Sunday, April 28, 2013

From TRYING to be a 'good' girl, to raising one

Gender bias starts at home. Why do we blame society for treating women as second class citizens, when really, the way we treat a daughter and the way we treat a son is glaringly different? By saying this, I know I will be chastised by mothers who will say that they are just being protective for their daughter's sake. Sure they are. In these horrible times if my daughter were old enough to go out on her own, I'd keep tabs on her whereabouts and safety - perhaps every hour, until she gets annoyed and maybe hangs up on me. Then I'd go snoop around and watch her from a distance to know she is safe. I'd be ready to unleash my wrath on any unfortunate creature that posed a threat to her well being. If you talk about paranoia, I am the queen of paranoids. Yet I feel that when it comes to bringing up a girl child, atleast Indian parents blur the lines between 'acting out of concern' and bringing up a daughter the way girls 'should be brought up'.

We love our daughters as much as our sons. Perhaps a little more. But there is an invisible rule book that we go instruction manual put together by past generations to tell you how to bring up a girl child and how a girl belonging to a 'decent' family should behave. In the volatile teenage years, girls will insist that such an invisible code of conduct exists and you will spend years denying its existence. Sometimes when you can no longer deny that she has clearly figured out her brother has a whole lot of privileges that she dosent, you will invariably hide behind the "its all for your own good, for your own safety" line.

I had a 7 pm deadline when I was growing up. Once, for reaching home at around 7.30 pm, I was greeted by the intimidating sight of my mother and brother sitting facing the front door to start the verbal bashing I deserved for being out with friends enjoying street food. The damned vendor who only opened his shop at 7 pm. Of course I knew I'd be in a little trouble but I decided to take the chance because damn, that guy's stuff was GOOD!

The way my mother glared at me, you'd think I was a 17 year old careless teenager sneaking into the house at 2 am, smelling like pot, dressed in a micro-mini and an itsy bitsy tank top that screamed 'cleavage", (of which I had none at the time, believe me!), occasionally flashing my G string - which, till date, I dont understand the point of. 

Nope. I was a 13 year old awkward, timid girl dressed in a full-sleeved, LOOSE, fully buttoned top and a skirt that would rather taste the earth than expose my ankles. Whatever little skin was exposed below my ankles were covered by shoes that you'd see nuns wear. I used to wear glasses that covered half my face and there was nothing my entire image that would merit a second look. 

First thought - Uh oh..i SHOULD'NT have been greedy. I'm in trouble now.

Second thought - They're going to do this together as a team..Did she finish cooking dinner early just to catch me walking in after my deadline?

Third thought - Ok, what's my attitude going to be, "sorry puppy dog look" or "Yeah yeah just yell at me like you always do and lets all get on with our lives quickly"?

Before I gathered my thoughts, she shot the first arrow - "Do you know what time it is?"

Of course I did. I was a whole 29 minutes late. At that age, figuring out which question is a rhetorical one and which one she actually wanted an answer to was the golden key to choose whether I wanted a small but painful lecture or a full length sermon with history added from my past "misdeeds". Unfortunately, I always got it wrong and answered the rhetorical questions at the wrong time. It always extended my misery.

I stood planted in the spot with my head hung down in shame for not obeying such a simple rule. She weaved into her narrative a few past instances of how I had caused her utter misery, how I dont help around the house at all, how she behaved when she was my age, how stubborn, hopeless, difficult and ungrateful I am etc etc. After a while it was all the same old lecture really, so I'd patiently wait for it to end. Sometimes it would end with a warning, sometimes with an angry "GO!" like you'd say to a misbehaving pet dog.

This sermon lasted around an hour and fifteen minutes. Moral of the sermon was that an ungrateful creature who ate paani puri with friends while my mother slogged alone in the hot kitchen to make dinner for us.

A few days later when I could no longer shut the inner voice that always landed me into trouble with her, I asked her, why does my brother not have a deadline? Not that he ever stayed out late. But why? Her answer disgusted me. She said, "Because he cant get pregnant.".

