When I said this, one of the women members got quite upset saying, “being a man, it is not quite appropriate for you to talk about this in the public.” I replied, ” if we can discuss the issue of boys (and girls) using pen hookahs and how these need to be confiscated and burned, why we are so uncomfortable about a topic as simple as this?” The group was split on what was appropriate and what is not. But the fact remained that there are taboo topics which remained off-limits or made people uncomfortable even in the most progressive groups, especially with regards to gender-based rights and women’s sexuality.
I thought this was an amazing opportunity for me to talk about the topic. So right in the middle of the meeting, I took the time to explain to the group – how when our daughters were still young, both Miriam and I took time out to openly discuss issues of gender, sexuality and health to both our daughters and it is good for dads to be part of these conversations. Which traditionally have so much stigma attached to them, that dads don’t even discuss these topics with boys, let alone with girls.
If we are not comfortable talking about even our physiological aspects, how do we expect to empower our girls to be open about their own aspirations and fears? How do we expect them to fight or respond back when silence is the norm? Do we talk to them? Do we have conversations with our children instead of a series of dos and donts? The group didn’t completely agree. But that day I did plant the seed. Thereafter, the school made many requests to talk about these ‘taboo’ topics.
I was brought up in a Catholic family where even words such as ‘girlfriend’, ‘boyfriend’ or ‘sex’ were completely taboo. Of course, in Kerala, every dinner conversation politics was in plenty, but not the taboo topics, so it was not always easy for me to talk about such things. I had to cross my own bridges, had to wrestle with my inner conditioning, my idea of sexuality, etc. before I became even confident to have a conversation with people around me. So it is a conscious investment one makes – rooting from the awareness that to build harmony, dignity and equality (values I deeply believe in), one needs to start with oneself first.
I remember one evening our daughter Anjali was explaining to Miriam about an incident in school in a very emotional manner. She was repeating what all swear words another girl had used. She hardly knew the meaning any of these words. Initially, we were not sure how to explain to her that these words didn’t just demonstrate anger but undermined her very self. She was all of 8 years old. That evening, I remember, though it made us hugely uncomfortable, we took the time and explained in an age-appropriate language, the meaning of those words, emphasising that most of these words were against girls/women.
Today its normal on our dinner table to say something like – ‘she was high’. Did we accept all the practices around us or did we approve of them? I will say that we were quite judgemental about some of the practices since we ourselves were going through a journey. But we acknowledged them and didn’t brush them under the carpet. We did have a conversation and even offered to talk to someone else where we needed more clarity. This itself had a great effect on all of us.
Over the years, when I became more open to ideas and we had conversations around the serials my daughters watched or the kind of disappointments they go through – a new world opened up for me. A kind of mutual respect developed between us. Today, whenever Anjali is back from college or when we watch our favourite Netflix serials, we have fun and great conversations about politics, LGBTQ rights, safety and about studies, design and fashion, among others. Looking back, I acknowledge these inter-generational or inter-gender conversations were not easy or simple to start with, but once you break the ice one will be surprised the see the kind of oneness you and others create around one another.