I distinctly remember an adult male member of my extended family saying, “Cover up your chest with a dupatta. You are young now. You can decide in your adulthood how you would like to dress.”
Let me add some context here. I had reached puberty and my body had started developing accordingly, and a dear one had recently gifted me a salwar-kameez set. When I happily wore it, this was the response I received from that family member.
It seems to me that he may have thought that by exerting his control over the way I dressed, he was protecting me from the unfortunate, completely unwarranted, ‘male gaze’. So, it means that adults, especially male family members, are aware of how women are treated or stared at. They probably saw their friends doing it, or did it themselves. Either way, it seemed important to them to ‘protect’ women.
Their intentions may be sound, but what does it imply? What wrongs do they commit in the garb of protection? This is something to think about.
Meanwhile, it was only the beginning of a long, agonising journey to learn, unlearn, and re-learn how best I could express myself without thinking, “Should I be wearing it this way or will I be schooled on it again?” This control extended to other spheres of my life, including how I must sit, talk, who I should mingle with, what I must study, whose dreams I must fulfil…
The list is long. A crucial element in all this was a certain degree of obedience to the man in the household. Who the man was did not matter as much as the idea that it was an adult male in the family taking the decisions. I have grown up living with the extended family for the major part of my childhood. And given the experience I had, I would often wonder whether this is how we raise children: with a great deal of control exerted by adults in the name of disciplining the child.
I know now that the circumstances of child-rearing are not the same across different families, cultures and geographies. That’s a relief!
Back then I would feel rather shut in. I could not relate to my extended family’s ways of raising me. Sometimes, I would even doubt my decision of having left my parents’ household. Yes, I spent my early childhood in a village, so I requested my parents to allow me to study in a town nearby. I would, at this point, commend them and applaud their courage to let me go, so that I may have more opportunities in life and have a plentiful existence, despite my being their only child and being barely 10 or 11 years old at the time.
I would take solace in knowing that I was with the extended family for ‘the greater good’.
Years of control and suppression made their presence felt emotionally, mentally, and even physically. I would walk hunched up and was extremely conscious of how I should present myself physically, so as not to displease others. Those were very stressful days.
I was conditioned to obey, conceal the expression of sexuality, not question male authority, and give in to the structure where the roles that a man and a woman supposedly play in a relationship are pre-designated (I should add, the structure is basically negatively skewed against the woman and perpetuates the trope of patriarchy). It is never a good idea to not know how good relationship dynamics work. To know and to be aware of various kinds of relationships opens up our minds to possibilities, to the many avenues that can be pursued in a relationship, and most importantly can teach us that a ‘normal’ relationship can look different from what we may already know.
Needless to say, not having experienced good relationship dynamics affected my friendships, relationships, and my state of mind alike. I have mentioned in an earlier article how outdated conventions, passed down through generations, affected not only the type of clothes I would choose but also other parts of my life.
We dream and work hard at achieving our dreams but I felt at the time that I was working very hard to fulfil a dream that was not mine.
Over many years, I realised that, we make tiny adjustments to do whatever it is that is expected of us. We think that eventually we will get to do what we really want.
I kept thinking that by the time I started my professional journey, I would be in the prime of living my dream. In my case, that did not happen.
One day, at work, an incident occurred that tested the limits of my patience, my strength, and my already dwindling spirit. I decided that it was enough and that it had to stop. I wanted to sap all the negativity from my mind. I wanted the subjugation, the voices of the men that were haunting me and taking decisions for me, to stop. I took a look at myself in the mirror, the one person I knew who walked this path with me, the one for whom her parents had hopes and dreams, the one who was the apple of their eyes. Suddenly, I found myself looking at the 10-year-old me, and my heart was full of love for her. It is strange how often we forget that most of us started out alright! Then life happened.
I quit my job.
I took a pause in my career and decided to take care of myself. No one in my immediate vicinity gave any importance to mental health. The fact that I was taking a break to rejuvenate and prioritise my mental health and overall wellness was baffling to many in my extended family. They didn’t seem to understand, and for the very first time, I didn’t pay any attention to them.
The act of not giving others power over yourself is profoundly empowering. I figured I could have done it all along. I had not had the drive to do so earlier. I approached and worked with counsellors, practised mind-calming and physical exercises, said goodbye to junk food, and slowly but surely made a comeback.
How long did this take?
It took more than 36 months. It will take many more years to find a new normal, but I am simply happy with the fact that I took charge of my mental health, paused for a while, re-wired, and moved on. I am a work in progress. I am going to take it one day at a time.
Being comfortable in expression of the self and sexuality won’t happen in a day but writing about my experience of my own sexuality and my mental health seems like a good step forward. In all of this time, the transition from my former self to my present self was neither easy nor continuous. I gave up several times in between, lost track and explored many avenues to be my better self. I held on by the force of will power and support from my parents, and eventually and surprisingly, even my extended family.
What followed was that I had waves of cathartic experiences with my family, including my extended family. I understood that at the heart of the issue, their intentions were good, and they understood that their ways were incorrect, harmful, and unacceptable.
However, deeper conversations revealed a sad picture. It turns out that they believed, thus far, that their ways were progressive because in the time of their youth, they were dealt a more severe hand. Repressed sexualities, controlled lifestyles, and all. The women of earlier generations, like my great-grandmother, had to hide their face under a veil, and conceal their bodies from the male gaze. Perhaps they would have liked to try on a well-fitting garment, and leave their hair free and wild?
Not fair. Life was not fair to them. They did not know any better, and in their hearts, they were doing their best to prepare me for life within the patriarchal structure.
But here’s the thing about the past. The past is ‘his-story’ and ‘her-story’. Today is a beautiful ‘present’. Today it counts that we, as a family, are together overcoming and winning over this patriarchal structure through dialogue, counselling, understanding, and a lot of love and kindness.
A singular experience can be life-changing. It could be different things for different people; for one, winning the lottery could be life-changing; for another, experiencing a near-death situation could be life-changing. For me, bringing about a change in my life was not easy. Reaching out for help was the best thing I could do for myself. It is said that one is able to overcome many difficulties if one reaches out for help and partakes in positive and life-affirming experiences. There is certainly some truth to this.
Surrounding oneself with loving, caring, and kind people is the next best thing.
All of this has been, and is, an on-going process, and it adds up in the end because I believe that I’m doing it for the right reasons.