Category Archives: Seriously speaking
The serious issues
We’re leading up to the grand tamasha called Women’s Day where you can expect to see the world pat itself on the back for giving half its population one day. You’ll also find a lot of men applauding each other for being so considerate of women. And congratulating one another on what good men they are for allowing women a special day. And finally, refraining from PMS jokes for that one day. Well done, men.
Here is a piece that I performed this Monday. Before I went up on stage, I was announced as
‘That poet who the women will love and the men better beware because the poetry is going to slap them’.
Once I finished, I was asked why I disliked men so much. Then a young man I barely knew parked himself next to me and in the semi-darkness during the subsequent performances, proceeded to harass me on my social adjustment issues, my hatred of men and my problematic past. Of note, said young man is also a poet who is infrequent on the scene. He also has a bad stammer and earlier in the evening, I had applauded his performance because I know how much courage it takes to go up on stage. He did not however, feel equally kindly towards me. He also felt perfectly able to attack me in a place where I’m a regular and when I was surrounded by friends. This is not the first time men have behaved in such a manner on the performance/poetry scene and every single time I protested, I’ve been told that I was taking things too seriously or that ‘he’s just young’.
Here’s the piece I performed. Dare I point out that it doesn’t mention men anywhere?
After all, feminism is only feminism when a man speaks about it. A male feminist is a hero and a female feminist is nothing more than an angry, man-hating bitch. Thank you for putting me in my place, fellow poets.
It looks like the stage does not permit me to speak my mind so let me hide on my blog for as long as it takes for the trolls to find me. Tonight a lot of you stay up celebrating a god whose legacy includes blurring gender roles, assimilating the masculine and the feminine and indeed, expressing an open need of his equal half – his female partner and side. That’s it. Think about it. You can wish me on 8th March on the one day in the year I don’t have to apologise for not being male and then congratulate yourselves for doing so. Thank you.
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A few years ago, I wrote about navigating the boundaries of a friendship with a married man. My first guest contributor, The Single Married Man shared a firsthand account of the confusion of being in transition from ‘married’ to ‘divorced’.
I am finding divorce in every by lane of my social circle these days. Over the years, I’ve bemoaned relationship breakdowns with girlfriends and together we have learnt to deal with it. For some reason, when I was in my 20s, we tended to seek solace from others of our own sex. But these days I find myself in more conversations with men about their failing/failed marriages.
Perhaps it’s because the boundaries between the sexes are blurring. Maybe it’s because marriage is a complex universe involving families, landlords and the law so one can’t afford to be picky about where one finds one’s support. Or maybe like I once predicted would happen, the men of my generation are just finding it harder to cope with the realities than women.
They are all men in transition. They have been independent and intelligent, they’ve believed in gender equality and love and commitment. Now with their worlds tattered, they’re rebuilding how they see the world, life, the opposite sex and themselves. I can see them struggling to fit me into relationship models familiar to them.
One of them propositioned me. I deflected him gently so it wouldn’t bruise his ego. “But you’re the one who told me to get out and have some fun!” he said. I meant it would be good for him to loosen up and experience the lighter side of interactions with the opposite sex. That could include casual sex. But I didn’t like his taking it for granted that I was offering myself up.
Married people, especially those who were not single for very long, often tend to take a superior stance on the single life. Marriage is a lot of work, they tell us. What they don’t realise is that being single is a different kind of battlefield. It’s not all days of How I Met Your Mother/Sex and The City style apartments, hitting the town each night and regular Tinder hookups. It’s constant loneliness and never being sure, it’s eating for one, knowing total strangers have the ability to hurt you and constantly evaluating how lonely you are versus how little your options appeal to you. Recently divorced people have a lot to learn, this is true. Welcome to the world of ONE.
One friend threw a tantrum last month because he felt like meeting me for dinner and I said I was busy. I had to be firm, patient but also subtle in conveying to him that I was not obligated to meet all his needs. It really hit me even more painfully then.
