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Cavaliers, roundheads and the big match season

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Big match season lays bare the tribalism and sexism in our society



Big match season brings out the best in us and also the worst, I think. The camaraderie and the loyalty of the old boys and the enthusiasm of younger ones are heart-warming. But on the negative side, big match season lays bare also the tribalism and sexism in our society. Tribalism is a topic for another day. Sexism is the topic for this column. Untitled-2

The other day, Daily Mirror carried the headline ‘Romeo student sent to probationary care, Police tighten security for city girls’ schools’. As the report details, the student of a certain college, who had been arrested for forcibly entering a girls school, was ordered to be sent to the Probationary and Child Care Centre in Makola until 31 March by the Hulftsdorp Magistrate’s Court. A spokesman for the Police had said that Police officers in civvies and uniform and the emergency Mobile Police Unit would be deployed in the vicinity of all girls’ schools within the Colombo City limits. 

Seriously, boys and girls, what century do you live in? Even in the twentieth century in which I was a school girl we thought storming the girls’ schools was a rather quaint practice. Actually, the notion was not quite ours. Cloistered in an all-girls boarding school in Colombo, the notion came to us from the few girls who joined our school for their senior secondary schooling from the Kannangara Central schools in distant districts. These Central schools were then set up as elite schools in each electoral district as co-ed residential institutions. By the time we were in school, these Central schools were on their way down in stature and effectiveness, but there was sufficient institutional memory to give us a flavor of a different kind of schooling. The girls from those schools talked about a world where boys were study partners or partners more intimate, and they seemed so casual about the whole thing. In comparison our existence seemed so quaint and Victorian. 

Today more than 70 years after the Central schools were established, the ‘popular’ schools which have replaced them are largely segregated by gender. Although most of the schools are still co-ed, the 100 or so of these trendsetting schools in the island are segregated by gender. In those girls schools we keep the girls behind walls and let the boys run wild in the boys’ schools or so it seems. The so-called ‘International’ schools which operate privately are co-ed but they seem to function in their own bubble. There is little concern in society about harmful sexist attitudes we propagate through these segregated schools, and then we ask why there are so few women in politics or in the board rooms, laying blame on political party leaders or business leaders.

In my opinion, the sexism we see in our society is propagated not my men, but by the mothers and the female teachers who think they are protecting the girls with their archaic practices. As I wrote sometime back (see http://www.ft.lk/article/529913/Men--women-and-their-relationship) – Roald Dahl would write a new version of Witches, if he was to take a peek behind the iron gates of these girls’ schools. Women teachers can be extra hard on girls. Girls get beaten for threading eyebrows. Threaded eyebrows are seen as a sure sign of interest in boys, an absolute no-no. Too much reading is discouraged too. Stick to the textbooks if you want to get ahead. Field trips are minimised and if they take place it is more about guarding virginity than gaining experiences. I think a short-hand description of our attitudes is that our culture encourages our future leaders to be ‘cavaliers’ if they are boys and to be ‘roundheads’ if they are girls, and we are short changing both genders and the society in the process.

I picked up the cavalier-roundhead terminology from a column by ‘Bagehot’ in the Economist, the international weekly. Bagehot, or one with that penname, in his/her column of 17 February, reviewed an autobiography titled ‘A Woman’s Work’ by Harriet Harmon, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party of UK and a long standing Member of the Parliament. Bagehot uses the cavalier v. roundhead analogy successfully to capture her experience. 

The hullaballoos surrounding the big matches here in Sri Lanka made me go back to the column in the Economist to see if the cavalier-roundhead terminology can be applied to our own situation. What do those terms mean? What are their origins and how do they apply to us?

