April 13, 2011

Coming of age

I WAS SEVEN when my mother enrolled me in a karate class. There were 50 boys and I was to be the only girl. When I complained that girls didn’t do karate, she said  there was no activity or job  meant solely for boys — or for girls. I went on to become a lover of not just  martial arts but also of gender equality.

Of course, as the only child in an upper middle class, educated family, I never confronted the larger problems of discrimination faced by many others. The ones I did see troubled me tremendously. I did not identify as a feminist until I turned 16 but long before that, I was quick to point out (loudly and vociferously) any sexist difference or discrimination that I perceived. I also rejected everything that was ‘feminine’, considering it something imposed by society. I hated needlework classes, preferred the games lesson instead. I didn’t just pretend to enjoy the ‘masculine’ activities; I actually liked them but there definitely was a desire to not get involved with ‘the other girls’. I rarely wore skirts or dresses and while my peers were trying on make-up for the first time, I was  falling off my bicycle or skates.

At family gatherings, I wandered away from the women, disliked their conversation and the work they always seemed to have to do. Household work remained the domain of the women no matter how educated they were. The men, in their free time, preferred to watch television or discuss politics. Every time I tried to bring this up with family members or friends, I was given an example of a man who could… ‘Cook a full meal! And he LIKES doing it!’ or  ‘He helps his wife clean the house!’ (Gasp). When I pointed out that the men did not do this on a regular basis or that the fact that it  was considered a huge achievement was an example of the additional burden placed on women, I was dismissed as “over smart”.

When I finished 12th standard, I chose law over humanities. Partly, I may have taken this decision because of the traditional association of humanities with women (something which I may always be ashamed of). I preferred the more ‘masculine’ forms of education, of entertainment, and clothing. I laughed at the girls who liked doing ‘silly’ things. I shunned the kitchen and my distaste for cooking only grew when my mother sighed and loudly wondered, ‘What will her in-laws say?’ or ‘How will she ever manage a household?’

At some point, things started changing. I tried my hand at some basic household work. I entered the kitchen and dabbled around. To my great surprise, my experiments turned out rather well. I picked up some recipes from my grandmother and went online in search of more recipes. To my greater surprise – not only did these turn out well, I actually enjoyed cooking. Now, as I grow older, I realise how severely I had limited myself. Just because society has traditionally decided that some activities are a woman’s duties or she is ‘supposed’ to like them, does not mean I have to reject them completely. I have to give myself the freedom to see what is there, and choose. So if I want to go watch a romantic comedy in a pretty dress, cry at the mushy parts, go home and cook dinner for myself and my partner, I should be able to do this without guilt or self-disdain.

And if I want to wear shorts, go for a karate class and follow it up with a few drinks, I can do that too.  I can enjoy them both.

Why is it that when women are involved in activities usually done by men, they are praised and feted while when men do what women are supposed to do, they are scorned, mocked, or derided? The girl doing physics or engineering is lauded while the boy who has taken up arts is usually considered weak at studies. The girl who enjoys sports is applauded and the boy who takes care of his appearance is laughed at.
There is nothing ‘less’ about the traditionally feminine domains of work, education, employment or recreation. That’s what feminism lets me do — embrace all aspects of life and enjoy the full range of human experience without having to limit myself to one or the other.

Yes, there will always be the issue of false consciousness. Am I doing this because I am expected to do it? Do I like high heels despite the problems associated with them because I’ve been told that heels will make me look beautiful or sexy? Do I cook more than the men because I’m supposed to do it? When I change my name, make my career secondary to my husband’s, take a few years off from work because of the children, and do the lions share in housework and child rearing — is it truly my choice?

I don’t know why so many women make these choices. I don’t know what I am going to do in the future. But while I figure it out, I will coo over babies, go camping, throw a mean punch, and cry at movies. In short, I will do what I feel like doing.

5 comments to Coming of age

  • Rheea Mukherjee

    It’s important to consider how feminism actually boxes women and holds them to certain expectations in Urban locals.
    I am glad you wrote this- being a feminist should be a celebration of all women, all personalities, and all choices. Good article.

  • I agree with Rheea about looking at this aspect of feminism (false notions of feminism?). I love doing things for my house almost as much (blasphemy) as much as I love writing. It’s cooler to profess otherwise but it wouldn’t be true. I went through a similar phase in my teens but doing /not doing certain things to prove something to anyone, be it men or other women, is limiting–and ultimately, infuriating.

  • locutus83

    I call it the classic “blue/pink” or “GI Joe/Barbie Doll” conditioning. From a very young age, activities, career preferences, colour tastes, dress preferences, personal hygiene habits are categorized as “male” or “female” and there is a strong societal conforming force behind this not so subtle mental gender brainwashing that goes on.
    In a cycle shop I went to recently, the parents of a four year old boy were chiding him for preferring a pink tricycle over other colours, telling him that pink is “too girly” and that other boys will laugh at him. The poor kid was really adamant about the pink coloured cycle. I did not stay long enough to see who gave in in the end.

    The fact is that any human or human assisted activity, except that which involves the sexual/reproductive organs, should be termed as gender neutral, technically (no, seriously!). It takes a great deal of self-knowledge, insight and awareness to DECOUPLE gender from activities, choices and preferences. Ballet, embroidery, cooking, pedicures, gossip and “Chick flicks” are NOT female specific activies. Football, car-racing, boxing, back-slapping, action movies and civil engineering are NOT male specific activities. They are just ACTIVITIES, which can be undertaken by both men or women depending upon their interests and likes, and this is the way things should be!

    I am really glad you have reached the point where you do things for your OWN ENJOYMENT and out of FREE WILL. Anti-conformism is also a perverse kind of conformism where you deliberately avoid things to prove a point, to stand apart, which is driven by a deeper psychological need to protest, to be heard and to be understood and appreciated.

    Ultimately, personal actions and choices should be out of free will, without coercion or without having to prove something, for ALL HUMANS. That’s why I belive in “HUMAN INDIVIDUALISM”, neither “Feminism” or “Masculinism” 🙂 🙂

    Not to prevent from being shun..
    Not to not be labelled as a nun..

  • Anita S

    You Go, Girl!

  • Amritha Kalyani

    Story of my life! Growing up, I tried to reject all things ‘feminine’, but it only left my confused. I loved watching sports, but I also hated playing it! I hated make up, but I also loved to dance! It eventually gets very exhausting no matter what you are fighting to conform or not conform to.

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