The stigma of being a woman

Some of the most poignant moments in my life have been punctuated with moments of incredible courage. Courage from what I have now fully realised are God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!

From a mother picking up pieces of a suddenly derailed life, to bring up two young boys to be the men they are today..to a wife who at the fag end of a 40 hour labour, just as she was being cut open without an anaesthetic, holding my hand and telling me “It’s alright Prithvi”..I have repeatedly been dumbfounded in realising how much of a lesser being I am in the company of the women in my life.

And today..as my dear friend walks in to the sets to kick start the shooting of her new film (*film name withheld to protect identity of actress*), I once again bear witness to an extraordinary moment of courage from an extraordinary woman in my life! Today..she makes a statement..a statement that will echo through time, space and gender..that no one or no incident has control over your life but YOU! A statement that will now be part of counselling sessions and pep talks around the world. A statement that you my friend..are making in a million unheard voices!

And to those voices I apologise..for at an age and time when I wasn’t wise enough..I have been part of films that celebrated misogyny..I have mouthed lines that vilified regard for your self respect and I have taken a bow to the claps that ensued. NEVER AGAIN..never again will I let disrespect for women be celebrated in my movies! Yes..I’m an actor and this is my craft! I will whole heartedly trudge the grey and black with characters that possess unhinged moral compasses…but I will never let these men be glorified or their actions justified on screen.

Once again..ladies and gentlemen..stand up and applaud for her! Behind the gutsy spunk, there is a vulnerable celebrity who knew well enough what this decision of hers would mean to a life under constant scrutiny. But she also knew..that she had to see it through…for that would set an example..light a torch that will show a path for many to follow!Today she makes a statement..

A statement of extraordinary courage!

Fanboy for life…dear friend..fanboy for life!

Love always,

Prithvi.

These empathetic words would momentarily light up the darkness in the lives of millions of women imprisoned by the shackles of patriarchy, misogyny and male chauvinism. When I read these words, there was a tiny flicker of hope and optimism within me too. However, their impact faded away as soon as I was back to the daily routine of my life in a place where every living moment in a woman’s life is a battle with these oppressive forces. Though empathetic, these words are lone voices in an ocean of numbness. They offer no consolation in a world where the numbness that has replaced the inherent empathetic nature of the human being, refuses to be penetrated by guilt, remorse, shame or fear.

Misogyny was alien to me. Bangalore had never given me a taste of misogyny. I grew up in a liberal world where gender roles were not sharply defined or imposed. Humanity mattered more than did gender roles. At home, my parents never made me self-conscious about my gender. I had as much freedom and as many opportunities as my brother, if not more! The males that I grew up with- family, friends and classmates, were real gems. Most of them thought of girls as delicate and fragile beings that needed to be treated with tenderness, and I absolutely cherished this sentiment.

As a child, I visited Kerala during my vacations, but the gender bias did not significantly permeate my world for the simple reason that I was practically a tourist visiting God’s own country! I was attracted to the physical beauty of this land, its character and its cultural richness. This obscured the real picture that characterized the lives of women in this land – a land that was renowned for its creative potential and cultural richness. As a child, I was spared the restrictions that bound the lives of my female cousins. I found them odd and uninteresting, and I would therefore take to the company of my male cousins who were high spirited, fun-loving and full of mischief- traits I related to. My aunts often discouraged these traits in me. ‘Unfeminine‘, they would remark. But I was too busy savouring the beauty of my world, and did not mind their remarks. So while my female cousins grew up to be soft-spoken, dependent, subservient women who paid attention to how they walked, dressed and talked, I grew up to be somebody with an opinion. Loud, arrogant, unfeminine. These were the labels I earned. However, beneath all the sarcasm they meted out to me, I could sense the denial that drove this sarcasm. At an unconscious level, they felt a certain inferiority in my presence. It was this inferiority that drove them to condemn my personality. This was the case not only with my cousins, but with my aunts too. They were never open about it, but this silent hostility spilled into the way they looked at me, the way they weaved their humour around me, and the way they refrained from any positive remark pertaining to me. I felt alienated in their company; they were united in this silent hostility to me. It was ironical that the men in my extended family were more accepting of my personality and the freedom that I enjoyed, than the women.

I had never imagined that some day, I would actually migrate to this place that reeked of misogyny and where women were treated as lesser beings meant to serve men. From Bangalore to London had been a huge transition, but a welcome one. Both these places had never robbed me of my emotional or intellectual freedom. But London to Kerala was a culture shock. Upon arrival, it was a different Kerala I saw. Not the one I had seen as a child during my vacations.

I could sense it right upon my arrival.

The stares that constantly accompanied me as I went about my chores. They were there when I strolled about idly, trying to keep my mind on the beauty of the landscape that surrounded me, or sometimes, on my thoughts. They were there when I went shopping on my own, trying to keep my mind on the things I wanted to buy. They were there when I stopped to take pictures of sunsets and backwaters. They accompanied me wherever I went, irrespective of whether I walked, drove or took a bus. Irrespective of whether I dressed conservatively or liberally. The creepy stares, the sardonic smiles, the leering faces, the lewd remarks. I found it impossible to numb myself to them and focus on my chores. Sometimes, I stared back, hoping that it would deter them. Instead, they seemed to derive encouragement from my reaction.

