Friday, May 26, 2017

Negotiating Gender, Living in a Small Town

By Yashasvini Rajeshwar
When I first took up the job of teaching at a rural school for children of the local tribes, I thought it was a fairly informed decision. I had an education in development, had worked in rural environments on and off, and thought I knew what the problematic/difficult parts of the job would be. To be fair, I did…sort of.

I knew that English would be an alien language. I knew that teaching children syntax and semantics of a language so drastically different from their mother tongues would be hard work. I knew that English in my village would be like Mandarin in Chennai – we all know China is going to overtake the world someday and it is important, but we just don’t see how to go about it. I knew that my shorts and other more “revealing” clothes were best left neatly stacked in my cupboard at home, that my preferred brand of sanitary pads should probably be stocked and hoarded on trips to the city, that I should never let well-intentioned colleagues and students “look through” pictures of my life from home. What I did not know is just how much my individual ways of understanding the world would be questioned or how far my personal identity would be repeatedly hammered against.

It started slow – a one-off statement here, a seemingly innocent question there. I was never sure whether my urban liberal arts education had made me overly sensitive to things, whether I was “imagining it” as many were wont to tell me, or whether this barrage of stereotyping and caricaturing was really there. What I did know was that everyday there would be something new, something sly, something casual, that made me start a little and wonder who this girl they saw was. It definitely wasn’t me.

It was my very first week at the school, and I was getting ready to go to class. In keeping with a habit I had picked up in hostel during college, I had washed out my underwear during a shower and was hanging them out to dry, when a colleague walked out of her room. She saw me and said I was very “dhairyam,” brave. I was a little confused until she told me I was the only person who dared dry my underwear out in the open (under a towel!). I asked her why, especially since it was an all-women living space, and she just told me it was not done. That day, I became revolutionary for doing my laundry, and I was not sure what I felt about it.

I love saris. Over the years, I have gotten rather comfortable draping them (claim to fame – even with a phone wedged between my shoulder and my ear!) and wear them often to school. I remember it was a fairly routine day and I was standing by the kids during assembly, when a colleague walked up to me and said (and I quote) – “You know how to wear saris and all? And you have your nose pierced! I didn’t know girls from Chennai could act like that!” I took a second to regain my bearings and asked her what “girls from Chennai” were like in her head. She gave me a vague response of “modern” and “not like this” and walked away. I spent the rest of assembly playing with my nose ring.

My favourite gender-related shaking up, though, has to be the time I was called an elephant. Just the day before, a colleague had walked up to me and asked me not to laugh out loud. It is scary, I was told. Just don’t do it. I have always had a base voice by average standards of femininity but never bothered being conscious about it. As I stood on the steps of the lunch hall one day, for one second I became the adolescent who was bullied in high school, listening to someone tell me my laugh grated at people’s ears. Two days later, a girl fell during sports practice and couldn’t put any weight on her foot. Later, we found out it was a hairline fracture, but that minute, she needed to be taken to the school office and then to the hospital. This waif of an 8th standard girl was writhing in pain and there was no way she could walk up the slope that led to the office, so I did what seemed like the most natural thing to do. I picked her up, asked another student to get my dupatta off me so I didn’t trip on it, and I carried her there. At lunch a few minutes later, I was told that “of course you’d be given heavy labour. If you look like an elephant, you get the work of an elephant.” I had no idea what to say.
The problem is this. I know all of these anecdotes are sexist, and some of them deeply so. I know these would have been the stories we would have rolled our eyes at in college and deconstructed to death in circles of self-identified feminists. I know that in the bubble of like-minded, supportive people, we would have tsk-tsked this away as being “the world”. But a year after moving here, I also know something else, something else that makes all this even more confusing.

They mean well.

Every soul who has told me to not laugh, who has tucked in an errant bra strap into a sari blouse, who has laughed at my loudness saying it will only last till I go to my “husband’s house,” who has told me to calm down because “who will marry you otherwise,” who has asked me to enjoy my freedom “while it lasts”… Every single soul who has volunteered their opinion and given their advice means well.

And this is where the confusion begins. They mean well. Or do they? Am I being culturally sensitive or making excuses for hurtful behaviour? Am I adapting to circumstance or hiding behind defence mechanisms? Even assuming they mean well, does that benefit of doubt make it okay? And which battles can you truly choose to fight? Which conversations do more harm than good, or is there such a debate at all? This is when I stop having the answers.

And then it gets worse.

Such a barrage on the way I understand and embody gender is one thing. I, with my privileged education and background, can handle it. When it really gets under my skin is when it affects the students in my class, when concepts and opinions that are seemingly obvious to me are so off-centre for them, they cannot even begin to comprehend what I am saying. How far can I push the boundaries? How much can I do without seeming like an outsider imposing my value systems, which if you think of it is exactly what I am doing?

