Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Gender Myth

This Piece appeared in The Hindu dated 24th Feb:

"Ma’m, Lavanya only plays with the boys in the bus, never with the girls,” complained the visibly distressed attendant. "What is the problem with that?" I asked her.

Lavanya, by the way, is my six-year-old, who, according to her bus attendant, is not only unruly, but also prefers the company of boys over that of girls.

My first reaction was that of anger and disbelief. Not because she was thought of as unruly — I know she is far too independent and free-willed to be tamed, and have made peace with it. What struck me however was the lady's objection to her talking to, and playing with, boys. 

As a young girl my first -- and only -- best friend was a boy. Protective, sensitive and intelligent, he was neither political, nor bossy (like the girls) and I enjoyed being with him. All was well until we entered our teens and things suddenly changed: it was no longer ok to hang out together, talk long hours or meet alone. I wondered what had changed and when I questioned him about it, he would say, “You don’t know how the world is.” We started to talk less and less, and eventually drifted apart. 

Many years later when we reconnected, he was more bothered about my husband than me: would he be comfortable with our reunion? Most of our conversations revolved around this concern. Needless to say, we soon went our separate ways.

As a society, we are adept at segregating, take pleasure in it. For instance, we insist on separating the rich from the poor, the blacks from the whites, Hindus from Muslims, men from women. We find it hard to allow them to mingle, communicate and form their own opinions and perceptions. So girls stay away from boys, and women from men, unless of course they are related by the way of work, or family, or friends. Anything other than that is questioned and discouraged. 

It gets even more complicated if spouses or partners are involved: explanations are sought, clarifications need to be provided, and friendship is often sacrificed at the altar of marriage. 

If it is acceptable for two women -- or two men -- to be close friends, spend time alone, talk at odd hours, even live together, why is it that a man and a woman doing the same are subjected to labelling and judgment? Because they belong to different sexes, must their relationship be sexual or romantic? 

I recently noticed a lady in my society publicly admonishing her teenaged daughter for hanging out with a boy, and not with other girls. The girl seemed apologetic and the mother livid. I see the same happening to younger children too. Although not so blatant, gender dynamics takes place even in the play ground--boys usually play with other boys, and girls with other girls. And it is not deliberate. They have been divided for as long as they have known -- in school, at home, outside (blue for boys, pink for girls; cars for boys, dolls for girls; cricket for boys, badminton for girls etc). 

Luckily there are people who refuse to conform to the stereotypes-- parents who understand that confining their children hampers their development, banning their teenagers leads to rebellion, women who know that their man talking to another woman does not imply his having an affair with her, and men who realise that just because a man cares for his woman, it doesn't mean he is romantically -- or sexually -- attracted to her. And so there continues to be hope.

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