Hey lady, will you hold the door?

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Hey lady, will you hold the door?

Is chivalry dead? No, but in today's world, men - and women - call for a broader definition

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Nivriti Butalia

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Published: Fri 15 Jul 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 15 Jul 2016, 2:00 AM

The other day, a friend who frequently travels on work was telling me on Skype how, at the airport, it annoys him when women pushing "teeny-weeny suitcases" act like they can't lift them off the conveyer belt. "If you can pack it, you can pick it, for god's sake!" Obviously, said friend is no fan of chivalry. He thinks it is rooted in misogyny and sexism. "I'm a big fan of general good manners, but why is it reserved just for women? Why open doors for only women?" he went on. "We should be sensitive to our surroundings and aware of anyone around us who needs a little help, and only more so for people hindered by certain conditions - the elderly, the pregnant etc."
Point taken. There are diverse views on chivalry and what it means though: whether it's relevant today or, as the platitude goes, is chivalry dead? (In a Khaleej Times poll, 81 per cent of online voters said they'd give up their seats for a lady, and 83 per cent said they weren't afraid of a lecture on gender equality or a cold stare if they did give up their seats.)
Gloria Starr is an executive coach, corporate trainer, and author, hired frequently in the Middle East to teach etiquette, manners and social graces that are used in the West. In an email exchange, she says, "Men will treat women with respect when we exhibit kindness and acknowledgment."
Starr, whose (very extensive) client list includes Google, the US Army, Qatar Airways, JP Morgan, Toastmasters International, and King Abdullah's Palace-Saudi Arabia, says, "In my experience, men willingly open doors for women, walk on the curb side of the sidewalk, assist with packages etc... especially in the Middle East. Men in the Gulf region tell me that women are their queens and that they treat them very well. I have experienced these positive masculine traits and gestures frequently."
On Twitter, there are a dime-a-dozen tweets blasting 'feminism' for the unfortunate demise of the possibly archaic concept: 'If chivalry is dead, women have brought it on themselves' reads one (see box).
Some men, unwilling to be quoted, said they're "scared of shrill women, who turn all feminist" when you hold the door for them. Similar to FOMO (fear of missing out), there seems to be a FOCS - fear of the cold stare. "I don't want to get a dirty look or a lecture from women on how they can manage fine without my help," says a real estate consultant in Dubai. According to him, chivalry shouldn't be taken to comical extents. "I don't jump out of the car to rush to hold open the door for my girlfriend! That's taking this chivalry thing too far. But that doesn't mean I don't respect her."
The problem is in the perception and in the subtle communication. Women, it seems, can (and often correctly) construe an act of chivalry as benevolent sexism - splitting a bill, for instance. A little patronisation can creep in when a man simply won't let you. It's a tricky one, and a fine hair that divides chivalry and sexism.
"I don't expect men to open doors or offer to carry heavy bags for me, because I know that they probably won't. But whenever they do, it comes as a nice surprise," says Gea Badiola, a Filipino nurse in Dubai. "The problem these days is that men use gender equality as an excuse to act - or not act - a certain way."
And there are a fair number of women who share Gea's views, will want a seat offered to them and be grateful for the gesture - feminism and equal rights be damned.
The broader view
Some, though, are champions of a broader definition. Nadia Zaidi, an intellectual property rights lawyer in Dubai says, "Chivalry has nothing to do with gender." Even though, traditionally, it has everything to do with being courteous to the lady, to Zaidi, chivalry is an extension of courtesy, civility and respect - for everyone. "If a man is standing with a baby in his arms, then the woman should give up her seat."
An old school upbringing is different though and favours the lady. Tariq Ali, managing director of Word Maker, an Arabic learning tool, subscribes to the ladies-first rule. He says, "I was brought up to open doors for ladies, stand when they come to dinner and always be polite." He says it's unfortunate that we've begun to settle for less. "People who are polite and chivalrous shouldn't be the exceptions - they should be the norm. I want to think that all women should be treated like I want my mother, wife, sister and daughter to be treated. These days, good manners, like opening doors or standing when a woman enters a room, are considered old-fashioned and unnecessary. However, treating everyone with respect and politeness is never wrong - especially if it makes them smile." A winning view, surely. And a little courtesy is great as long as there's no sexism involved - no taking undue liberties, like calling women "sweetie" and "darling" etc at work (known to happen) - unless you (the woman) and sweetie-sayer have an established rapport.
Chantelle Kolistasi, a personal trainer and fitness coach in Dubai (who, back home in Australia, competed in the figure category for body-building) doesn't set much store by chivalry though. "I like the idea of partnership and equality better. I don't care if you open the door for me or let me go first in line. Being chivalrous doesn't instantly make you a better person. You can be a chivalrous, cheating, lying male."
Kolistasi, who has 16.3k followers on Instagram (@ironlaidie), adds quite frankly, "If someone doesn't hold a door for you, you won't die. It's not water. It's a bit of an unrealistic expectation in today's world. At the same time, I wouldn't turn my nose up if it's something a man naturally did, and was taught how to do. As long as it's genuine, I have no problems."
There is a cultural angle, too. Where we were brought up, who we were influenced by, and what each of us picked up along the way, plays a big role. Dubai-based filmmaker and writer Faisal Hashmi says, "For a lot of men, chivalry is rooted in the culture they're from. In most Asian countries, men are expected to do all these things, and are brought up with those values. But, in a lot of Western countries today, these norms are disappearing, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
The bottom line is: be nice. The idea of chivalry, it seems, has blended with courtesy. And that's far from a bad scenario. Kaveeta G Punjabi, managing director of KGPiee Etiquette Enhancers in Dubai, says, "I feel women shouldn't expect men to be chivalrous any more than men expect women to be great cooks! Chivalry is a social grace to be perfected by both men and women." It's tied up to etiquette and etiquette is all about being "respectful, kind, considerate and making the other person comfortable", she adds. "The niceties and social graces are what make a person shine in their personal and professional lives."
nivriti@khaleejtimes.com


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