By subverting our politically inclined feminism, boys exploited us even further by a pretend admiration for the fact that we were breaking taboos that made us, in fact, more available to them. Of course, when you are young, stupid, and thoroughly confused by your rampant sexuality, which suddenly makes you ‘popular’, you can’t see this. You take as much rebellion as you are allowed. Payal takes a hard look at the limits of feminism, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
I was brought up to believe in the equality of men and women. It’s as simple as that. Equality in terms of ability, attitude, intelligence, and emotion. Equality in term of work, career, and ambition. As simple as that.
I realised it was not that simple. It never is. Even before I became an adult, I started to experience what women start to experience the world over. The dawning realisation that your ability, attitude, emotions, and ambitions have to comply with different norms if you are women. That your work, career, and ambition are measured on a different level if you are a woman.
This is not my unique experience. Every woman experiences this. Yes, every woman. Regardless of country, culture, education or age. It is so universal as to be almost hilarious. Unfortunately, it’s the unfunniest thing in the world.
How did I, a young woman then, who had supposedly been brought up ‘differently’ behave when confronted by the growing realisation that everything that I thought right was in practice the opposite?
Well, I succumbed. Without even realising I was succumbing. Gave way, even as I thought I was holding my own.
Let me give you examples. In an all-girls school, there was much emphasis on deportment, behaviour and making sure skirts were worn long enough to cover our bloomers. Menstruation was referred to as ‘the curse’.
We were expected to be pure and virginal, and any expression of sexuality was stamped down by the genteel nuns, with no thought to the world we would be entering, and no realisation that our sense of self would need to entail an acceptance acknowledgement and celebration of our sexuality.
We were most unequipped and unprepared for the world, which every day and in every way confronted, taunted, and punished us for being young and female.
In my co-ed college, it was the norm to give positions of leadership to boys. Class President, School Student Representative…all boys because they were boys not because they were capable. Did it cross our minds to challenge it? Not really, because it was a forgone conclusion. It seemed pointless to protest, so guess what?
We expressed our ‘equality’ by going bra-less, matching blokes drink for drink, and smoking. All futile gestures in term of achieving anything for the cause of feminism, or indeed ourselves. We thought it was a big deal because we were ‘breaking stereotypes’ in terms what women should or should not do. Hah, bloody, hah!
When I look back at it now, I can recognise it as patriarchal manoeuvring to fit our desire for feminism into the form that was acceptable to men and could be made use of. No, I don’t dislike men at all, I say this as a fact. By subverting our politically inclined feminism, boys exploited us even further by a pretend admiration for the fact that we were breaking taboos that made us, in fact, more available to them. Of course, when you are young, stupid, and thoroughly confused by your rampant sexuality, which suddenly makes you ‘popular’, you can’t see this.
You take as much rebellion as you are allowed.
A little further along the way, during my college, we learned what it was like to be women in a male world. This was the late 1980’s and we thought we were breaching barriers. But we hadn’t bargained for the male club. Girls were singled out and ‘taken under the wings’. Those ones, who were ‘good’ and ‘polite’ and willing to slave and do more than their share of the work.
They were given pats on the back (yes, literally), frequently touched – taking hold of your arm, a pat on the head, fingers on the nape of your neck. During classes, more women were called upon to be the ‘patient’ while some method of palpation or some nerve complex was to be discussed.
We were invited to express our liberation as ‘friendliness’, which admitted us to the inner coterie. This gave us a free pass to being subjected to off-colour jokes and innuendo, largely propagated by professors and male colleagues. Here then, was the not so subtle lesson: Feminist? Come on then, grin and bear it while we flood you with overtly sexual innuendo and ‘humour’ and test your ability to withstand it.
We had no idea how to deal with this, other than giving weak grins. We had no notion of calling them out on their disgusting behaviour. The response to our desire for equality and self-expression was – Ok then. Come and join the club, if you have the balls for it. Let’s see if you can be as ‘manly’ as men.
Today, this would be recognised as sexual harassment. Then, we didn’t know better. So for those who think feminism hasn’t really achieved anything over the years, think again.
How did we cope with it?
- By physically keeping ourselves as far away from the notorious professors
- By enlisting the help of a male co-students who would work as a physical barrier between you and ‘him’
- A lot of grinning and bearing it
Did we try complaining? Yes. And unless it was ‘blatant forcible assault’ we got sent off with a flea in our ear, a lecture about curbing overactive imaginations, warning not to be ‘feminists’.
The ultimate reproof – the Prof in question is a married man. Right? So that made all his actions merely ‘fatherly’ and hence above suspicion. And we needed to be the ones to clean out our dirty minds.
In between life happened. Which meant walking with your head down, not responding to lewd comments, always having a ‘dupatta’ or a shawl to cover your chest and walking with your books held like a shield in front of you. We submitted to all suggested tactics and techniques for ‘evading’ attention. We tried, on the one hand, to de-sexualise ourselves, make ourselves as little objects of desire as we could. To make ourselves unnoticeable by dressing like a good girl.
In medical college, our white coats became the ‘burqa’ that helped conceal the fact of boobs in existence.
I was one of the bad girls – I glared at leering men. I spat back vitriol at lewd comments, and once, on getting my breast grabbed viciously, in a bus, I slapped the guy. How many women in my generation took to carrying safety pins as protection! It’s not even funny! It really isn’t – protecting yourself with a pin prick.
Poised on a teetering seesaw of social acceptance, we balanced rebellion with submission.
Photos from the internet.
#TwoSidesOfAWoman #RebelAndSubmissive #UnknowningSubmission #EqualityOfWomen #GenderEquality #EveTeasing #FeministAtFiffty #DifferentTruths
Businesswoman, curator of handlooms, poet, writer, and erstwhile doctor. Payal Talreja practices everything except her involuntary ‘profession’. She claims that words chose her and are now her weapon of choice because an activist born will stay silent for no man. A wanderer, a voyager, she’s happy to slum it or luxuriate in any life experience. She crafts poems and fiercely feminist essays and will assume her ‘Chandi’ avatar to ‘write’ any wrong.