Recently there was a situation. The senior kids are temporarily staying at school to accommodate the very many extra classes they deal with, and the girls were in their room. One of the teachers wanted the entire class, so sent a boy to call them. The boy walked up to me and asked if I could do him a favour. I asked him what it was. He asked me to walk up to the room and call the girls. I knew exactly why – it was unfathomable for him to walk up to the girls’ room and even just knock on the door. (A week before, a girl had refused to enter a classroom because “the boys’ beds will be there, Akka.”) I had a choice to make at that moment. Given that I was in a position of authority, I could ask him to go anyway and knock on the door. I could refuse to get up, and he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Yet if I did that, I risked offending sensibilities, pushing a little too far. Eventually he did go and knock on the door, but I am always half-expecting to be pulled up for being too “forward.” Where do you draw the line?

Sometimes, though, the line is much easier to draw and that much more overwhelming. It was a day in December, leading up to the school’s exhibition, and we were just wrapping up all the art and craft work that was going into the English section. As we were cleaning, I asked a sixth standard boy to pick up the broom and just sweep up the bits of paper into a dustpan and put it in the dustbin. This tiny person flat-out refused. To my face. “No, Akka,” he said even as I reeled under the realisation that his conviction of gender roles was stronger than the drilled-in norm of not talking back to your teachers. I asked him why, and his answer was very lucid. “I am a boy, Akka. This is girls’ work.” Right. Ok then. Now what? I walked him through a series of questions. Did he see rubbish on the floor? (Yes.) Did he believe it ought to be cleaned? (Yes.) Was he part of the team that made the mess? (Yes.) Was it his classroom? (Yes.) Then did he not share the responsibility of cleaning it up? (Yes.) Now that that had been established, I asked him to get the broom and get it done quickly so we could all go home. The boy still stood there, hesitant to move. I was shocked. Ingrained gender roles were still stronger. Now what? The school day was practically done anyway, so I asked the girls to leave. Now who would do the cleaning, I asked him. I could see him going back and forth about it in his head, before he finally swept the room up and ran towards his weekend.

A whole term after this incident, I am still unsure about whether I did right by that boy. I made peace with his logic, saying he had probably only ever seen his mother do the cleaning in a house with a father and two sons. I pushed his boundaries, forced him to deal with uncomfortable situations, and finally made sure he realised there were other ways of being. But did I do the right thing? Was I too harsh? Was it not my place to begin with? On a day when I was fretting about the blind faith that this job demands, a friend of mine told me that my success would lie outside the classroom, many years in the future. Maybe the day a boy realises that domestic violence does not need to be the norm, no matter the surroundings, or the day a girl decides she will study independent of the scene with marriage – that is the day you are working towards. Every time I worry about the (real) possibilities of some of my students getting married before I do, I hold on to these words like they are my talisman. Maybe every time I push, I make a little more of a dent in this systemic wall. Or maybe I don’t.

I once wrote about navigating gender in the village. It was a mere three months after I had joined, and I was fresh from the sensory overload of the experiences. Today, many months on, they have had time to simmer and settle, and I think I have become less brash. I understand more, think more, allow for more, and yet, wake up every morning and choose my battles. Yet today, I choose the small battles, cognizant that the seemingly “small” ones are still mountains to cross for my kids and their families. Today, I don’t have any of the answers, but I am getting less defensive of the questions.

Back in college, I remember a rather vociferous debate on girls changing their last name. Should they do it? Was it merely the remnants of a patriarchal society that dictated that a woman “belongs” to her husband? Given how central to identity one’s name is, can it be written off as “just a name”? Yet, what if I “want” to? Is that actually free will or the voice of false choice and patriarchal conditioning? We went on and on. It was neither the longest nor most “intense” conversation on the nitty-gritties of feminism, yet somehow it stuck. Perhaps because of how everyday it was, or how many different reactions it threw up; I do not know, but it stuck. Today, this is the conversation I turn to when I illustrate the contrast.

For my kids today, their last names are the last things on their mind. Instead, they fight attendance issues because their parents want to groom them to take care of the home alongside regular schooling. They do not care for the difference between false choice and free will. Instead, when asked about what they did in their vacations, my sixth grade boys said “cricket” even as a girl said “I made beans curry for my parents.” They do not care about whether menstrual leave should be paid or not. Instead, they wonder about how to ask a male pharmacist for sanitary pads in public.

Today, I do not teach my kids to be “feminist,” one more unknown term in a language both aspirational and alien, sought and shunned. Instead, I teach my girls that they too can play cricket on their period, if that is what they really want to do. I teach my boys that it is not a bad thing to sweep the floor every once in a while. And I teach myself to check my privilege.