This article is based on our research work in the two resettlement colonies of Dakshinpuri and Sanjay Camp, located in south Delhi, with twenty participants: ten girls and ten boys. They are all 15 to 22 years of age and attend either school or college. They belong to primarily the Dalit and Muslim communities, which is also a representation of the demography of these two resettlement colonies.We focused on studying five themes: work, friendship-love-marriage, state-citizenship, media and education. The research methodologies we used were focused group discussions and in-depth personal interviews. The questions we tried to explore include the following:How do young people living in Dakshinpuri and Sanjay Camp experience personal relationships and what meanings do such relationships hold for them? How are these relationships influenced by differences in class and gender? How do they perceive and differentiate between romantic relationships and friendships?
Ideas of love and friendship collude and intermingle to produce colours that cannot be clearly differentiated. There is neither one simple definition of either of the two nor a homogenous experience of it. Yet, we are conditioned to compartmentalize these almost as if the experiences that come with romantic love and those that come with friendship can be segregated. From the idea that love is eternal to establishing that there is one and only one true love (sacha pyaar) to how love demands a performance of the normative roles of femininity and masculinity, Bollywood is, for our participants, undeniably theone source of information that defines and dictates how to behave in their friendships and romantic relationships.In Dakshinpuri and Sanjay Camp, opportunities for friendships with people of a different gender are restricted and kept under surveillance. Schools, tuition centres and participation in activities organized by Action India (a long-standing NGO working in this area) provide the only spaces where these fleeting moments of interaction, permissible yet controlled, are available to them. Friendships that brew here could then be continued outside in public spaces like parks and malls where they “cannot be seen” by others who may report it to their families. The consequences of being caught include stricter control on the girl’s mobility to the point where she may even have to stop going to school; the boy,however, could escape with a firm warning. With increased access to smart phones and the Internet as well as social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook, young people are finding ways to negotiate these boundaries of surveillance and desire. Girls who are first generation learners have ensured that their families cannot access their password protected phones, while others have found ways to hide their social media apps. Girls enjoy being in multiple romantic relationships online while simultaneously being able to maintain their anonymity. For the boys, anonymity isn’t a concern.
When we conducted the boys’ focused group discussions on the questions of friendships and love, we noted that some boys were emotionally intimate in their male friendships while some were not. Is it because they fear being vulnerable in male friendships but yearn for that safety in romantic relationships? What is the role of masculinity here? Or is our own understanding of intimacy, as emotionally invested conversations with each other, biased because we imagined it in a way that can be conceptualised as conventionally ‘feminine’? Sharing personal narratives of struggles and finding solace in knowing that you are not alone in that struggle, sharing anger and laughter with each other and providing the unflinching support that perhaps the family failed to, shapes those moments of intimacy within female friendships. Boys too experienced closeness and vulnerability within their male friendships, but differently from the girls. As both groups have gotten older, the meaning of friendship has changed with time. Their childhoods were marked with carefree play in the streets, with unrestricted interactions, even with children of different genders. This changed when the girls turned 8-9 years of age and the norms around being a “good” girl began filtering into their upbringing. The boys,now,find closeness with each other by networking, especially for employment opportunities. For them, a friend who can give information regarding jobs and give money in times of need is a close friend. By sharing experiences of transgression and narratives of challenging norms around mobility, the girls find meaning through solidarity. The burden of earning and financially supporting their families for the boys and breaking prohibitions on their daily living for girls forms the core of their friendships. Not just friendships, patriarchy has also defined how they fantasise about their future lovers or spouse.
We observed that none of them used the word “love” directly. Instead they had different terms to identify romantic relationships such as “someone special”, “main love” or “that kind of friendship” (woh waali dosti). The girls fantasised that their lovers and husbands would allow them to study further and work outside, to maintain their friendships, to not be suspicious of their male friendships, to accept them as they are, and would be open minded and share in the household chores, and not be violent with them. In short, they wanted someone who is not a reflection of how their lives have been so far; someone who can enable them to actualize their aspirational selves. The fantasies of the boys, on the other hand, sharply contrasted with those of the girls – their hopes for the future were in direct conflict. The boys’ expectations reflected the gender stereotypes about South Asian women – fair complexion, ‘good’ behaviour that is defined by respecting others,being traditional (sanskari), caring towards the husband and his parents and wearing clothes that do not ‘offend’ others.The boys also feel immensely burdened with having to continue the family lineage. “How will the stories of my grandparents be passed on if I do not have a child?” asked one boy. Coupled with the responsibility of procreating and carrying the family name, they also anxiously articulated the importance of having a son.For them, a “complete” family comprises of their parents, their wife and their two children–a boy and a girl. To ensure this, they cannot challenge the norms of caste purity by marrying out of their own choice.
Girls viewed marriage as yet another hindrance in their lives.“What do we get after marriage? Sadness and restriction, nothing else. I have seen women around me. They are busy with their kids and family, they don’t have time for themselves…we cannot achieve our dreams after marriage. We are tied with relationships in marriage. It is better to live alone and have freedom to do things for myself.” The girls present a contradictory duality of their expectations from marriage – on the one hand, a hope that it could liberate them from their current state of surveillance, and on the other, the knowledge, from observing lives around them, that marriage can be yet another form of a very controlled life. The boys described marriage as a rupture that breaks male friendships as familial responsibilities begin to take priority. For the girls, change in residence and the consequent lack of contact with their friends after marriage was the main reason for a fracture in female friendships. When we asked both to imagine their lives if they were 30 years of age and unmarried, the boys were seemingly apprehensive at the thought of being unmarried so late in their lives and insisted they would be married by then. They imagined living either alone or with their parents if they were still single. The girls seemed to have had invested enough thought and time thinking about this possibility many times before;they imagined a life with diverse family structures like live-in relationships, living with only friends, living alone or adopting and living as a single mother. Could this difference be because on the one hand boys have the freedom of mobility that leads to other privileges like pursuing education, forming friendships and loitering in public spaces, but on the other they have had no opportunity to feel, emote and think through the burdens of patriarchy? “A lack of safe space for boys to share their anxieties, vulnerability and stress is leading to a decrease in their socio-emotional understanding of themselves,” explained Soni ji, a senior NGO member from Action India.
The most striking facet of the reality of both boys and girls was the common fear of forming friendships across gender, which all participants felt. Boys feared being rejected or even reported to the police for “misbehaviour” while the girls shared that they do not understand boys at all and are not able to relate to them. They wished that co-education would be made mandatory by the government so that schools could provide that safe space where girls and boys would not hesitate to talk and would not be scared of each other.This would help in building an understanding of the self and the other that would gradually change the prejudices they harboured against each other. These girls and boys want and do seek out spaces where they can have an opportunity to understand each other. As people working in the development sector or otherwise, can we listen to the boys and their increased sense of being invisibilized? Not for once denying the need for sustained efforts towards girls’ empowerment, but ensuring that this time the ‘other’ side is not left behind creating ruptures and fragments of a different kind in the movement towards gender equity. Can we observe the changing landscape of gender and address the various contradictions that emerge in how girls and boys understand themselves and each other? The need perhaps is to create spaces where the sharing of one’s own narratives and listening to those of others is enabled.