For a long time now, I’ve been wondering about what it means to survive as a woman in a place where you’re stifled and crushed every time you try to lift your head up. I’m getting tired of the better-safe-than-sorry mantra that has been shoved down my throat by pretty much every person I’ve known since I was 4. Well, I have been safe and I still am sorry.
How have I been safe? I dress “appropriately” and often conservatively; I drive a car; I avoid unsafe areas of the city and take the longer route even in times of emergency; I avoid staying out alone past 10 pm; I am always alert and aware of my surroundings; I do not confront rash drivers even when they scratch and dent my car; I walk away when men misbehave when all I want to do is punch their sneering jaw off; the doors of my car are always locked and the windows shut when I am alone; I am extra careful in basement parking areas in malls and supermarkets with lax security; I carry a pepper spray and a knife in my pocket or purse at ALL times; my phone is always within arm’s reach; I work out first to be strong enough to protect and defend myself and then, to stay fit; I ignore the furtive glances I get; people close to me know my whereabouts at all times and I inform them when I leave one place and reach another; I cover my face on a two-wheeler to avoid uninvited followers. I have given up comfort for safety, I have changed my priorities and compromised on principles for safety, I have given up my freedom and my sense of self for safety. I have embraced the unfairness in the world and have tried to find positivity and meaning each day. I have devoted myself to work, while knowing that as a woman, my chances to make it in a male-dominated field in this country are less than 1 per cent. But that is a story for another day.
When there are days, and there are many, when I get sick of it – the news; the tragedy of my kind; the everyday life of fear, shame, conformity, defensiveness, vulnerability, avoidance, “appropriateness”, and struggle with my self and my surroundings – I would bawl in frustration or be enraged at the reality of it or hate myself for falling into the trap. I am then asked by people around me to get real. They tell me that they get it, and it hurts them too, but this is how it is and I’m not the only one affected by it. I am basically told to get over myself. I am told to consider myself privileged because I have not borne the fate of someone else who got raped, or trafficked, or abused in the ample other ways only men know how. Some others tell me that even men face challenges and what about other sections of the society that are suffering? These are well-meaning adults, and they sometimes make a fair point. So I nod along at the pointlessness of speaking up, and move on to less uncomfortable conversations and wait for the emotions to bubble up again. Yes I am not the only one affected by it, but that doesn’t help me – rather, it invokes the most grieving, exasperated physical reactions in me. Get real? Well, this is as real as it gets. Is my freedom and my safety a privilege? I have often questioned myself and come up with the same answer over and over and over. No. It is not and it never should be. Yes there are others who’re in far worse conditions but that does not make my life better or privileged because it is anything but that. As Ash Beckham aptly said, “Hard is hard. Hard is not relative.”
“Sure, I’ll give you a hundred reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours, but here’s the thing: Hard is not relative. Hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone that you just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your 5-year-old that you’re getting a divorce?
There is no harder. There is just hard.
We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard to make us feel better or worse about our closets and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard.”
– Ash Beckham, TEDxBoulder.
People fear voicing out their rage lest their genuine concerns be ignored and rebuffed as just another rant. But even when it sounds like a rant, hear them out. The bitterness is real. Their concerns and problems and troubles are real. They come from a place of severe, uncompromising disquiet deep within.
After being this cautious, in one of the safest cities I know, I have still endured sexual aggression in the form of eve teasing, groping, harassment, catcalls, wolf-whistles, indecent conduct, slanderous name-calling, stalking, objectification and much more in the normalized, toxic rape culture we live in today. And I have back down each time in fear that any of these incidents could turn into a potentially life-threatening situation.
I have ignored the stalkers on bikes and in cars who leered and passed lewd comments, while trailing me street-by-street, turn-by-turn for several minutes. It happened every other day since I was 12. I was forced to go out of my way to avoid them. But it continues to take place even today, no matter where I am, with who I am, what I wear or how I behave. My mother of 53 and grandmother of 80 have also been subjected to such vile treatment. Ignorance does not work. Retaliation or confrontation doesn’t work either. All the safety measures and precautionary practices in the world do not help because I am not the reason why this is happening. Like millions of women out there, I have been conditioned to struggle for my survival since a young age. But the one-sided struggle remains fruitless. The just-world hypothesis might help deal with negative social phenomena but it is only as good as that. Injustice steers the wheel of reality and women have inherited it over centuries.
