Nothing To Do With Gender

I’ve imagined myself working on this piece several times in the last few years. Each of these times I’ve debated between different kinds of ‘impactful’ opening statements, addressed to family and friends (who judge me for my views on the matter) as my primary audience.

[ I will admit, though, that some of these imaginary scenarios also involve me on a stage addressing a large, extremely engaged audience constantly nodding and smiling up at me.]

Undoubtedly, though, oration tops the list of skills I don’t have. In fact, the few times I have spoken on a stage, I’ve been asked to repeat loudly or ‘speak into the mic’ because I tend to mumble to myself if there are more than five people in the room. Even so, considering that I work for an NGO and spend ninety percent of my time talking, arguing, thinking and writing (research and funder reports) about gender, equality and related matters, I’d imagined this one to come to me the easiest.

And so, while I’m feeling somewhat disappointed with this opening, I’ve also accepted a simple, long overdue, realization:

It is easier when I’m talking about women in third person, as case studies, data, numbers and stories that can help social sectorists achieve whatever development outcomes they’ve set out for. But it is far more difficult, when that case study or story is mine.

~

As a responsible, ‘woke’ — as they say these days — writer, let me first do the token task of acknowledging my privilege. I say token because I’m quite a bit tired of writers, social sciences or liberal arts researchers who acknowledge their privilege in one line and then move on to saying things they want to say anyway.

Maybe I’m not any better. But I will try and give this a real shot.

When you grow up in a family where three decent meals are a given, every alternate summer vacation involves a three-day holiday in a Shimla or Mussourie and you go out for a meal every few weeks, your gender is not something you’re very conscious of. And that’s a privilege.

Money was tight but not so much that we couldn’t afford a private school education. Expenses were rigorously tracked through the joint family accounting system, but birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated with good food and alcohol consuming uncles debating politics in the background. I went to the same school as my brother, ate the same meals as him and my birthdays were celebrated with equal gusto as his. So yes, life had nothing to do with my gender.

At least not until I turned 12. And realized that my chemistry tutor was trying to teach biology. By displaying his genitals and asking me to do things with them.

The (hopefully) dramatic effect of unnecessary full stops is completely intended.

After a few classes I refused to go back and kept crying until my mother sensed that something — not exactly what though — ‘wrong’ was going on. She made a few investigative calls to other mother-friends who’d employed the same tutor for their kids and figured the details. Sadly, to no one’s surprise, he was abusing several other students, and not all of them were girls.

And so, maybe, life still wasn’t— not entirely at least — about my gender yet.

But it definitely did not help when my first period followed very soon after this tutor episode and I found myself at the receiving end of important lessons in menstrual hygiene management. I learnt to avoid the mandir (temple) area, wash stubborn stains on my underwear and of course the most important lesson of them all: disposing my sanitary waste like I was discarding incriminating evidence.

And so while I was not realizing it — everything was slowly becoming about my gender.

My mother and I never spoke about the ‘tutor episode’ but I was informed that the man was threatened away from the neighborhood.

A police complaint, however, was never discussed as a possibility among the adults. The knowledge of which contributed to another early teenage realization: I learnt to understand and accept that the abuse I’d faced was something I was expected to ‘move on’ from — by not mentioning it to others, by focusing on school assignments and other extra-curricular activities in life. I had an overactive mind and so I processed this in further detail:

Only rape or sexual assault that caused physical harm (such as murder), I told myself, deserved legal engagement. All else ranked lower on this scale of assault that everyone around me seemed to unquestioningly abide by.

And with this scale firmly rooted in my psyche, I entered my teenage, normalized to harassment, groping and cat-calling on the streets of Delhi. I told myself: none of these episodes are as bad as the ‘tutor episode’ and definitely not as bad as things happening to other young women I was reading about in the news every day.

~

Cut to five years later. I am 18. And about to begin my undergraduate degree in Sociology after finishing school with grades that got me into a program at a high-ranking college of my choice.