Many of these men, even the most independent, thoughtful ones, by virtue of our Great Indian Family Culture have never been allowed to deal with difficulty on their own. They have been mollycoddled from disappointment and insulated from Nos. They have no reference for what to do in a world that does not have time to meet their every demand. Their families are older and possibly less able to be their shields. Often, the families are showing their humanness in bringing in their own prejudices. What is this boychild in a man’s body to do?
I am also noticing some of them lapsing into cynicism and active hatred of women. It’s a scary thing to be around. Most women know that a man who doesn’t get what he wants, is a dangerous man. At what point do I stop being supportive and decide to walk away? When does one decide that this person, this friend of so many years is more dangerous beast than friend?
Take socially sanctioned male entitlement, sprinkle in a vague flavour of independent thinking, throw in some outraged sense of betrayal and mix liberally with confused East/West value systems — that is the brain of today’s recently divorced Indian male.
I do not intend to fall into the common trap of playing mommy to any one of them. Life and the system has extracted its own pound of flesh from me. But they are becoming different people because of their divorces and our relationships are changing too. I guess I’m afraid of what that could mean for them, for us and ultimately, for me.
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I stiffened when I saw this scene. Natalie Figueroa is not a likeable character. But I found myself relating to her words. I really don’t understand transgender women.
I have never been truly content being a woman. This does not mean that I want to live in a man’s body. I hear transwomen make references to being able to dress prettily and gossip with girlfriends as experiences they’ve missed. I guess the transmale counterpart to that would be to shave and have boys’ nights out. I have not felt incomplete for not having had those experiences.
For me, bodies are just real estate for our actions, our minds and our intentions and I’m sitting inside a physical space that has less currency and less value than the real estate of a man’s body. I am fairly certain that who I am, would not change depending on the kind of body I’m in. But the world treats this body with less respect and power than I’d like.
I am not saying I don’t enjoy the nice things about living in a woman’s body. I love dressing up and I enjoy the natural grace that comes from being in a smaller, curvier body. But these are fringe benefits that I can perfectly well live without. They are my way of making peace with inhabiting a physical space that I’m not happy about, compensation prizes if you will. I cannot think of anything that I would miss deeply about being a woman, were I to wake up as a man tomorrow. Because who I am, has nothing to do with the body I live in.
This is also not about who I am attracted to. My physical/sexual side has been drawn to men, so far. But the only reason it has stopped there is because there hasn’t been a pressing need to go beyond. As a woman, there are enough of opportunities available to me to engage with men. The heavy social/emotional burdens of exploring sexuality with a woman haven’t felt worth the effort to me. In that hypothetical world where I’d wake up as a man, I can’t really imagine that flipping over to the equivalent model (being a man drawn to women) would be particularly difficult. That should tell you that my sexuality doesn’t drive my body identity either.
Anybody who possesses a man’s body, to me, is someone who won the luck of birth, similar to babies born to affluent parentage rather than poor families. I really don’t understand why someone would want to give all that up to live permanently in the squalor, the permanent fear and the degradation that a woman’s body is subjected to.
I think about Nadika. We’ve been friends for years and I’ve related to her as a cisman. Then she came out as a transgender person. I don’t relate to her any differently since then, except trying to figure out the right language to encompass her life. I feel empathy for her unhappiness and her struggles, I really do. But I feel it without truly understanding, in the way some men are sympathetic about period pains. Nadika’s freedom story gave me some insight but not really understanding. It made me think that maybe how relevant gender/sexuality is to our identity, differs for us all.
I am not a man trapped in a woman’s body. I’m a person trapped in a woman’s body.
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Last year I went to see the gynacologist. I was 35, an age I’d heard was when precautionary tests would need to start being taken. I asked her what were all the things I needed to know from now on. She talked about breast examination, about cervical cancer vaccinations, about calcium supplements, about hormone fluctuations. She pointed out that I was now closer to menopause than I was to the start of my first period. And then she asked me what I thought about freezing my eggs.
I’ve had a lot of complicated thoughts on parenthood since then. I still don’t have a real decision. But writing helps me pull out difficult emotions and examine them. So here it is.
