August 31, 2012

The Ugly Duckling

I remember the spring of 2005 as a drab classroom with plastic blue chairs, thirty nine boys and me. Yep, that’s my memory of IIT JEE entrance coaching. I remember taking a deep breath every evening as I headed out to that class, making sure my top didn’t slip every time I bent down, my jeans didn’t slide down to reveal skin, and my hair was all tied up. And preparing to be looked over and treated invisible among a jumble of testosterone.

In my twenty five odd years of living, my biggest regret remains joining that engineering entrance coaching class. Apart from what it did to my creativity and originality, I hate what it did to my confidence.

I don’t know how it is in other parts of India, but in New Delhi, a girl isn’t something a sixteen year old guy counts amongst his circle of intellectual discussants. Particularly if it’s in an engineering coaching class.

An average Delhiite wannabe-engineer male is usually (much as I’m tempted to generalize, he is not always) proud to be born a male heir to very proud parents, is pampered and loves to hear his own voice. He is also under massive pressure from his family and friends to get into IIT. He has grown up calling his mother “tu” and his dad “aap” — clearly understanding that a woman lies much lower in the social hierarchy than a man.

When a girl asks him a question, as part of a discussion, his over-bloated ego decides, “she accepts me as her superior in the field”. And hence – typecast – she must fit in with the blue walls and remain invisible to me. Or worse – “she thinks I’m hot.”

No really, I’m not stereotyping. If you don’t believe me, jump into a sixteen year-old boy’s head and check!

For a boisterous, out-spoken, opinionated girl, fading into the background was pure psychological trauma. I would walk into class, and sit in a corner. I was never expected to answer correctly in class. I wasn’t supposed to make an intelligent comment — I stopped trying for fear I’d be laughed at.

But then, the oppressors weren’t just sixteen. The faculty at these institutes usually meted out similar treatment.

Looking back on those two years, I feel violated. As if some part of me had to be killed and stifled so I could become an engineer — the dressing down, the feeling alone, being neglected — all of it. More importantly, my self-esteem, my confidence took a good battering.

My girlfriends from some other cities have faced at least part of the trauma, if not the same kind. Sometimes the faculty is abusive, sometimes the students.

In the past eight years or so, I’ve had ample time to think about what I went through then – why it wasn’t so obvious to me, then, that I was undoing years of work in character building sitting in those classes. Work that had to be done all over again, that didn’t happen until I walked out of my familiar surroundings.

Back then, I was too young to understand what my subconscious was directing me to do. It was telling me to fit in, and do whatever it took to get there. My conscious self wasn’t fighting. It was telling me that getting into an engineering school was important. Yet, what I realize now, in a hindsight twenty-twenty sort of way, is that no matter how important that one engineering degree is, and I will not deny that it was important for someone of my temperament, it is not worth sitting in a classroom full of sexist men and undermining one’s self confidence.

Maybe my only life saver was my school – an all girls convent. In that domain alone, I felt sure of myself and my abilities. In school, I could see who I was clearly, a vision that was extremely foggy within the blue walls of my coaching class. Thanks to my determination and my parents’ immense support I didn’t quit participating in school activities, nor did I miss out on school farewells, debates, or Christmas celebrations! Had it not been for those, truckloads of regrets are all I’d be left with today.

Yes, I managed to become an engineer, and I managed to find my footing in a lopsided, sexist domain, without feeling like an underdog. Yet, to discover the real, uninhibited me again, I had to make that effort to step out of a surreal world of ducks and assess my reflection in the water – and what I see today is an ugly duckling – probably, soon to be a swan.

And I wonder – how many more of us will have to go through this guillotine, before we can prove (and God knows to whom we’d be proving) that women can handle calculus and coordinate geometry as well as men? Or that there is more to us than wanting to land a good husband?

It’s hard to answer that question. But there are some sure shot ways to not fall into the trap that I did. One is to always psyche yourself to self-deprecating humour. Get used to it, and you can deal with it. When people laugh at you let it not scare you. It scared me and I kept shut, at times even when I was correct. There is no point in doing that. It’s worth taking a chance on your own intellect.

The second is to exude a damn care attitude in front of boys – if you tell them you don’t care how badly you do on a weekly quiz in class, they will stop flaunting their top notch grades at you. In turn, suppress your curiosity to know their grades; that tells them you aren’t bothered by competition.

Finally, have a quiet talk with your parents. Tell them you really, really need them to tell you every day that you’re doing some things wrong, but also that you’re getting many things right. Tell them these two years are going to be some of the most stressful times of your life so that you need their constant support, and their belief that you can do it. Tell them you are you, a person, not an IIT JEE rank, and that of the four hundred thousand students who will sit on that exam, everyone will not have a hundred percentile.

Most of all believe what you tell them – try and know where you stand in the competition, so that you don’t set yourself up for a fall at the end of two years. Because what hurts more than being ignored in a class of boys is failing at the end and letting the boys win, because you failed to live up to your dream.

4 comments to The Ugly Duckling

  • Shikha Sharma

    great article anwesha………every one of us has felt this hostile feeling from guys around us……….and m so sick of it…….i miss our college!!!

  • SB

    You described exactly what it’s like for a woman engineer in IT, or in general really. I live in NZ and it’s really no different, even though we’re supposed to be an equal opportunity driven country. I have also found it to be as you describe socially, outside of the workforce, and believe it has gotten worse, is getting worse. The increasing numbers of female misogynists doesn’t help matters.

  • Aarthi J

    Good article. I ve had similar experiences too with IIT coaching classes and the engineering industry!

  • Anwesha Bhattacharjee

    SB: Thanks so much for leaving feedback. It is sad to hear that this syndrome hasn’t changed even in the developed world. I live in Dallas, and from the Capitol to my classroom, I still see the same misogyny. I hope things change soon.
    Shikha: So true.
    Aarthi J: Thank you for sharing that tidbit. It’s hard to keep strong in a male dominated industry and I’m glad women are trying, instead of giving up.

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