I have considered moving to a country more secure, with a system more liberal and efficient and a population more unprejudiced and respectful towards women. That sometimes feels like a tempting solution, despite being selfish, to these issues. And at other times it just feels like an impractical, far-fetched escape. I have often found relief in the fact that the men in my life are cultured and respectful of women. But those aren’t the only men in my life. Each stalker and misogynistic man I or my family and friends are affected by is also a part of my life. And there is no way to rid my life of them.
Women are also a part of the problem. That deserves another post altogether. But the gist is that we are all closeted. We are all trying to be the safest we can be. We have all compromised on our freedom in order to be free. But we need to speak up. I have resisted writing this post for a very long time, thinking that the words would be written and soon forgotten, and I should rather focus on more action and less talk. But it has sneaked up on me, in several other posts I’ve written on completely unrelated topics. It has slyly crept up in my conversations with people. The truth is that I need to write to make sense of it. And I need to speak up to spread the word. You should too. Because we want to thrive, not just survive.
She wrote of war
Within the four walls
Of her book-filled room.
She spoke of death
Like she knew
Something about it
That others were blind to.
Her frail body supported
Her eyes, bold and fierce
As she embraced the grey
In a world of black and white.
With her words alone
Drop by drop
A life out for herself.
Set out to live with
Only a pen in the pocket
A diary in the hand
And a simper on the face.
Became an extended limb
And each drop of blue and black
Fused with the yellow-white
In a symbiotic union
Too dependent for
She wrote of life
Beyond her four walls
It was how she placed
And how the world placed
When the stars dim down
And the moon’s shine wavers
Do you look up at the blue darkness
Wide-eyed, hoping to light the world
With only your eyes?
When the music stops jerkily
Amidst intense talks
Do you begin to hum calmly
To fill the gaps
When the bright flower
That gave you joy
Withers by sundown
Do you sprinkle water
On its supple petals
Trying to revive it?
When the raindrops hurt
Your skin, do you look up
And talk to the clouds
That bear down on you
Wordlessly, yet powerfully?
Do you shield your eyes
From the blazing sun
But glare back at it
From between the narrow spaces
Of parted fingers?
Do you switch between worlds
Others’ and your own,
Attempting to bridge two
Poles, distant and disparate?
Do you leave pieces of your self
Behind, to make space
For those of others to fit in?
Do the other worlds
Have a place for yours?
Black heels on the red ramp
They walk the catty walk
Graceful, insidious, charming
Hungry curves and supple moves
A killing smile, a sensual look
Onlookers gasp and sigh
They model their beauty
Fair, tall and lean
Because beauty sells.
Grey clouds battle over the sky
Round, pregnant rain drops
Fall like bricks
The makeup, like cement, cracks
Water seeping into the dents
Drain-like pores strive to breathe
The wet magazine cover
Curls at the corner
A blemish on the glamour
Of a semi-clad figure
Empty eyes and icy smile
A laugh that died down
Ugh, what is it?
A tiny hand, dark and worn, tugs
At the shirt, muddy face and deep eyes
Coins clutter, land on the open palm
A toothy smile takes crooked form
How mud mingles with water
A perfect blend on an artist’s palette
Open palms closed into fists
The meanderer dousing in a puddle
Because beauty begs.
Friendship is a strange strange thing. People associate it with values like happiness, and love, and closeness and success. To have friends is a big social positive and to be friendless is to be an outsider, a misfit.
Like everything in the world, friendship is hierarchical. Best friends are seated at the top of the pyramid. The rest shift spaces in the levels below according to circumstances in life, as priorities change. There are close friends and old friends. New friends and groupies. School friends and colleagues. Then there are friends of friends and acquaintances. Pen friends and confidants. Facebook friends and LinkedIn friends.
The mentor and the roommate. The bus ride friend. The “special” friend. The clever friend, the goofy friend, the artistic friend, the funny friend. The talker, the listener. The whiner, the consoler.
So many titles. So many types. So little meaning.
Ever since we’re kids, we fill out slam books, or whatever they’re called today, and one of the first few questions is, “Who is your best friend forever?” I get asked so often, “How many friends do you really have?” Well, I have no best friend. And it’s way too naive to talk about ‘forever’ so loosely. And I don’t count. Putting a number on it reduces the beauty of an abstraction like friendship to a mere digit. The number doesn’t matter.