Flamboyant Cavaliers v. Prim Roundheads

The terms cavaliers and roundheads have a long historical beginning with the civil war in England 1642 and beheading of Charles I in 1649. As ‘Bagehot’ writes:

“In the English civil war the Roundheads (parliamentarian and prim) defeated the Cavaliers (royalist and flamboyant), then lost the peace. The taxonomy lives on not as ideology but as two demeanors. Westminster’s Roundheads are sober, earnest and severe: think Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown and Theresa May. Its Cavaliers tend to be swaggering, arch and clubbable: David Cameron, Nigel Farage and to a lesser extent Tony Blair. The Cavaliers tend to have the most fun and get the best press. It is no coincidence that the supreme Cavalier of Britain’s recent political past was also its supreme diarist: Alan Clark. “I only can properly enjoy carol services if I am having an illicit affair with someone in the congregation,” he once wrote.”

Harriet Harman, an MP who served in the British Parliament, is described as solidly Roundhead as it gets:

Harriet Harman, Labour’s former deputy leader, is as roundly Roundhead as Mr. Clark was confidently Cavalier. Her new autobiography, ‘A Woman’s Work’, is as serious as his books are riotous. Reading it, [the writer] was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s maxim that “the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings”. The same, it seems, is true of the feminism to which Ms Harman has dedicated her career—first as an activist lawyer, then as a backbench MP, later as a minister. Over 400 pages she documents four decades of brow-furrowing evenings: procedural meetings, resolutions, commissions.

In our own culture, women who can be or should be leaders have cornered themselves into roundheads, I believe. Social restrictions in our popular schools have forced them to stick to books. An Astronomy club, e.g., in a girls’ school would operate differently from one in a boy’s school, because night-time activities are restricted for girls. As a well-known local personality remarked, if elections were an exam, we will have a parliament full of women. Even when we get into the public space, because of our lack of exposure we may be seen as shrill and uncompromising. 

Parliaments need both cavaliers and roundheads

Social norms are reflected in Parliament. That is why our Hansard or reports in the media of talk outside in the lobbies of the Parliament are full of school boy jokes and drivel not worth the print. The Economist notes the need for both cavaliers and roundheads in the Parliament:

[P]olitics needs Roundheads. With their compromising bonhomie Cavaliers are useful consolidators, lubricators of relations between social groups, guardians of good humour and thus perspective. But leave politics to such types and it becomes a golf club bar. For it to work, they must be joined by the likes of Ms Harman: Roundheads willing to tread a stonier path. These politicians make enemies, call out bad consensuses and gradually, painfully reform the common sense of the age. 

I think the Economist is only half-right. More Ms. Harmons will perpetuate the cavaliers v. roundheads rift along gender lines. What we need is an environment where cavalier women are not forced to be roundheads to fit into social norms or roundhead men are not forced to act more cavalier than they could or should. 

Cavaliers and roundheads in the workplace and the home

As a recent report from OECD found, women are indeed doing better at exams than men in the G20 countries they surveyed. Here in Sri Lanka more women join the administrative services as a result of their success at the entry exams. We cloister our girls and limit them to their textbooks while young boys gain experience often at the expense of the books. If the men in the civil service are better known to get their hands dirty with money, women are perhaps guilty of the higher crime of being over-cautious and unimaginative paper pushers. 

At home too women segregate themselves seemingly by choice. As I wrote sometime back (see http://www.ft.lk/article/529913/Men--women-and-their-relationship), social gatherings in Sri Lanka, irrespective of class, will degenerate into segregated affairs where men gather around bottles hard liquor, talking politics and other seemingly-important stuff, while women choose the fizzy sweet drinks to fret about the children, their schooling and difficulties of getting help in the kitchen. High court judges, corporate lawyers, director of this and that, it does not matter, we all play a script handed down to us from our grandmothers’ time. Listen to both sides carefully and conclude for yourself. The quality of the conversation on both sides can improve with some mixing.

To grow old in love and companionship

The segregation we learn in school and practice as adults gets worse as we grow older it seems, with men increasingly seeking companionship around liquor or with liquor, and women doting on the grandchildren and/or the priests and the temples. Are we as a society missing out on love and companionship in our relationships? Are our popular schools partly to blame for that? 

(The writer can be reached via sujata@lirneasia.net.)

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