Say it loud

Why can’t a woman sneeze, laugh, or whistle just as loud as a man?

mansplaining Illustration: Rajesh Angira

Before in-person meetings at the office became a thing of the past, a female colleague and I were poring over a presentation when a loud, uninhibited sneeze rang out across the office bay. Our train of thought derailed, we looked in the general direction of the report with mild amusement. On my colleague’s face, I thought I noted a sense of triumph. Catching my puzzled expression, she said: “You barely noticed that it was a woman sneezing, did you?”

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I admitted to my surprise. In fact, the more I thought about it, I remembered that I had seldom heard a woman sneeze with such unbridled confidence. Men, on the other hand, announced nasal irritation like town criers. Yet, besides walking up and offering a box of tissues to the sneezer, we had never considered this a gendered issue, or looked at the imbalance seriously.

In almost any context, women have to fight to be heard. The put-downs they experience from men may be overt — direct overruling and talking down — or subtle, as in interruption, talking over, mishearing, or snide remarks aimed to remind her of her place. A woman sneezing loudly, or laughing out loud, is expected to follow it up with an apology. In that sense, our female colleague with an allergy to dander was a feminist because no apologies followed, only more sneezes!

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Gender socialisation is baked into our upbringing. We’re instructed, while still young, on the proper ways of being men and women. The effects carry far into our lives, defining our values, social behaviours, and moral outlook. Typecasting begins even before a child is born. The classic trope of picking blue for boys and pink for girls, for example, is so reinforced that even thinking our way out of this trap makes Page Three news. Growing up, we’re eased into stereotypes like “boys will be boys” and “sit like a lady”, which we accept and assimilate unconditionally. 

My grandfather never let anything stand between him and his penchant for breaking wind loudly. His explosive farts were part of the soundscape. They evoked chuckles from the kids and ribald comments from my grandmother. One of his favourite jokes in his defense was that only women’s farts stank. It was a lighthearted remark, but if you took it in context with my grandfather’s patriarchal entitlement, it made sense. He had firm ideas on the place of women in his family, which he changed reluctantly only after he had grown very old and his grandchildren had disappointed him. While he held sway, it went so far as interrupting my mother’s higher education and marrying her off when she was eighteen.

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Watching the Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen, I blanched with familiar guilt. The movie’s plot — a newly married bride of liberal upbringing enduring stifling patriarchy in her husband’s family home — churned uncomfortable memories of my own boyhood vacations in ancestral Kerala homes. I grew up in a nuclear family in Bangalore, and my own kitchen-inhabiting, dish-washing father was a notable exception to the stereotype of the male I encountered in the land of my roots. I was disgusted at seeing this skewed privilege play out — men shooting the breeze while an army of women toiled in the kitchen, dishing up elaborate meals for the men who ate first, and cleaning up after them. 

The symphony of sonorous male belching that ensued announced their satisfaction not just of the quality of the meal, but of the maintenance of the social order. This changed during festive or religious meals where the chefs were all male, reflective of another social conditioning trap — in a professional capacity, women were not allowed to express themselves. While they slaved and withered under criticism until they achieved record-book perfection with the tartness of chutneys or the softness of par-boiled rice, it was beneath the household’s dignity if they chose to take any of these skills to market.

Injustice hung in the air like an unasked question, but what struck me more was the complicity of the womenfolk in endorsing this male privilege. Domestic harmony, it appeared, hinged on the preservation of this indelicate imbalance. The unwritten rules were acknowledged and accepted without challenge like the Constitution of a patriarchal nation-state. While there was no outright condemnation of loud sneezing, or snoring, or laughing by women, a complex web of conventions held these expressions in check. Over time, with conditioning, they had formed rigid expectations of acceptable behaviour. 

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My wife and I believe in raising our daughter right. The other day, overhearing her whistling in perfect tune to a piano sequence that she was playing, we smiled in satisfaction. Whistling, for a girl, was frowned upon even a generation ago. Then the music stopped, and my little girl paused to sneeze: a loud, assertive ah-choo!

Handing her a handkerchief, we said: Bless you! 

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