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Why are women always expected to be grateful?

After spending six years in an Iran jail for a crime she denies committing, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was accused of not showing enough gratitude upon her return to the UK

london, united kingdom   march 21  nazanin zaghari ratcliffe attends a press conference hosted by her local mp tulip siddiq in the macmillan room, portcullis house, following her release from detention in iran last week, on march 21, 2022 in london, england  british iranian charity worker nazanin zaghari ratcliffe, 44 years old, was arrested in april 2016 in tehran on spying charges while visiting her parents and introducing them to her baby daughter, gabriella she was convicted and held in prison for five years and subsequently convicted of plotting the overthrow of iran’s government she has consistently denied all allegations  photo by victoria joneswpa poolgetty images
WPA PoolGetty Images

It took six long years to bring Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe back home from captivity in Iran. If you have followed the news at all in the last couple of weeks since her release, you are probably aware of the backlash that she faced after her first press conference where some felt that she hadn’t been grateful enough. Many believed that she ought to have shown more gratitude to our government for securing her release, when all she rightfully said was that "this should have happened six years ago". I was not surprised to see this reaction, because women are always expected to feel gratitude. I also know that as an immigrant, and a woman of colour, this is something that is expected of us, as it is of Nazanin.

I have been researching emotional norms for years, and have distilled it in my upcoming book Hysterical: Exploding the myth of gendered emotions, where I discuss how emotional expression plays an important role in social organisation, especially in maintaining social position. The social codes have to be interpreted through a delicate interaction of lexical and nonverbal cues. Women, in general, are expected to moderate their emotions, to be passive, to please others. Immigrant women more so. Women of colour are expected to comply, be passive, not ruffle any feathers, not cause any discomfort to anyone. In the press conference, Nazanin did not mask her feeling of dissatisfaction with the government, and she had every right to do so. But this did not sit right with many who expected her to smile and be docile, to act in a benevolent manner to those in power.

Women, in general, are expected to moderate their emotions, to be passive, to please others

The anthropology professor Arjun Appadurai showed in his research in South India that expressions of gratitude, for which there is no straightforward vocabulary in Tamil, are subject to rules of subordination. Essentially, those lower down in the social order are expected to moderate their emotions more for the comfort of those higher up. Gratitude in most cases is considered an acceptance of permanent subordination and is therefore expected of those who are oppressed. In her book, The Ungrateful Refugee, Dina Nayeri also questions and challenges this gratitude that all immigrants are expected to feel towards those native-born, as if they should go through their lives bowing and thanking those who consider themselves to be the rightful occupiers of a space in which the immigrants have been allowed in.

nazanin zaghari ratcliffe reacts as she attends a press conference hosted by mp tulip siddiq, in the macmillan room, at portcullis house, in london, on march 21, 2022 following her release from detention in iran last week   a british iranian charity worker nazanin zaghari ratcliffe held in tehran for six years called on march 21, 2022 for all unjustly detained prisoners in iran to be freed, speaking publicly for the first time since her release zaghari ratcliffe, 43, and retired engineer anoosheh ashoori, 67, flew home last week, at the same time as the uk government repaid a longstanding debt to tehran photo by victoria jones  pool  afp photo by victoria jonespoolafp via getty images
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during her press conference

Women are expected to show more positive emotions, and gratitude is a positive emotion. In 2018, the American soccer star Abby Wambach said that she had spent most of her life feeling grateful for having a seat at the table, and that she was, like all little girls, taught to be grateful. Gratitude also plays a major role in creating and maintaining social relationships, and women are, in general, relied upon more to maintain interpersonal links and connections.

Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions

Research studies have shown that men are less likely to feel and express gratitude. In a survey of 2,000 Americans, by the John Templeton Foundation in 2012, a gratitude gender gap was shown with women more likely than men to express gratitude on a regular basis (52 per cent women compared to 44 percent men). Women reported greater gratitude than men overall, but men were found to make more critical evaluations of gratitude in others, especially in women. Even though research has shown that expressions of gratitude can come at a cost for the person expressing it, women are expected to perform this emotional labour, even at the cost of their own well-being - to fake a certain publicly observable (and approved) facial and body display where it is expected. Women are also expected to soothe others and assuage them of their discomfort. And, so, any sort of cognitive dissonance from these expectations is uncomfortable for others. This is why it was noticed and commented upon. This is why it was expected from Nazanin to feel gratitude, and for her to express it explicitly in her words and actions.

But this emotional labour takes a huge toll on us, and I hope Nazanin will look after herself in the coming days and months. She has shown strength and resilience but the expectation to always be strong can be exhausting, too. That is another expectation imposed on women of colour, to be self-sufficient, to internalise any pain and still keep smiling.

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