I was born & brought up in Delhi by my parents who hail from small towns in UP. It has been quite a journey since the time I was a teenager and my mother used to discourage me from looking in the mirror. She would even tell me how she was severely punished by her own mother for doing the same as a pubescent herself. For the life of me, I could never understand why. I was just curious about the changes I would see in me and was simply in awe of how much one could change at the age of 13. I enjoyed looking at myself, hiding off course, in the privacy of my room, which was another privilege, I was not allowed. Much later did I learn that, such restrictions are common in controlling a young girl’s sexuality till she grows up…wait, does she ever grow up to be left on her own, to understand her body? Her desires? Her rights? To choose what’s good for her and what’s not? Does she ever even have a realization what choice means? Does she REALLY get to choose anything?
School was another institution where girls, especially teenagers, are given direct and indirect messages about what makes a “good girl” and what constitutes a “bad girl”. Boys were mostly given a free pass with minor remarks about “aggressive personality” or “too submissive for a boy”. Our uniform skirts were measured for length that was “acceptable & appropriate”, so that the boys only get to see “acceptable amount of our legs”. If some girls were found to be wearing the wrong length they were made to go back home and change and some were even made to go through humiliation of teachers opening the hems of the skirts during morning assembly.
I was quickly branded the “wrong kind”, “bad influence” by others, as my first instinct was always to question gendered and discriminatory practices. It made me despise authority and ownership that people always tend to have over you if you’re a girl. Last two years of schooling were spent rather peacefully. I met better teachers I must acknowledge, not all, but some important ones who made me realise that there is more life beyond legs and attraction or lack of it, to opposite sex. What lay beyond all of this was – limitless knowledge, articulation and ability to question.
Much later, when I began my work four years ago with adolescents in schools, conducting workshops on life skills, human anatomy, body image, changes etc, I met teenagers that reminded me of my time more than I thought I would. With a sea of changes in your own life and society around you, you would think that things have changed for better…wrong…maybe a little change. Young girls and boys are still discouraged to interact with each other and policed whenever possible. Girls are still slut-shamed, told what to wear, how to behave, when to go out and when not and “be good”. Girls are still sexually harassed. Heteronormative life is still shoved down the throats of young people. Much to my surprise, I am more concerned about teenage/young adult boys. We are now telling girls about their bodies, their rights. What are boys being taught? Same old patriarchal values? Same homophobic values about manliness and power?
Young adults are still unsafe in public spaces, being policed by everyone. There is a video doing the rounds these days on social media of a couple “acting indecent” in public space. Yes we are doing our bit, asking right questions about consent and privacy and public display of affection. But there are bigger burning questions to be asked…do we ever grow up? Do we ever really ever become adults who can take charge of their lives, choose clothes, lovers, partners or rather not choose; change our minds about our sexuality, marriage, job, question ill being done to self or others? I am afraid to seek answers to these questions which are not obvious. I am afraid of answers you might help me find. However afraid we are, we MUST ask questions, question ourselves and systems that need to change. What is the worst that can happen? I was recently termed a bad influence(yet again) to a young girl in the family, for saying that she needs to move out and experience life beyond parental control. Now when I’m termed bad influence, I think, I am doing something right.