In Bombay, earlier this year, I found myself on one end of a seesaw, and my year-old niece, thrilled to bits at the advantages of having a fifty-three kilo counterweight, at the other. Her giggles had attracted a small audience, in terms of height and not numbers, hoping for a chance to replace her, with me holding on to my position as the toddler lofting mechanism. Aaleya, usually recalcitrant, as most one-year-olds are, when asked to give up a good thing for someone else, was surprisingly magnanimous in her usurpation, allowing for a string of little girls and boys to have a go on the saw of my see.
Giddy from the intestinal jostling, I was just about to throw the towel in when another little girl came up to me asking if she could have a turn. Dusk had crept up surreptitiously and most of the kids had already deserted the swing sets. I was going to use the ‘your parents must be wondering where you are’ excuse to ditch the kid, when she cut me off with “Please didi, all the others are gone now, so my skirt can fly up.”I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this strange comment and so I asked her to explain. She did: “Mummy told me not to wear the skirt to the park because it flies up no, but all the boys are gone now so it’s my turn.”
The indoctrination starts early. The conditioning begins at pre, no, pre-pre pubescent stages. On account of governmental policies limiting the possibility of pre-natal sex determination, our children in India, unlike in other countries, are gendered (mostly) post birth. This delay, however, does not prevent little boys and little girls of becoming aware of how they are different from one another, well before they understand how they are similar. This is not a rant, it’s a suggestion, a hypothesis that perhaps sexism and sexual aggression is engendered culturally, from the very unit we have exalted in India for centuries now: the family. As I understand it, the genesis of this difference producing mechanism has two roots. The first prompts us to raise our boys to believe they are different from girls, but in the right way; the sort that gives them sanction to, in some families, eat first, play rough, wear shorts, go shirtless, stay out longer. The second makes us raise our girls to believe that they must protect themselves from the boys; that under that skirt that may fly up is something that all boys, even if they are little five-year-olds, must not be allowed to see. We ask our girls to believe that the way they dress determines how they are perceived. Karan Thapar, as part of a panel on Bollywood and Cricket on ABC Australia’s show Q&A refers to the tendency of our families to raise little princes, entitled young boys who receive unhealthy endorsement or, at least, limited reproach for certain kinds of behavior. Ironically, as Thapar points out, the coddling is received from female figures at home, like a mother or grandmother. I would go so far as to say that raising little princes is not the domain of Indian families alone; the phenomenon is visible globally, and, much to the chagrin of some, in the ‘first’ world as well. The ratification for gender-based behavior is also, not limited to female figures, and is often demonstrated visibly by male guardians like a father, or an uncle.
Each of these convoluted ideas receives further sanction as these children grow up. In school, the girls wear skirts and the boys wear trousers. The girls are needled for the lengths of their skirts, while the boys watch, becoming more aware of the wonders that lie beneath that pleated piece of clothing; the kind of wonders that prompt grown-ups to want to protect them.
This differentiation is only aggravated by gender-based policies at home, at school and in the profession. When my sister was at college in Manipal, I found it rather odd when she informed me that the curfew for the girls hostel was two hours earlier than it was for the boys. At the threshold of adulthood, she and her classmates, both male and female, were, therefore, reminded of the basic biological and psychological differences between them. The suggestion, cloaked in jargon about protecting women, was simply this: that women who stay out late are more likely to find themselves in trouble. Simultaneously, the signal being sent to the young men was that the extra freedom being accorded to them was on account of their gender, and, perhaps the more damaging implication, that they are a threat to women’s safety. Unfortunately, the gender-based determination of curfews is not limited to schools and colleges, but finds resonance in the practices of most households, traversing across class stratification.
At work, it is, sadly, no different. Perceived differences in gender determine, to a large extent, the quality and brand of work meted out to the two sexes. Undoubtedly, there are institutions and organizations committed to undoing the bias and pushing for equality at the workplace. Yet, at most, gender difference is often conflated with policies of sexism and discrimination. And, contrary to popular belief, the prejudice is palpable across class structures, and not to be found only in small-scale organizations; it is rampant even in its more elite form. Just last week, the news of a young journalist accusing her eminent superior of sexual assault at one of India’s leading investigative magazines has blown the lid off these neat categories, raising sexism’s ugly head in places we believe to be committed to its suppression. Simultaneously, for me at least, it reiterates the importance of undoing gender binaries altogether. In addition to restricting our ability to interact on the basic level of human beings, it concurrently leaves out individuals who identify as gender-neutral, let alone those who identify as homosexuals, transgender and bisexual. Gender is an accident of birth; it deserves neither repression nor celebration, but unequivocal acceptance. I am hopeful, that an attitude that inhibits gender-based discrimination at more nascent stages in development, will promote more equitable circumstances in the future. It’s uncertain whether this change in perception will work or not. So, to end tritely as a former journalist of dubious quality, I posit, that only time will tell.
© Ayesha Sindhu 2013