I still remember how helpless, weak and frightened I felt within, despite the brave exterior that I tried to put up. In truth, I had always wanted to flee from such situations. But because I couldn’t, I had to hold on. When I was finally alone, I would cry like a frightened child. I couldn’t imagine going through this, day after day, unable to escape.

My father had completely introverted by then, and lost all ability to connect emotionally. Of course, it was only later we realized that these personality changes were part of his illness. I had a passive and helpless mother, who empathized with me, but could do nothing about it. In the early years of life in Kerala, our relatives visited us occasionally. During one such visit, we set out on a trip to Pazhassi dam. This was in the year 2007. My relatives were in one car, and me and my mother followed in my car. I was driving. On that day, I had plugged my earphones and was listening to music. We were on a stretch of road that was wide, but full of potholes on the edges. So we kept to the better side of the road and drove on. Traffic was very sparse. At some point, I lost sight of the car in which my relatives were travelling. So I speeded up a bit. A rickshaw was just ahead of me and the driver was driving at snail’s pace. I honked so that he would give me space to overtake. But he didn’t. He slowed down further and kept blocking my way. In some while, I realized he was doing it on purpose. At one point, I could see that there were no potholes ahead and the road was really wide. The man didn’t expect that I would overtake from the left. I swerved sharply to the left and overtook him before he realized what had happened. As I sped off, I put out my hand in a gesture of ‘What the hell?’ and sped off. But imagine my surprise when he speeded up too and drove so fast that in no time, he was in par with me. We were now nearing a little junction and he overtook me and blocked my way. My relatives were waiting at the junction for us. They got out of the car and came towards us. Meanwhile, the rickshaw driver started abusing me. I retorted back, asking him why he had deliberately blocked my way all along. Imagine my shock when he made up a cock-and-bull story about me troubling him and splashing slush on his rickshaw. Meanwhile, other rickshaw drivers had gathered. This man, encouraged by their presence, screamed at me,” Car, goggles and earphones! Remember you are just a woman!” I remember the pain of that statement. It struck me then that I was dealing with someone whose general resentment of women had provoked this. His denial towards the fact that I was a woman, and ‘yet’, placed in better circumstances than him, had triggered this behaviour. My pain was doubled when my relatives apologized to him on my behalf and repeated in my ear what he had mouthed: “You may have been right, but don’t forget you are a woman. So stop defending and quietly get into the car.” The unfairness of it all made me want to leave Kerala that very moment. But that certainly wasn’t the end.

Ten years have passed since I moved to Kerala. In these ten years, I have come across misogyny in its myriad shades and forms. In Anjali Menon’s words: “Violation of one person by another. Of space, of body, of mind, of respect, of identity. On screen – off screen – everywhere.

Little boys, not older than ten years of age, passing derogatory remarks at women much older. Many an instance where an elderly colleague assumed that women from metro cities were desperate and available. The horrifying stories I heard from the nursing aids in the hospital as to what went on in the hospital during their night duties. Many of those women were too scared to complain. Somehow, they had learned to avoid, pretend, protect and cry silently. But none of them had the courage to speak up.

The peers who assumed that being single reflected an attitude problem- an inability to bend to the male ego. The work superiors who were kind and empathetic to married women irrespective of how incompetent they were at work, and impossibly difficult with single women. The numerous instances of being troubled on the road when I drove with no male by my side. Neighbours who refused to involve when it really mattered, and who passed judgmental remarks when it wasn’t their business.

Never before had I felt so painfully aware of my limitations as a woman. Until I moved to Kerala, I had never looked at my gender as a limitation.

Ten years have not made these battles less painful. However, they have helped me realize the magnitude of the situation. My life in Kerala is built on two planes. The basic plane is one of struggle and suffering. Of oppression and hopelessness. Of loneliness and illness. Of physical and mental exhaustion. But erected on this base is a world of joy and hope. Of meaning and purpose. Of fantasy and beauty. Of humanity. One fuels the other. The more intensely I feel the negativity of the oppressive forces, the more I am moved to bring about a change. That change is my motivation. It is what enables me to endure.

Over the years, I have realized that a powerful revolution is often the outcome of silent and persistent work. Work that doesn’t attract too much unwanted attention, but work that nevertheless achieves its goal. Empower people psychologically. Secretly, silently. Without making it too obvious. Weave the message into a simple heart-to-heart conversation. Into activities. Into thoughts. Influence people’s thought process. And most importantly, to remember not to give up. At one point, such a revolution ignites spontaneously.

I believe and hope that I shall leave this world a little better than how I found it.

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3 thoughts on “The stigma of being a woman

  1. ramadas menon

    Beautifully written, Vidya… The clarify of thought s comes out vividly in each and every line.I can understand how difficult it would have been to adjust to the stark realities of life in Kerala.Iam sure you have come out stronger after all these experiences life has thrown at you….

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