut, a cramp, an itchy eye, a slight fever or a little burn. Men, on the other hand (at least in my experience with them, and it is vast), will be more comfortable complaining about these things, and sometimes complain as if they were being repeatedly stabbed in the eye with an acid-coated screwdriver.
There are two important factors that govern the lives of women: pain and silence. Right from the beginning, pain is presented as an integral part of womanhood, and it is too. Most women cook every day, and are accustomed to cuts, burns and scrapes. Women are introduced to the concept of puberty via our periods which are accompanied by varying degrees of cramps. Sex is taught as a painful concept, especially the loss of “virginity” and because a vast majority of Indian women have unsatisfying sex-lives that focus only on the man’s needs, sex continues to be painful. Childbirth, an allegedly vital right of passage for women, is heavily pain-associated and also the benchmark against which a woman’s right to complain about pain is measured. Essentially if it doesn’t hurt as much as childbirth, you can’t quite allude to not being able to endure it because if you can’t, what will you do when you give birth? Very often, right from a very young age, when girls complain about pain, they are shushed, and encouraged to bear it with grace.
Moreover, medically speaking, women’s pain is taken less seriously. A doctor once told me that my fever and headaches accompanied by dengue were caused by my “tendency to worry too much” and that is probably what would cause my death too. Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen. It’s the same with gynaecological issues, a form of birth-control I was once taking was causing persistent cramping and random bleeding, and when I told the doctor, she told me that it was only natural that my unnatural decision to not procreate be accompanied by pain and discomfort. Additionally as I have tackled PCOS my whole life, many doctors have prescribed medication from birth-control to illegal diet pills to hormones but not one ever prescribed a painkiller even though each one knew that sometimes I was having period cramps so severe I couldn’t stand up (I still did stand up, of course, and worked too, because that is what women are expected to do), the attitude towards that was always that I had to have my period my entire life so I had to learn to deal with it. Pain is a life-lesson taught to women.
And it’s not just physical pain, it’s also discomfort and emotional pain. Women in many parts of India are still expected to attire themselves according to a patriarchal agenda. While I lived in Jaipur and worked out in a public park, every day I would encounter women in sarees and sneakers, with their faces covered down to their necks and jewellery hanging off every possible corner, trying to workout in the outdoor gym. At weddings most brides are decked in attire that leads to absolute exhaustion, I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard of women who were running a fever on their wedding day or developed a rash because of their clothes. Post-marital symbols like bangles and chains also cause physical discomfort, especially when you are working (on a computer) or cooking (in a kitchen), but that discomfort is just meant to be incorporated into your life.
Then there’s fatigue. My husband treats sleeping like it’s his right, and he’s not wrong there, adequate sleep is a right and important too, and if he is tired because of working all day and managing a home all evening, he will comfortably show it. However, I cannot do that, I cannot without guilt ever admit to being tired. I can wake up early, work all day, study, cook meals, deal with the child, workout, engage in my hobbies, write, read, check in socially, do the shopping and take care of the pets but I cannot admit to any of it tiring me without worrying that I am complaining. I see it in my mother too, for instance, she can say she is tired but she can never definitively declare that she will take a nap. She may take a nap but she cannot say that she will, and no matter how much stuff she has already done during the day, she will always do more if it is needed. Emotionally, too, women are expected to be creatures of adjustment and self-sacrifice: eat less if there isn’t enough food, say nothing if someone displeases us, just listen if an “elder” chastises you, sacrifice for your child or your husband. To say nothing of the socio-sexual violence and harassment faced by women and the pain associated with that.
Pain is woven into every aspect of a woman’s life, and it’s made worse by the fact that an expectation of silence is woven in right alongside. Girls don’t complain about the little things because attention isn’t paid when we do, and how can it when the experience of pain is so ubiquitous to womanhood. Who will take seriously when you’re always in pain somehow? Who will take it seriously when you need to be taught to bear pain so as to be able to sexually satisfy your husbands and have their babies?
On the other hand men have a very different relationship with pain. Men are taught, right from the beginning, that they are strong because they can lift things. They’re also taught that they are valuable cargo, and yeah I know many of us were raised in very “equal” households but most people in this country are not. Until such a time as when parents stop feeling like they can brag about doing their daughter the favour of not discriminating against her, we hadn’t even made a dent. Until such a time as when couple with two daughters stop having a third child because they haven’t had a boy, we aren’t really making progress. Until I stop personally knowing people who were forced to have abortions because they illegally found out they were having a daughter, I am not buying this “equality” lollipop. Until we can safely legalize pre-natal sex determination without worrying that it will cause people to kill girls, I’m not seeing this allegedly equal treatment. Girls are an expense and boys are an asset, and therefore when the ladla (dear) son of the house gets hurt, be that a tiny scrape or a broken toe, the world stops turning.
It’s like that with everything. Men’s clothing is governed by comfort and ergonomic convenience. There is no medical bias against men and they can access pain-management with ease. Most importantly, however, right from the beginning, when boys complain about pain, it is listened to and considered important enough to take action. After all there isn’t a big pain-based event that is waiting for them, and they don’t need to be taught to bear it. Pain is an inconvenience to men, but to women it is an inevitability. Men are used to people paying attention when they hurt, women are used to keeping quiet about minor inconveniences. The idea that men are “strong” also works in their favour here, because a man is “strong” it is understood that if he complains it must be because it is really bad but we’ve all had cuts, burns and scrapes, we know how bad they are and it impossible to justify that each time it worse for the men.
And so, when I am with a man, whether that is my husband, a partner, a friend or my father, and I see them be broken down by a knick or a slight headache, it always annoys me a little. It don’t want them to be uncomfortable, I would rather they feel just fine, but I can’t help feel a resentment because I was never afforded the opportunity to be derailed by a scrape. I could never go on for 20-minutes about a headache or a burn, no one would listen, and depending on the situation one might even tell me to stop complaining. I can’t sympathize with your tiredness because I wasn’t even taught that I was allowed to be tired. That’s not fair to my partner, no, but it’s not because I cannot empathize with his discomfort. It’s because I, a woman, was never taught that a fleck of dust in the eye could be enough to be considered discomfort. I thought it was just normal life to be quiet and minorly inconvenienced all the time.