Archive for July 2010

Stereotyping Women

July 7, 2010

The year was 1998. I was in class eight, seated on the second bench, English period. Our teacher, Miss Lipika was telling us about gender disparity rampant in rural India in all its forms – infanticide, dowry killings, illiteracy among women, sex-trafficking, prostitution,… As young, inquisitive students, we were all ears to the lecture and we also had various presentations and group discussions on the same. As a sensitive 12-year-old, I held on to the talks that women are indeed, discriminated against, in the villages and non-urban townships.

Life went on. This whole ‘gender disparity’ thought was just there… stagnant. I never really thought much about it. My parents gave me a good education and made me a fine and competent human being. I never had to fight for my rights or ask for the same.

However, from the past few days, owing to some errant incidents and discussions with family members and friends, the ‘gender disparity’ chapter has re-opened its hallowed pages in my mind and is fluttering at a furious pace. Thoughts galore… and since these thoughts are peppered across various subjects and dimensions, this post is rather haywire in terms of prose.

I do realise that many a things, in life, are looked at differently for either genders. What is normal for a boy to do is considered not-so-normal, ‘indecent’, non-modest or in some cases, serious offence for a girl. It’s ingrained in our societal norms and methods of life. Most have religious connotations while some don’t.

Women and Hindu traditions

We usually tend to believe that Hindu traditions and practices ‘allow’ more freedom to women than any other religion. People argue that Islam asks women to sport the veil while we let our women do what they want, wear what they want. May be true. I don’t know!

However, observe this. During pre-vedic times, women wore the sacred thread and also had the right to study the vedas and perform rites and rituals. They could attend even funerals. Post-vedic and modern times deny this right to a woman. So the sacred thread, the gayatri mantra, father’s last rites and the vedapathashalas are meant only for the men. Though, the Arya Samaj allows women to wear the sacred thread, the question is how many parents in India, ask their daughters, “do you WANT to wear one too, like your brother?” It’s usually taken for granted that it’s not meant for them.  Recently, when one of my female friends performed her parents’ last rites, people around wondered, ‘what the hell is SHE doing?’

(Note* – I personally, do not believe in any religion or religious practices.)

A woman carries the mangalsutra (taali in south) as a symbol of her marriage but a man doesn’t. You can never tell a man is married, just by looking at him. Women have accepted this as a tradition, and way of life. Some of my friends say, “That’s the way it’s always been.” And then, there are men who wouldn’t like to see empty necks of their wives (without the mangalsutra or the bindi.) It becomes a huge issue amongst family members that the woman of the house was spotted without it. This, then extends to its sub-branches like mandatory green bangles, red and white bangles, nine-yard sarees, dupatta over the head, etc. The ‘kanyadaan’ and prostration to the husband are examples of the same.

Women and sexuality

In India, even today, women are largely looked at as sex objects. Our television commercials (read deodorant ads), stand-up comedians, movies, songs, etc. all carry and communicate in them connotations of a woman’s sexuality. The commercialization and prostitution of humour has made a woman’s body a laughable affair to the extent that people don’t even want to see that it’s being done in bad light. Such is the so-called fun of the matter!

I completely detest humour that’s based on a woman’s body and her sexuality, more often seen in Hindi and Tamizh films. I remember this Tamizh movie where Rajnikanth is having an argument with his female lead that a man can always do better than a woman in all aspects of life. To win the bet, he takes off his shirt and walks the streets, nude and then mocks at the girl if she can do the same. The girl shies away. Sexiest  is not the word. And if you thought that this kinda slapstick humour exists only in south Indian movies, think again. The ‘sthan‘ joke (indicating the breast of a woman) in Chatur’s speech in the movie 3 idiots, is a classic example of how, even today, the inherent male chauvinism in the society, makes fun of the woman’s body. The fact that that scene from 3 idiots is being circulated everywhere and people watch it and enjoy it,(women included), is testimony to this. Rich humour/satire is dead in today’s world and… Well, I digress…

But this fact of a woman’s sexuality being in the discussion always, also has its roots in old Hindu traditions. Many families, even in present India, celebrate and conduct vast ceremonies and havans when a girl in the family, begins to menstruate. The other day, I was having a discussion with a friend, and she told me that it is celebrated because the girl is now, considered to be ‘fertile.’ Sick as it can get, everything is looked at from the ability-to-conceive point of view. And once she becomes ‘bodily mature’, she is asked to be gentle, laugh softly, not hop around, walk with elegance, mellow-down in general. I remember my Hindi teacher saying, “tum ladki ho… zara susheelta dikhaao.”

Its sad, really that even her basic behaviour, mannerisms and dressing sense is governed by these obsolete practices. In many homes, the girl is almost ostracised and kept away, during her menstrual time, ‘coz she’s considered ‘impure.’ Don’t believe me? Ask your grandmom.

Women and nudity

A few months back, two of my male friends planned to go to Bangalore by road/car. They said it would take them two whole days to reach there and were pretty kicked about it. I too wanted to tag along as it sounded like a fun trip. They seemed to be disinterested in my going along and when asked, one of them said, “You wouldn’t be comfortable. We are saying this for your good.” When I insisted, I got the answer, “If, on the way, we want to pee, we’ll get off and do so. You obviously cannot.” When I think about it, I fail to understand why a girl should (is expected to) feel embarrassed while a boy, doing the same thing doesn’t have to.

Though men and women are born equal, nudity has always been a tangent where the parallelisms of the lines become blur. To the extent that many girls of my age don’t even realise that they are being discriminated against. Nudity has always been a point of debate and gender disparity has poked its filthy nose into it, for years now. Men can be shirtless, can wear shorts, can sport any part of their body freely and nobody would take offense. I have lots of female friends who can wear shorts only at home and that too, in the absence of the male members of the house. I, for one, wear shorts at home. My father lets me because he loves me a lot. But the point I am raising here is that though, we are all born free; we are bound by these invisible (mostly baseless), shackles of societal ‘norms’ and ‘rules.’ So, if a woman wants to wear shorts or a revealing top, her husband, her father, her brother, her male friend has to be comfortable with it. He has to ‘allow’ her to do so. And if the word, ‘allow’ comes into the picture then, ‘freedom’ has no meaning, in the true sense of the word.

And then there are men who go as far as to say, that skimpily/ ‘indecently’ dressed women mustn’t cry foul if they get molested or raped. The point being, “men will be men. If you are in your shorts, don’t cry if they letch at you, molest you or even rape you.” This is like going to a sweet shop and telling the shopkeeper, “don’t keep your sweets where I can see them, or I’ll eat them.”

Shirley Chisholm once said, “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl.””

Numerous thinkers, feminists; myriad articles, talk-shows, debates and blog posts wont do any good. Our society has been conditioned to soak-up to the norms and traditions. It’s almost like it’s in the blood. It’s a way of life. A woman will still be treated as subordinate, unequal in matters concerning day-to-day lives and the world at large. Her body will always be considered an ornament, rather than an instrument.

You don’t necessarily have to be anti-man to be pro-woman, you know? But that’s what a lot of people will infer from this post. Things haven’t changed. Things never will… oh, the cynic..