I decided I would not bear children, quite early in my life. I had seen a lot of ways in which parenthood served as a cover-up for monsterliness. I did not have the confidence that I would not succumb to the same monstering. Violence, manipulation, disrespect, deliberate humiliation, bullying, abuse — yes, these are things that parents routinely do to children. In this country, parents, especially mothers are deified to a point where there is no question of holding them accountable for the very important job they do. In addition, the wards (the prisoners? the victims?) are too young to know their rights and are uniquely trapped at the sole mercy of their guardians’ actions. I did not want to even risk being a part of this scenario, in the position of power that I might abuse just like so many other ‘normal’ people I know.
Through the years, the several unhappy and quasi-abusive relationships I’ve been in, have suppressed my right to an opinion on this matter. Social pressures already condemn me for being unmarried at my age. Imagine how horrific they’ll get if I also say I’m voluntarily bowing out of parenthood? So I kept my thoughts to myself. One idea that I have spoken about, to my partner when we were in a close relationship, was adoption. I had an entirely foolproof explanation for this:
- We are a dangerously overpopulated planet. This impacts each of us INDIVIDUALLY. We’re fighting for the same jobs, the same food, the same money, the same space, the same right to power. To add one more is just sheer irresponsibility.
- Many, many thousands of children over the world go hungry, homeless and/or lack education or even a basic safe environment to grow up in. If even one of those lives could be given a better chance, I would feel like I was giving back for the privilege that I’ve received.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also managed to turn the ticking biological clock into a supporting argument. Why risk a health hazard to me and to the child because of my age, when plenty of readymade human being without homes were available to adopt?
I’ve managed to keep this decision at bay too. I have been single for the better part of my life. I know single parents and their children who have turned out wonderfully. But if possible, I think a child deserves at least a chance at two parents. Parenthood is too great a responsibility and the consequences of going wrong, too grave to bear. I do not want to take this on, without a partner.
Today, I’m in a quandry of sorts. I am coming to realise the full impact of being an Indian woman. In all these years, I have not known ONE single man that I can count on to stay responsible after a length of time. I know plenty of earnest, intelligent men who want to think of themselves as feminists, activists and thought leaders. They probably are. For men, that is. But we live in a culture that meticulously, systematically discourages men from taking responsibility for their actions. They are coddled all their lives, disappointment is kept as far away as possible, their shortcomings are blamed on others (women) or even celebrated. I hesitate to call them overgrown children because children do not have the physical strength and the social influence that adult Indian men do. And more often than not, this strength and influence is used against women, either unconsciously because the man picks his own agenda or deliberately, to please people (his mother or his friends). In sum, I do not trust an Indian man to be an equal, reliable partner for an important undertaking. Parenting? Ha!
How about the egg-freezing then? I’ve grown increasingly independent over the years and it is possible that in some time, I will feel self-reliant enough to not need a partner. This is a logical possibility, not one that I can actually imagine. But hypothetically if that were to happen, it would be good to have the option, wouldn’t it?
This is what I realised. A lot of the times I’ve managed to get my way out of default. I managed to not stay in an abusive relationship because he got bored and ended the engagement. I had no choice or power to voice my dissent. I managed to not be packaged off and sold to the lowest bidder in the marriage market because there weren’t eligible prospects for my particular geography/education/age/ethnic background at that time. These did not happen because I was able to fight all odds and establish my stand.
Given this, I fear that a time will come when other people will decide that they want a baby popping out of me that I will be expected to care for. If the option to have that baby still exists, my opinion will not stand, will be overruled, cajoled, forced and hammered away. I think it’s easier that I just let the eggs die out of their own accord, isn’t it?
And finally, what if I do get pregnant in between now and before my body stops being capable of it? I will have either a boy or a girl or a trans baby.
A trans-baby? I stand for equal rights for every human being. But the world doesn’t. The only human being to be treated worse than a woman is a trans person in this country. Children live danger-fraught, complex lives anyway. I do not want to think about what it must be like for a child born with a body that popular science is unable to categorize.
A girl? You already know the answer to that. I hate being a woman in this country, I hated being a girl. I live my life like I imagine prisoners of war do. With resentment, with fragile strands of hope that is constantly being dashed and with growing despair.