After a hot but victorious afternoon of standing in long queues to submit my transcripts at the university’s admissions office, I stop by at my maternal grandparents’ place to share my milestone-ish joy with them.

“So, who would you prefer as a husband — a man from a ‘business family’ or with a (private/ government) job?” Asked my grandfather, after a long unsuccessful lunch conversation around why I had chosen Sociology as my major and how I was hoping to make a career out of it.

[To be fair to him, as a child of the 1947 partition of India, who’d started a family business from scratch, he was unable to make sense of the point of spending three years on a program that helped me understand the world and its ways, in order to hopefully challenge and question them.]

In the twelve years since this 2008 afternoon, I’ve revisited this conversation with my grandfather many times. I’ve swung from anger and resentment to (what seems to be) acceptance by somehow rationalizing his words and questions (just realized that I’m doing it again).

And this was only one of the many such conversations that make up the love-hate complications of most — if not all — Indian families.

But, as a young woman now entering her 30s, this much is clear to me: If there was any opportunity to develop self-esteem or confidence through this — most definitely — milestone moment of my life, it was lost in questions and doubts about my future as a person who could possibly provide and decide for herself, without marriage and a husband being factors.

I remember leaving that conversation, wondering to myself:

“What kind of family/ in-laws would be okay with me doing a job? Will I be able to make them understand the possible career trajectories I wanted to explore for myself?

I didn’t really have any older working women in the family. If they had worked — it had been to support the family business by substituting for one of the men on sick days. But I loved school and I wanted to do something with whatever more I was going to learn. One of those ‘I-can-change-the-world’ kids who didn’t yet understand what, if at all, needed changing but knew there was some greatness associated with it.

To make matters worse, my range — for ‘changing-the-world’ career options was quite wide. I wanted to explore criminology, law, research, NGO work. And I was privileged enough to not have to worry about the finances.

At 19, when I showed no signs of interest in marriage and began excusing myself from weddings — a breeding ground for matchmaking among Punjabis — I found myself surrounded by sometimes discreet and sometimes in-your-face advice.

“Desk job is best. Less travel, less time away from family,” mentioned an aunt when I was helping her in the kitchen. Summers holidays were approaching and the family was debating if I should be allowed to take up this internship opportunity that required me to spend time in a village in Haryana, conducting research for a government run employment scheme.

“Teaching! Best option. You can run the house and be home before the husband.” When, during my second year, inspired by the sociology of crime and punishment, I casually voiced my interest in a Master’s program in forensic social work and criminology.

[This was arguably the most scandalous career aspiration that my extremely Punjabi family had had to deal with. It was met with reactions ranging from ‘you watch too much TV!’ to ‘you are our only daughter. What will we do if something happens to you?’.]

“Law turns girls into argumentative women. How will we ever find a groom for you?” When, during my third year, inspired by all the latest John Grisham’s I’d read, I announced that I wanted to sit for law school entrance exams.

“Salary is not important. What is the need to struggle so much? We’ll find you a ‘well-settled’ boy.” When, finally, feeling clueless and lost, I took the first job that I was able to get without too much struggle.

I was already doing extra hours at an NGO located in an area labelled ‘unsafe’ (for reasons that drive my current research interest in understanding the gentrification of urban planning — a topic deserving an essay of its own).

Of course, my folks were livid by now. Marriage conversations had not only peaked, they had escalated to another level of public discourse around my superwoman-like abilities to ‘balance’ my domestic and ‘office’ responsibilities. And how, when needed, I was smart enough to prioritize the former.

And so, for better and not worse, I think, by the time I turned 21, I was convinced that everything in life had long been and was always going to be about my gender.

But I will reiterate: this is still when my life is/ was not marked with the disadvantages that define the lives of young women I write about, as a full-time non-profit sector researcher today.

Researcher, writer — always wondering why and what if.