I have a few close friends. And others that are friends with a purpose. They may be neighbours, or they went to the same school or college as me, or we share the same interests. But they all are just that. Friends. People. This makes the world a lot more inclusive and open to show understanding, empathy and compassion towards others. Without categories and ranks and labels.
Labels inherently come with cognitive effects. The effects could be good or bad, strong or weak, but they’re immensely limiting. We are complex beings and to typify and label someone as one or the other is just plain wrong. Words have the power to define what we see in others. They potentially block the mind to see the other person as something else, something more or something the complete opposite of what we ignorantly make them to be. The labels become our lens of perceiving a thing or person.
Once, a friend of mine told me about someone she knew, who was going through a tough time at his office. It was a simple matter that could be sorted with some help. I urged her to help him out if she could. Maybe just listen to the problem and serve as a vent. And while she was sympathetic about the matter, she eventually said, “it’s not like we’re best friends or anything” with a wave of her hand, implying that she might’ve helped her best friend in a similar situation, but she didn’t care enough for this particular person, who is just a “colleague”, to go through the trouble. This is the kind of labelling that deprives us of seeing a person as a person. And not a best friend, or neighbour, or colleague or stranger. Or husband, or wife, or mother, or son. Or white or black or brown or straight or gay or rich or poor. Or man or woman.
We talk about people and things in an either-this-or-that manner, ignorant about the fact that they can be both. And much more. When we say, “he’s a rich white guy,” a stereotypical image takes form in our head. We see through the lens of race, colour, social status, political and economic standing, and gender notions. When a friend of mine said, “she’s too man-ish for a girl,” we ended up having a long, heated discussion on her judgement of a stranger whom she knew nothing about. That girl could’ve been extremely feminine in reality; or she could’ve worked really hard on her muscle strength to play her favourite sport. And who is to say what is right and what isn’t? But we refuse to lift that blanket of tags to see what is underneath.
I recently watched 2 really impressive talks by Ash Beckham at TEDx Boulder, one on having hard conversations, coming out of the closet (and not just the LGBTQ closet) and having the courage to open up, and the other on gender roles, duality and identity. (I recommend everyone to watch them. It’ll certainly make your life better. They’re worth several listens!) So, at one point in the talk, she says, “the opposite of polarity is duality.” It is not one extreme or the other. It can be both, in simultaneous, peaceful existence.
Language is so powerful in shaping someone’s identity. Labels aren’t always problematic. They help describe people and things and place them in a socio-cultural setting. We know who we are (Self) because we know that we’re not someone else (Other). But to stretch it too far, to chain our thinking and cage our behaviour is unfair and dangerous. Give people a chance. To amaze you. And to grow.
We could all do with a little more openness. I’m trying to rip off the tags that I and the society I live in have stuck to people’s heads. It’s possible and it constantly amazes me to be able to see the goodness around me. I’m slowly letting my guard down and opening up my world to you and everything you are.
Be my friend?
If only, by the mere accident of birth, you’d not brand me as your citizen, the way you brand your cattle. I will soon disperse from the herd you’ve raised, fed and exploited, and head to someplace better. We’re slightly different from cattle, you see? Not much, but slightly. I survive for that slightness. I hope you do too. But these days, you can’t rely much on hope. Your flock snickers, you know? Looking around desperately from the corner of the eye, for an instance to run you over. I thought you should know. I wish you well. And wait.
By four walls,
Growing up, I left behind certain traits that I had as a kid. I outgrew some clothes as well as some actions and started being adult-like, very consciously. To carefully sit, to steadily walk, to be compulsively polite, to ‘act’ rather than to ‘be’ – these are the things adulthood gave me. Recently, I realized how I, like everyone, am carrying this baggage of being a grownup and it is stressful. I didn’t realize when this transition took place. Having the responsibility of my actions and of being who I am made me cautious, extremely careful and finicky, and not in a good way.
Today, I felt a strong urge to throw. Just to make a propulsive movement out of joy. Like I did and could, heedlessly, as a kid. Maybe, knowledge stopped me. The knowledge of who I am, what I am and where I am. I rather wish to not know.
Throwing my bag on the street to run and hug someone – I know that if I could do this, everything else would fall into place. It would make my day. It would give a nudge to the child in me. It would lighten the baggage. It would do me justice.
Every once in a while, I’m going to throw. A person needs to throw sometimes.