Of all my classmates, there were only TWO guys that I interacted with. That too, only to exchange notes or reference for homework. They were only interested in me because I was the first ranker. The one whose notebooks were complete, neat and reliable. To the rest of the class, apart from my girl pals, I was the snooty gulf-return student who thought too highly of herself to even look their way. They felt like I treated them as lowly creatures. I came to know that from friends. Reality was that I was lost when after attending an all-girls school for years, suddenly I had to adjust to moving back to India and becomeing a part of the co-ed system. Back in Sharjah I'd hear how a tenth grader Head-girl got expelled for sneaking into the boys section to meet a boy student of the same school. And now here I was, still recovering from the shock of having to sit next to a BOY in the classroom, dressed in half pants. What was normal for kids here was a big culture shock to my senses.

So when I was told that I had a deadline because I could get pregnant - to me it was the most insensitive reply put across in the crudest manner. It reeked of her lack of trust in me and exposed how little she knew me. I'm not talking about morals here. I am talking about the fact that she didnt know I was struggling hard to adjust to even just being around guys of my age. She didnt know how awkward I was around guys and how I behaved like an alien around them.

Parents do their best to ensure that daughters get the best possible upbringing while being as protected as they can from the 'predators' circling them all the time. We want to be extra careful and would rather be safe than sorry. Someday I hope we can embed GPS chips into our babies in a procedure that is as routine as getting them vaccinated. just so that we can rest assured that they are safe, no matter where they are. In case they are in trouble, we would know exactly where to fly to, to swoop in on the bad guys and beat the daylight out of them and bring our child back home safely.

But in our attempt to shield them, do we knowingly or unknowingly tell them what they can and cant do, just because they are girls? Dont we use 'concern' as an excuse to mould our baby girls into the socially acceptable form? In all the lectures I was subjected to, alongwith being chided for being disobedient or plain foolish, I was always given ideas of how 'good' girls should behave. 'Good girls' helped out with housework, did well at school, didnt ask questions, dressed to appeal to others' idea of decency and did not question anyone's authority within or outside the family.

'Good' girls couldnt get too pally with guys. I was sure I was doing ok if I managed to treat them just like I treated my girl friends, but thats not how 'good' girls were supposed to behave. Being friendly with boys would give me a bad name. Without ever being told to avoid letting any boy classmate coming home to pick up notes or books, I already told my two geeky guy friends that they were not welcome at home. In college when a huge mixed group of classmates -  nearly 30 of them, planned to watch a movie while their parents thought they were studying hard, I came home and asked my mother if it was ok for me to go. I was older, hopefully more sensible. I was telling her where I would be and was sure to be home by 5 pm. Surely she would allow me to go? Nope. I was given the reason at the age of 13. Dare I ask again.

Being a mother to a baby girl makes me doubly sensitive to the horrible crimes being committed against women more boldly, more frequently and more intensely nowadays. I already worry about how I ensure her well being and safety as she grows older. Its likely that I will improvise my mother's sermons and belt them out to her when she walks in past her deadline some day in the distant future. But I hope to do so without stripping her of the traits that would make her a unique individual just to get her to conform to society's idea of what a girl brought up in a 'decent' family should be like. I hope I will be able put across my concerns as concerns NOT evidence of my lack of trust in her, so that she gets a chance to put my mind at ease with an assurance that she would never do anything to break my trust. 

I hope I will be able to always clearly define which of my actions are out of concern and which are out of  the wish to mould my girl into an individual who will take their skewed ideas of morality into the next generation.

I hope I can burn that invisible book of rules, that instruction manual on 'the right way to bring up a daughter'.   If nothing, I hope I can modify the same set of rules to apply to raising a son too. So that I am not raising a son or a daughter, just a child. A child whose clear conscience will be enough to guide her/him throughout life.

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