A boy. No. Indian men are mama’s boys. This is that bizarre description that’s cutesy and demented both at once. Mama’s boys are big, burly men who watch quietly as their families ill-treat their wives, then yawn and change the TV channel. Mama’s boys are important executives who cheat, lie and break engagements and marriages at will because their mothers said it was okay. Mama’s boys are monsters and their mothers are the monster-makers. This is probably because most Indian mothers are so deprived of actual respect and true affection that they manipulate the one human being they have control over, to turn him into a perpetual source of their own power. And I am an Indian woman. No. I don’t know how strong I will be once a baby spurts out of me. I will not take the risk of becoming another monster-maker.
So, by a combination of consistently bad experiences, social pressures and depressing observations I come to the default conclusion that I do not want to even consider being a mother.
I find it strange when men say things like “Women are complicated. They are difficult to understand.” I am a woman, a rational one. And I know I am no more or less complex than an average human being. Some things about the way I live my life are different from the way men live theirs. This is because while I inhabit the same planet, there are restrictions, offences and dangers posed to me, that they do not face. This does not make me harder to understand.
I know a lot of women who say things like this too. I believe every single one of them has been conditioned to allow herself to be subjugated. Being deified or mystiqued (yes, I made that word up. Consider it the opposite of ‘demystified’) is just as disrespectful to women as abuse and chauvinism. Saying ‘You are special’ is saying ‘You are not normal like me’. There is even a term for this. It’s called Androcentricism. I think of it as ‘Male-normative’ or ‘Being male is normal; all else is special cases’
Every human being tries to navigate their way through life, living it as close to what they want as possible. Women’s lives have numerous disruptions and barriers, because society does not allow us control over our lives. So a lot of women don’t believe they have any way to get what they want other than under the garb of mystery. And some of them are just comfortable enough with doing this because it doesn’t require them to apply themselves further and be direct. Women are just as selfish, lazy or petty as men are. It’s a human thing and I don’t see why it should be denied to women on account of their being women.
I think for most men, it’s easiest to slot women into narrow definitions — the whore, the homebody, the airhead, the vamp, wife material. And anything that doesn’t fit into these structures gets written off as the feminine mystique. It’s easier to do that than take the effort to understand why they behave the way they do. Perhaps it is also avoiding the fact that acknowleging a woman as an equal, nuanced human being will have mean recognising the unfair world that she lives in.
What’s interesting is the kind of men who say women are complicated are the same ones to deride me for how unlike a woman I am, how I’m ‘too direct’ or ‘too aggressive’ or ‘think I can just say anything’. Ever heard anybody tell a man that?
It’s not that women are difficult to understand. It’s that some men don’t want to acknowledge their gender privilege.
I heard someone describe three other people’s interaction as ‘ritualised’. It made me think of the forced inanities that people thrust on each other, the scripts that we impose on each other and that we find ourselves following. The delighted welcomes, the whine exchanges, the mutual enabling of vices – aren’t these the traits of many long-running relationships? Some of us find security in it; some find it oppressive. Either way, there is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, and performed according to set order, which Wikipedia tells me is the very definition of ‘ritual’.
Do some of us exist in RITUALISED RELATIONSHIPS then?
In my first year in college, one of my classmates laughed loudly and said,
“I am only here to do two years of time pass before getting married. I don’t want to get so serious and all.”
She was pretty, girly and fluttery. She was also the topper from a reputed engineering college. I rounded on her in fury and gave her a tongue-lashing which included phrases like ‘giving women a bad name’ and ‘wasting a seat’. I wasn’t winning any popularity contests in college anyway but this incident stands out in my mind because it split the factions for good.
*Image (without text) via stockimages on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
During the first week, a professor had walked up to me, seated all eager-beaver at the first bench and said,
“Why are you here? You should be at home learning to cook.”
