I spent 14 years of my life in an all-girls school.
Nuns and misogynistic women were in charge of making sure we were sufficiently repressed. However, we, as a collective student body, thrived on shaking off their ridiculous rules and being the most independent, free versions of ourselves we could be.
In that environment, we we used to have lengthy debates about sexism, religion, caste, education, law and everything else under the sun. We were as loud and opinionated as we wanted to be. We idolised Malala Yousafzai and Nangeli and Kamala Das.
In a sheltered environment, we were a community of girls who encouraged each other to have original thoughts, aspire to be good leaders and have ambitions – no matter how crazy they sounded.
When I was in Class 10, a career counsellor came to our school. After a lengthy session, he prompted questions from the audience. When I asked what a psychiatrist’s life might look like, he rudely said that psychiatry was not a profession suited for women.
With all the fury my 15-year-old self could muster, I politely educated him about gross generalisations and sexist stereotyping. Later, my friends and I laughed about it over lunch.
That was the only such incident over 14 years of schooling.
‘You’re such a feminist’
Now, five years later, I wake up every day expecting the world to crush my spirit.
I wonder who will ask me to keep my mouth shut when I get passionate about an issue, or who will make a snide comment about my make-up. I wonder who will be next in the line to say that I care too much about political correctness, or that I’m too emotional. I wonder which college lecture will be interrupted by a throwaway comment about how my career isn’t as important as that of the man I will marry someday.
I wonder whose mouth will turn down in contempt as they look at me and say: “You’re such a feminist” – just the way one would toss a slur.
I always have to be mindful of my thoughts, so that I don’t get pulled into a completely one-sided lecture about the wonders of marriage and childbirth.
Self-censorship has become a norm.
Until I am in the safe company of a few like-minded female friends, it feels like I am holding my breath. It feels like I have created a version of myself which is more social, more pleasant, less sarcastic and scathing, less honest and less real. I have created a robot that will not offend the delicate sensibilities of sexist, benevolent and hostile people I now encounter on a daily basis.
Indeed, the suffragettes – and all the women of today’s world – have fought to let me claim my right to education at respectable institutions, unchallenged. But I feel many expect us to be happy and grateful that we have these opportunities in the first place.
We are, therefore, expected to put up with whatever – good or bad – that comes our way.
We can’t even call out sexist stereotyping or objectification of women at workplaces and elsewhere. Society seems to believe that since it has painstakingly made room for us, it has every right to set the parameters that we must follow.
Sexism: insidious, hostile and benevolent
Sometimes, sexism is insidious: it sneaks up on you in the guise of society trying to protect you from the evils of the world. For instance, we get an earlier curfew in comparison to the men because, as they say, we cannot handle ourselves in this cruel world.
Sometimes, it’s overt – like when you get on a bus, there is a 50% chance that someone will grope or sexually harass you.
Sometimes, it’s swift and unexpected. For example, you tell a close male friend about a bad incident that you had to endure and they don’t believe you saying “you are blowing things out of proportion”.
Sometimes, it’s small and seemingly insignificant – like a waiter speaking only to your male friend and expecting nothing from you.
Each time, it feel like a kick to the gut.
Hostile sexism is the one we’re all familiar with. This encompasses misogyny and the belief that women are incompetent, less intelligent, manipulative, and so on.
Mostly, these days, these beliefs come out either in close gatherings or on the internet. They come out, shock you, but stay hidden under the surface.
Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, is ubiquitous, and we all face it on a daily basis. Such a person will write poems revering women for being a mother, a wife and a daughter. For them, women need to be protected by men and they believe that the traditional gender roles should be idealised. And both men and women try to enforce these beliefs in the name of cultural and social norms.
And if anyone tries to rock the boat, he or she is put back in their place.
Some of my female friends have been lulled into such a false sense of security that they have stopped calling themselves feminists. They accept the varied ways the society wrongs them and they are grateful for the small signs of acceptance they get.
Benevolent and hostile sexism are not mutually exclusive, merely different heads of the same millennia-old monster.
Every time a new movie releases with a female protagonist, or an all-female cast, outrage is sparked in all the nooks and crannies of social media.
“A blatant attempt at political correctness that is not worth watching” will be the overwhelming chorus. Or something like: “A female superhero? Save your money.”
For every movie that favours inclusion and equality, there are a hundred others that harp on the same old stereotypes, portraying women only as a love interest whom the audience objectifies.
What to do?
Little girls need role models to look up to, just as much as little boys do.
They need to be able to grow up seeing themselves on screen – real women, who have ambitions, hopes and dreams, not just waiting to get married. They need to believe that they can be anything they want to be, if they work towards it.
Our media reflects our culture and if it does not, it attempts to change and ameliorate our culture.
Hence, it is so important that more films, with women playing the lead, are made.
People will scoff at these films and perhaps will call them a “publicity stunt” but there will be someone out there who will look at the screen and see a hero, who looks just like her. And that will make all the difference.
Also, not everyone will understand or even be willing to listen to what you are going through. Many will try to devalue your everyday struggle.
This is what makes it all the more imperative that you speak up and make all the noise you can. Make it known that if they intend to put you in a box, they are going to have to drag you there, kicking and screaming.
Maybe you will be mocked for it, but you have the ability to make a change.
It’s up to us to create a new culture where we don’t have to fight just to be ourselves. Where individuality is welcomed and our identity does not stem only from our gender.
Ashwita is a 20-year-old medical student with loud opinions about everything, and even louder anxiety.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty