Growing up in a country like India is no easy business. Given our worse than Sub-Saharan Africa human development indicators, the whole question of growing up arises if you’re lucky to be born in a family that can afford you. But even then problems of an entirely different genre crop up. If you happen to be a woman, life is going to be a struggle. Either they are going to bring you up as the “poster child” of “beti padhao, beti badhao” or you are going to be the target audience of the scheme. The former is definitely the case one would want to belong to.
To give one an idea of what life can be like for a woman in this country: I was home for holi and had gone to one of those mom-and-pop grocery stores. Given the tendency of small town Indians to make small talk with absolute strangers the woman started telling me the story of her neighbor who was brutally beaten by her husband for having given birth to a daughter. The man even tried to kill the daughter but “people” intervened and the police then entered the picture. The story left me shaken. It’s one thing to constantly read about these things in the newspapers but a completely different thing to hear about these things in first person, happening somewhere in your neighbourhood.
When I came home I asked my mom if they were happy when I was born. I received an answer in the affirmative with a “your grandparents were very upset.” We were a nuclear family where grandparents came up only when mom was super angry with dad and decided to start the story from the day of her marriage! Basically I belonged to the poster child case. That explained a lot of things. For one, it definitely explained my father’s higher expectations from me. My brother could just be, but me- I had to excel. Is the academics going fine, how are the extra-curricular activities going? Does she keep her self physically active? Why isn’t she eating healthy? Why is she sleeping so much? Clearly, my parents took their “beti padhao beti badhao” extremely seriously.
My brother and I never had different rules. If I was to be home before 9 pm then it was the same for him. If he was given driving lessons on a SUV then so was I. Going to an all girls’ Convent did nothing to break the myth of equality. In fact my school only contributed to my sense of equality (then) and superiority (now) with respect to the opposite sex. But life is not what happens at home or in school. There is only so much that a family and an all girls Convent can do to make things look bright.
The first thing that betis have to deal with is an absolutely incompetent educational system. If education is about preparing you for life then I don’t see how it escapes the brilliant policy-making minds of this country that lessons on self-defence is the one thing a girl needs for a better and more empowered life. Instead of weight training and basic (for that matter even advance) self defence techniques which are more useful for us in dealing with this world they teach us to stand and sit with our feet together and similar buffoonery during moral science lessons. If you feel literature is important, then how does it escape you that survival is the priority. It should be an absolute must. I learnt self defence from YouTube (helped in no small measure by my adorable gym trainer) and its the one thing that has made me feel really confident about myself-more than any academic or job achievement has.
Not only does our system fail to teach us what is important, but if you try to do it yourself they don’t take that in their stride either. My parents knew about my intensive gymming but when my mother saw me do push-ups and in the process my nascent biceps, I got a look of disapproval followed by a lecture that had two broad themes-One, it is not feminine to do such things; Two, that I anyway don’t think too highly of the opposite sex, with the one biological advantage of superior strength also taken there is no way how I shall ever say yes to a man!!! That I can do all this for something as basic as being able to lift my rucksack and put it in the overhead cabin is lost on most people. But that is the problem with this country. First they make us dependent, come up with customs where a daughter’s wedding is a status symbol, create a society in which one man attacks a woman and it becomes the duty of another to protect her and then they find us a burden and suddenly we are unwanted.
It’s not just systemic loopholes and societal attitudes that we have to deal with. We also have to deal with the set notions with which people of our generation come. That people in my generation would have set roles for men and women in their head was something I had never considered. I dated a buffoon who had notions about a girl not driving if her “man” is sitting in the car (apparently his inflated male ego couldn’t take it). That I gave it back to him when he asked me to drive him home after he was drunk is another story. Girls can’t abuse. They can’t be muscular. A hyena’s laughter?! Girls should be seen, not heard. In this light, I wasn’t surprised when I read the following report:
Indian youth are certainly becoming more modern in their appearance and consumption habits, “but their thoughts and views reflect a troubling inclination towards intolerance and conservatism”, says a national survey of their attitudes, anxieties and aspirations, released in New Delhi.
The survey, jointly conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Lokniti, covered 6,122 respondents in the age group of 15-34.
It was carried out in April-May 2016 in 19 States….
The illiberal orientation was further underscored in the domain of interpersonal relations, with 67% of the youth opposed to live-in relationships. On the question of inter-religious marriages, 45% were opposed to them, while only 28% were in support. The majority of the respondents (51%) agreed with the proposition that “wives should always listen to their husbands”. Also, 41% agreed that it is not right for women to work after marriage. While 53% were opposed to dating before marriage, 40% disapproved of Valentine’s Day celebrations. A fairly high proportion of young women respondents also held such conservative views, the report said.
51% agreed with the proposition that wives must always listen to their husbands? By what divine right do you demand to be heard, if I may ask?
Another issue is the patronising attitude of colleagues and friends. Spare us the Victorian prudery, the chivalry and your I-know-what-is-good-for-you attitude. When a friend tries to act protective about me in a public place I feel like telling him two things: if something was to actually happen then you’re as ill equipped as I am in being able to do anything about it. More importantly, the fact that I am with the you, concern for your own welfare should be paramount in your head.
Societal attitudes will change when individuals change. The education system will also change some day. The least that we “poster children” of women empowerment in India expect is for colleagues and friends to treat us equally. We aren’t Giant Pandas that you as a society is trying to save from extinction. We aren’t an exotic specie that you’re trying to save, protect or curate. Give us our space and we will thrive. We aren’t the “fairer sex” or the “weaker sex”. We are simply the opposite sex.