I flushed, all 21 year old awkwardness, belligerence, peer pressure and need for approval rolled into one. The class laughed. The incidents built, one by one. The snide remarks of ‘anyone with boobs gets marks’, the ‘Topper kisko banana hain, I just want to pass’, ‘Main apni biwi ko kaam nahin karne doonga. Bachchon ko kaun dekhega?’ and the ‘Why do you want to work after this?’. Whether I wanted to or not, I was suddenly crusading for a cause I hadn’t even realised needed championing. And here I’d thought all you needed to become a management professional was to study hard and work smart. At the college interview, the dean had asked me why I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I said,
“Because it’s largely Marketing or Finance people who go on to become CEOs of companies.”
He had knitted his eyebrows together and asked,
“You want to be a CEO?”
The question surprised me and I was on the verge of blurting out “Doesn’t everyone here?” but instead I said,
“I’d like to have the option.”
He pursed his lips and told me that not everyone thought that way. It really should have prepared me. Later in the year, we had to declare our majors. The girl who said the above, picked Human Resources. At the time, I was only thankful that I wouldn’t have to endure her attitude on group projects after that. I was going into Marketing. Naively I assumed everyone else was making their choices the way I had. It wasn’t till I heard a conversation among the soon-to-be HR class (all of them in the girls’ bathroom – that should have been another clue). One brushed her hair and said,
“Finance needs too much brains. Marketing is so much travel. HR is best. It’ll be easy.”
Unsurprisingly, when third semester began, the HR class was also occasionally referred to as ‘the kitty party’. What bothered me most was that it didn’t bother the girls in the class in the least bit. Maybe not every woman is a feminist but I did think that women professionals who had worked hard to be there, would want to take some pride in themselves.
To my utter horror, I keep meeting versions of this girl all through my career. She’s the one the men ogle at, say things like ‘She’s so distracting. They shouldn’t expect us to do work when she’s sitting in that seat.’ about. She is supposed to be approached with flattery and wheedling (depending on your gender) instead of approvals and processes like the rest of us professionals. Misplaced documents, incomplete work, rude behaviour to internal and external people – these things, not normally tolerated in others are glossed over when one of these girls commits the folly. Some of them have worked in their organisations for several years. This ineptness seems to be especially tolerated in functions like HR, recruitment and administration.
There is a certain type of woman we all know from the workplace. I am not saying Human Resources is unnecessary. On the contrary, I believe that most business situations require not just the ‘hard’ skills but also the ability to handle human issues. There’s a vicious cycle at work here. Pay little heed to the function, hire the wrong people who are in it for the wrong reasons, do not hold them to professional standards that the other functions require. What’s the end result? A bitchy girl who gets candidates names wrong, delays payments except for the young men who ‘charm’ her and is a part of cliques & factions rather than helping manage them.
I don’t believe that I’m being sexist. In fact, at a workplace, shouldn’t gender be of little to no importance? Why then, should I have to make allowances for a woman being a woman, when she is in this role? I’ve never had allowances made for me and I’ve never asked for them either. The responses I’ve had, usually hint that I’m slightly jealous of ‘the HR babe’ for the attention she gets from men. My father, also a management professional, vigorously protests my observation. He points out that he has hired female HR professionals and directs my attention to one that I know who has done a great job. He also tells me about how most companies don’t value their HR function or enable them to do the job that they can do, well.
One of my good friends is a former HR professional too and I’m sure he’d be able to point out female peers who’ve done great work. Yet, the numbers seem to speak and I must wonder whether those women are the exceptions rather than the norm. Is the average HR woman like my classmate who just wanted an easy ride or is she an independent, equal business professional to me? This feels like a terribly important question to me.
A long time ago, much before b-school, I considered being a Human Resources professional. I only began preparing for MBA entrances when I discovered the HR function. Looking back, I’m glad that Marketing’s glamour distracted me and I didn’t go the HR way. I may or may not have been a good fit. But it would have been heart-breaking to work so hard only to be around people who didn’t even take themselves (let alone me) seriously.
- This is not an HR-bashing post. I do not subscribe to the notion that Human Resources is an accessorial function. On the contrary, I think it is a very important role, one that involves being able to look beyond short-range tactics or numbers, working with ambiguous references and managing non-templatized situations. So I think it is even more startling that the job is represented by so many disinterested and clearly inept people.
