I have always wondered how it is that we go from not knowing anything at all to understanding that boys and girls are different. I am certain that we are not born into this world with any sort of grasp on the concept of gender. Yet, somehow, by the time we start understanding the world around us, we also know that boys and girls are completely different. By virtue of that difference, we are not allowed to act like in any sphere of life. Gender being a socially constructed category becomes more and more a nuanced reality as one is socialized into being a responsible citizen. It is often conflated with it being a biological fact, which cannot be disputed.
Right from the get go, boys are taught that they are not supposed to cry, they can’t wear pink and they should play with G.I.Joe and not Barbie dolls. Girls, on the other hand are encouraged to play with Barbies and cooking set, and chided if they were to be caught playing cricket or football with boys. They are ushered into domesticity from the time of birth, and the division of labour as a gendered category is made visible even in innocent children’s games.
We are told what we are supposed to do, how we are supposed to act and behave. From within the four walls to the school and to the world outside, we are made aware that by being a girl, we have to play by different rules. Why? Maybe, we can chalk it all up to the obvious—we live in a chauvinistic society. You can argue that the world has changed, but the truth is we are a long way from it. Every family is given a chance to make a small, yet significant, change when they have a child. To change the rules and raise their children to understand that gender is a purely societal construct and that shouldn’t in any way make them subservient or otherwise. Only when that happens, when every child is taught that man and woman are the same, will the world be a better place.
My childhood was filled with memories of my mother chiding me for doing things that were not expected of a girl. Growing up, I knew more boys than girls. I spent my free time playing cricket and football. My mom never gave it much importance, until I turned ten, or so. Somehow, as if a switch went on, she became much more strict about the time I spent with the boys or the games I played with them. Initially, I was indignant. I was told that I need to be with girls as friends and that I shouldn’t be running around with boys all the time. I couldn’t grasp the concept. I don’t know how, but eventually my parents got their way. I can’t remember how the transition came about. It was soon after this, that I became conscious about the fact that I am a girl.
Isn’t it funny? We are taught to question the world around us and to understand how it works and yet, we never really question these rules that are imposed upon us. I was an inquisitive kid (yes, one of those annoying ones who ask a thousand questions in a minute). I am pretty sure that whenever I was told to never spread my legs and sit, I demanded an explanation. The answer was simple, “Because girls shouldn’t spread their legs and sit.” However, it is only much later in life that we realize that ‘because’ is not a good enough excuse. We learn to question the ‘rules and values’ we are made to live by. Why can a man sit with his legs spread apart, while a woman cannot? I still don’t know why. Why is such huge emphasis put on the body of a woman as a vulnerable object, a commodity to be preserved and its purity maintained for her future husband to use?
Many of us, go around thinking that we need to be saved from men; that it is only men who objectify women and treat them cruelly. Think hard for a minute. How many times have you, despite being a woman, commented on someone else, or bullied someone, just because you can. If a girl is slightly overweight, she is thrown out of the dance class and told that she needs to cut back on calories. She is told that unless she is tall, fair and thin, she is never going to be happy and she believes it. The process of internalization destroys her self-image and confidence. She will spend the rest of her life trying to be a certain way; to achieve an unrealistic goal, believing that it is the only way she will be happy. The truth is, we need to be saved as a society. We should be taught that people are beautiful despite their size and shape.
However, the pressure to look good (Read: tall, fair, and thin), doesn’t come from the world outside—it comes from within the home. Because how will a girl who doesn’t fulfill these requirements ever get married. Every parent has dreams for their children. They hope that they grow up to be successful and happy. As a girl, I have sometimes felt that the biggest dream my parents have for me is to have a happy married life. Of course, they want me to be successful. They sent me to good schools, let me move to Mumbai so I could attend the college of my dreams and even let me pursue a career of my wish. They encourage me in every possible way. However, I know, when the time comes, they will want me to get ‘settled’.
Of course, every parent dreams that his or her child, son or daughter, gets married and has a good future. However, most families put immense pressure on their daughter right from a young age. They are taught to cook and look after the house. I have always wondered though, why don’t parents put a similar pressure on their sons. If a woman can cook for her family, so can a man. If running a house is a shared responsibility, then why shouldn’t boys be taught to cook and clean, as well?
After graduation, family members ask the boys about their future plans and tell girls about marriage. Of course, girls should work. They should have a way to spend their time, but careers, that is a term meant for the male population alone.
Since we live in the big bad world that doesn’t treat women right, we are never given the freedom that the men receive. There is always a burden for the parents to worry about a girl child. A boy who is home a little too late never receives the same wrath as a girl. Why is it that women are so unsafe, and it just gets worse in this fast forward- broad-minded world? Why is it that women are given the responsibility of staying safe, instead of giving the responsibility of not harming anyone to the men?
I studied in a school that preached women empowerment everyday. However, we were the ones who had the most number of restrictions and rules to abide by. We were involved in every aspect of a school like from drama to debate and many a times faired well than the male counterparts. Yet, in the everyday life they were harder on us. They picked on us for our choice of clothes, if we were to make a mistake; we were given far more unreasonable punishment and almost never treated equally.
‘Women are meant to be seen and not heard’. Many of us have come across this phrase. We have been told that we should not laugh too loud, talk too loud, are poised and graceful in the way we command over ourselves. The attention that a woman receives should never be because it was asked for.
There are many more such stereotypes that we see, but some part of the society, a very small part, is moving towards a broader minded world. Women are given equal pay in some industries; men have begun to take the initiative to learn to cook. Marriages have become less of a compulsory for some women these days, but its possible with a good fight.
Therefore, all said and done, I hope we will move towards a society that treats both genders equally, but we have a long, long way to go to get there. Some of us may not be there to witness it.