I left Mumbai as a girl and came back as a woman. But today, my open-mindedness gives my family a free pass to slut-shame me and use my name to slut-shame their daughters.
Studying in another city came with the sweet taste of independence and freedom, which in turn gave me a level of confidence that made me walk with my chin up and my shoulders back. When I was in school, I wouldn’t even wear shorts in the house if there was a male presence around. But cut to college, I’d walk into a room with high heels, a short skirt and a dark brown lipstick with absolutely no apprehension or timidity.
Apparently, as I’ve learnt now from my family, that’s the benchmark of being a ‘whore’.
The same men and women who told my mom that I would grow up to be a ‘strong woman’ as they picked me up as a newborn, are the same who spew poison about how I carry myself, how I dress and the fact that I have an occasional sip of rum after college.
Every time I changed my WhatsApp profile picture while I was away, my mother would get a call about how I needed to be regulated and monitored. She would then frantically call me and get me to change the picture.
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There came a point when I’d deliberately change my WhatsApp display picture to something they wouldn’t like just to get a rise out of them. Then I’d countdown to a panicky phone call from my mother and my roommate and I would have a laugh about just how clockwork the whole thing was.
My Instagram was another treasure trove for the women in my family to pick out beer cans in the background and call me an ‘alcoholic’. They saw the length of my skirt and discussed how I ‘was asking for it’.
The first time my mother called me about this, I cried as I bathed that morning, wondering how it was that I was changing into an ‘undesirable product’. It took me some time to realise that if growing into someone who had an opinion that was different meant being labelled an ‘undesirable product’, then I was one and would be one.
I was a journalism student who had an interest in documentary filmmaking and I believe I created some good content. At the back of my head, I would wonder if that was enough to have everyone stop talking about me.
But of course that wasn’t the case.
I remember when a cousin, let’s call her Ananya, called me to say that she wore a top that showed a bit of her cleavage. “Don’t dress like Mirika,” is what her mother snapped at her.
I ran to buy a pack of cigarettes, crying. It was all selective, I thought, as I recalled their stories of various boyfriends, bright red midis, and cigarettes stolen from their fathers.
With cleavage now being seen as “don’t dress like Mirika”, my heart would sink, and I would tear up. All this body positivity I had learnt would threaten to disappear into thin air.
But no, I didn’t want that to happen. They may see me as an ‘undesirable product’, but I refuse to do so to myself.
For long, women’s behaviour, conduct, sexuality and sexual expression has been policed via slut-shaming for centuries, while men’s behaviour is overlooked. It is a form of systemic discrimination, all stemming from the patriarchal structures that have jailed women for centuries. As a result, it’s not entirely the fault of the female members of my family that they see me the way they do – as uncultured, uncouth and disrespectful, as someone straying from the path of structured femininity that they followed.
But at times I wonder: Was I vicariously living their dream or were they just plain mean? I will never know. What perturbs me most is that they are my family.
Now, every time I’m met with a nasty glance at my cleavage or my legs, I respond with a sinister smile and I love everything about their aghast reaction.
Mirika is a journalist and a documentary filmmaker in the making. She writes about culture, politics and international relations and hopes to work as a long-form documentary correspondent.
Featured image: A still from Netflix’s Big Mouth