- In addition, as a woman professional, I feel the constant pressure to prove that my gender deserves equal standing in the workplace (and everywhere else). Instances like the ones I’ve detailed in the post, enable our detractors. They make it easier for people to be chauvinistic to women and to the HR function.
- And finally, I didn’t mention this but since this post seems to have touched a raw nerve, I should clarify. I studied Marketing but I was never a specialised Marketing person. My jobs have all been in more generalist/other areas like business processes, consulting, research and content. I have no reason to pick a side in the Marketing/Finance versus HR debate. I think it’s just silly. The qualifications conferred by the program are in Business, not one of the specialisations and each function operates in tandem with the others.
*Image courtesy Simon Howden on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
When I was in college, a guy leaned in and asked me,
“Why was there blood on the dance floor?”
These were the late 90s, Micheal Jackson was still alive, already white and not yet branded a pedophile. I shrugged. I had not understood the song anyway.
“Because Susie had her period!”
he guffawed as the boys around him erupted laughing. I frowned. I still don’t get it. The song and the joke.
If the idiot had any sense, he’d know that Susie would know to wear a tampon or a sanitary pad during her period. Even if by some miracle, she forgot to wear panties (no woman does that outside of porn films), the blood would not gush out of her and land on the floor in a puddle. It would cake around her groin, with a trickle or two lining the insides of her thighs. I very much doubt it would even get as far as her knee before it congealed and dried up. It’s menstrual blood after all, not red wine. But how would he know? He was a man. What did he know about menstruation, after all?
I once had an argument with a friend over this. He thought joking about things made it possible for people to not take them so seriously. I see where that might make sense in some things. But not here. Most men are terribly uncomfortable with the notion of menstruation. This discomfort is indulged by a society that makes it okay to not talk about it and silences girls and women about a natural, bodily process. Making a joke of it, especially in an information-deprived environment actually propagates wrong notions. It also increases the shame factor that keeps the silent zone in place.
I think the heavy silence that lies around menstruation is dangerous. It gives men (and women) all kinds of wrong notions. I know men who think that having sex with a menstruating woman will kill her. I know women who use iPill as a regular contraceptive and I fear that one day they will bleed to death. (iPill is an emergency contraceptive that basically induces the period. Having a period more often than normal is not normal or good for the body.) I know men and women who think that painkillers can ‘solve’ the period. And I know men and women who think that contraceptives will ruin a woman’s child-bearing capacity.
Periods suck. They’re awful. I hate having them. Why should I not be allowed to rant about them? Why must I not be able to expect sympathy for strong nausea, blinding headaches, backache, stomach cramps and aching joints (on account of weakness due to blood loss, the doctor says)? Everyone gets sympathy when they face any one of these, don’t they? Why, when I have to have all of these together am I not accorded the same, just because it’s on account of my period? Never mind getting a day off to rest. The only people who will grant me that will also treat me as an untouchable, not allow me to pass by places of worship and create a huge hullabaloo if I reach for a bottle of pickles. Yes, this happens, even in 2014 Mumbai. It happens to me.
You know what talking about the above gets me? PMS jokes (which are period jokes in douchebag clothing, pun entirely unintended). I think PMS jokes are even more offensive. They don’t just spread ignorance like period jokes do. They also actively propogate demeaning women for natural body functions. They reaffirm the idea of women as shrieking banshees incapable of logic, sense or responsibility.
I have no problem with humour. But humour is only really funny when everyone (and not just the the person who makes the joke) gets that it is not serious. In the Susie joke, I think a lot of my classmates actually believed that a woman dancing during her period might leave puddles of blood behind on the floor. Think about what their attitudes would be towards the women in their life undertaking physical exertion during their periods?
So yes, we need to be able to talk about periods. What about period jokes? I’ll say they are okay the day it is permissible to sit around talking about menstruation as normally as we discuss Arnab Goswami and the next Salman Khan movie.
Update: I challenge every man reading this post, to go through this list. It’s creatively designed as a humour/horror quiz but is closer to the truth than most factual articles I’ve read. Go on, I dare you to read it through to the end.