A long time ago when I studied in a Convent there was a teacher who frowned everytime the helm of our skirts went above the knee. Not the uniform, mind you…but skirts that we wore when we were allowed ‘party dress’ in school. In the then small town & conservative Jamshedpur the ‘short skirt’ barely revealed the hump on my knee. “Short skirts will get you into trouble!” she’d warn us.
A year later, when we crossed the road to join the boy’s school in its co-educational plus two, a rather seemingly attractive class teacher (who perhaps miraculously believed that her students wooed her) stopped us in the corridor saying, “Hey you! Stop looking at the boys in my class. You are distracting them!”
I’m extremely proud of my upbringing. Even more for the schooling that I received. But a little more than a decade later when I’m reminded of these two incidents I suddenly realise how our teachers put the onus of so called ‘good’ behaviour on us…girls! And suddenly I doubt everything about I remember about my schooling.
My parents raised me as an equal. My father taught me never to think that I’m weak in anyway. And really I’ve never considered myself weak. As I grew up and came to Delhi, people warned me, ‘Delhi is unsafe’. In my early days, I too boarded wrong buses that took me to parts of Delhi that I thought only existed on the bus’ painted body. I was groped too. ‘Man’handled in a way that left me angry. I put to use the unusual and totally wasteful sex education class that we had way back in 8th grade where we were taught the many uses of the female knee. I also learnt to use my elbow. My heel. My toe. Yes, my head too and at the railway station when I slapped the tall, burly and demeaning taxi driver I realised that the force with which I hit someone is directly proportional to how angry I am. In college I had a friend who was masturbated upon in a crowded bus. She stayed cooped in her hostel room for a week! Afraid of what happened to her, I fought my attackers on the infamous Delhi blueline buses everyday.
Years earlier, when an acquaintance (an man we knew at the club)kissed me forcibly I was left with a burning sensation. My face burned. My heart burnt. I cried in isolation, not knowing what to make of it. It was my first kiss. And it took me more than 20 years to tell my parents that a close relative tried to force himself upon me when I was barely 10.
I’ve fought my own demons too. So when I grew up to be a no-nonsense girl I found to my pleasant surprise that no one dared to mess with me. So no uncomfortable passes were made to me in college and I escaped sexist comments at work too. I was appalled to see a colleague accept it that some other male colleagues called her country liquor in Hindi! One another was called Vodka! Neither of them liked it but they never retaliated. I tried telling them that didn’t have to take those names, but they were too polite for words.
I picked up journalism as a career. I worked 7 years relentlessly at a news organisation in Delhi. Once again, late hours were a part of the arrangement. In the beginning I’d tell my parents. But after I realised that they were mortified. I started hiding my return time from them. They didn’t trust my office drop either since just a few months after joining I broke my leg in a car accident…I was in an office cab returning home. When I got my own car and started driving trouble doubled for them. A single girl driving in Delhi traffic were there’s road rage every other day…coupled with the possibility of driving home late at 2-3-4 am and sometimes at the crack of dawn. I started lying more often. The only person who knew the truth of my adventures was my husband.
Incidentally it was my husband who taught me the world’s choicest expletives in Hindi. I picked them up in when we were dating and I was in college. Hearing a woman using slang is one thing that startles every man. And so every time someone tried to grope me I’d let loose a barrage of gaalis.
When I got married I again had questions. My mother explained to me the symbology behind the shaakha-pola (the white and red bangles that Bengali married women wear) sindoor and loha (the iron bangle that married Bengali women must wear in their left hand). Red is a symbol of love and belongingness. So wearing red by the virtue of this definition is an insignia that you belong to a certain man. Reminded me of a painting that’s been bought at an exhibition and is marked with a red dot!! White is the colour of purity and it means that woman is meant for only one man – her husband. So together the shaakha-pola-sindoor are meant to tell the world that the woman is ‘marked’ and belongs to her husband. The loha serves a unique purpose. Known to be a heavy metal that is attracted to a magnet, a young girl is made to wear an iron bangle when she is young. As she gets married, her husband / mother-in-law remove the iron bangle that she’s worn all her life and replaces it with another. This iron bangle she must NEVER remove. If the symbology has escaped you, then here it is…the iron bangle is meant to keep the woman rooted to her home. It’s a sort of a shackle that’s supposed to hold the woman back from transgressing herself. What does the man wear to show the world that he ‘belongs’ to a woman? What does he wear to stop him from transgressing? NOTHING!!
The onus is always on the woman to stay ahead. To be wary of her surroundings. To protect herself from the world. It is always the woman’s fault. I’ll cry hoarse but I know there’s point shouting from a roof top. Let’s change our society first. Stop discrimination. Stop treating women as doormats. And all you women out there, stop treating yourselves like that! I have a son who I will ensure grows up respecting women. Someday I want to raise a daughter too. But I don’t want to feel sorry for bringing her into this world.
For now, my parents have strictly asked me to not stay out ‘alone’ or with my son late into the night. I shouldn’t drive late in the evening. “And don’t go about slapping anyone now!” they say with an alarm. My husband has asked me to not pick fights with anyone. “Staying quiet is not a sign of weakness”, he says. And I’ve set a reminder to buy myself a pepper spray.
I’ve been asked to change. I find myself willing to change. And I don’t like that about myself.
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