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Let’s Talk Gender in the Hills-Confronting Casual Sexism in our Everyday Lives

By Dipti Tamang

This morning, like any other morning, I went about my usual routine of completing my household chores and then going out to buy groceries and milk. I usually go straight to the milkman’s shop- purchase milk and local vegetables and come back home. Today, I had to buy some potting mix for my plants- Covid-19 induced lockdown anxiety compelled me to experiment with plants- and it has been a joyful experience. I stand two feet apart from this shopkeeper- a known figure since my childhood days-if I were to give him a familial stature- perhaps I would call him dajyu ( elderly brother) simply out of respect and goodwill, who enters into a lengthy conversation while all I want to do is take what I need and leave.

This goodwill and decency is something that comes to us naturally in the Hills, even in the face of our worst adversities. We develop and forge relationships – quite comfortably and easily with people we know and do not know at all-assuming that it’s safe and the most obvious thing to do. After all, we have barely learned to look for the wrong on the inside- have we? We’ve grown up in a culture where we’ve been trained to believe- the enemy is always on the outside. Anything that can go wrong is always on the outside. We’ve not been taught to question anything on the inside. And If we do- the consequences may not be pretty at all. We have internalized and accepted violence- in any form-as the norm.

It’s a fairly common practice in our hill society to get into lengthy conversations – guff is essential to our existence. The idea that someone may be an introvert or a private person is an alien concept – often at the cost of being branded as being ‘ghamandi’, ‘ bhainkar’, ‘furkey’ etc. tinted with sexism if you are a woman- ‘pricey’, ‘playing it hard to get’ and more. Having lived for over four years now in this small hill town of Darjeeling – and in my home village of Mungpoo- a small plantation for the past one year due to pandemic, I have been forced to become more ‘social’ to fit in. I wait for him to finish his story- out of sheer goodness and this attempt at being social and nice. I have no obligation to do so and yet small town etiquettes demand we do so- even at the cost of being uncomfortable and unwilling to do so. From the time

I have joined my workplace- Darjeeling Government College- as an Assistant Professor-

now in my mid 30’s –(35 to be precise) my experiences as a woman in the Hills has been nothing but exhausting. I want to be precise about my age because it has always mattered for people choosing to give me ‘free’, ‘concerned’ advice about my biological clock ticking’ and an unmarried middle-aged woman being an anomaly. It is after all okay for people to disrespect boundaries and comment willfully on people’s private spaces –but it is not okay to stop them- that would be disrespectful. We are after all one big family, are we not? The workplace is a family, the community is a family –and therefore run as fiefdoms. Inevitably, it then falls upon women to perform their roles constantly as the dutiful, obedient, good woman’ to keep the family running and intact.

It is therefore not a big deal at all when this shopkeeper (known figure with whom I speak solely on the basis of this socio-cultural practice of being nice) chooses to casually drop sexist comments about my ‘figure’, and dwell deeper into my personal space, commenting on my body, my work, my life- all during the short duration of me buying essentials from his shop. As I silently stood there – trying to be respectful- because obviously (why would I want to create a scene?) And is this not what we always teach our daughters- to stay quiet and avoid confrontations for as long as we can? Women are after all meant to be inherently strong- are we not? As I stand getting edgy and uncomfortable with this intrusion I just want to take what I need and leave.

Out of habit (as a girl I was never made to be comfortable with my own body) and the chill in the air- I wrap my sweater tighter around me simply waiting for this conversation to be over so I can leave. I was unprepared for what followed next- this man comments that I should leave my sweater open- with a fixed gaze on my cleavage and a lewd smile on his lips. I am appalled- I freeze and I am shaken trying to grasp the reality of what just conspired in that fraction of a second. As he naturally went back to ending his tale, as if nothing had happened, I Took the money from him, cutting him short in his conversation and headed back home. As I walked back home, I repeatedly played this encounter in my head- over and over again knowing that I was not okay. I felt violated, I felt disgusted and I was angry with myself- I blame myself (again the most natural instinct that we as women resort to- self-doubt). As I narrated this incident to my mother – I thought of a hundred things I could have told him – simply to not feel the way I felt afterwards. I felt weak and vulnerable all over again, reminded of what it felt like growing up as a girl- filled with self-doubt, unconfident and blame. I was angry because I am a woman now – independent, strong, opinionated and yet I grapple with these situations often left flabbergast and forced to keep quiet.

I narrated this incident to my partner who was silent for a bit and then explained how- how men think and behave here in our Hills. I often tell him- men behave like this everywhere – only in the Hills we pretend that our men do not behave this way. He explained that if women choose silence or smile and behave demurely, it is taken to be a ‘sign’- a gesture for men to assume that women are okay with these sexual advances from men. I am further appalled- on the one hand, the society teaches us to be quiet- to not create drama- and on the other hand- the same society ensures that by staying silent we concede to being violated. It was only once I was calmed down and grasped fully the reality of this morning’s events I could understand how we- as women succumb to these situations. It comes naturally to us –despite years of working on undoing these perfect performances of our gendered realities, it is hard. I identify myself as a feminist- conscious of my rights and choices- and yet when confronted with casual sexism- I reacted naturally to find myself speechless and disgusted with myself. If only I Had grown up learning to say ‘No’ and to not accept being violated as my natural right- maybe I wouldn’t need so much undoing.

It is always the woman’s fault- is what we are made to believe. I have often found myself in a similar situation, multiple times- in the workplace or outside- where men have casually dropped such sexist comments or jokes they call them. I have often found myself to be speechless and reprimanded myself later for not responding immediately. When I finally calm down to confront these situations, I have then experienced gaslighting. I Remember this incident where I was told by a friend that my body language is ‘inviting’ – over a simple gesture of me running my hands over my hair while talking. I have consciously or unconsciously forced myself to ‘adjust where actually adjusting was not needed. I have questioned myself for being opinionated, for expressing doubts, for speaking from pure reason, being treated as being too serious – for being a feminist and speaking out loud for the need to have safe spaces for women.

People often tell me I lack humour- that when someone comments on your body or passes sexist comments and cracks misogynist jokes, I have to find it funny is something that never fails to amuse me. This is another reason why you won’t fit in this society, is what I am often told. Again it is disrespectful if I fight back or disagree because these are just well-wishers being concerned for me. I falter at times- burdened and weighed down by these comments and observations- regaining balance and finding the strength to maintain my sanity and find ways to fight back- choosing to fight some battles while letting goof some. I have burdened myself enough with the duty of being the good woman – of being respectful to the extent that it costs my sanity at times. I falter as I did this morning- but I also pick myself up, piece it all together and move ahead promising myself that next time will be different. As I continued to probe over this morning’s incident- I Couldn't help but be overwhelmed by these past encounters- repeated over and over–performed so diligently and casually that it no longer causes discomfort to most of us. We’ve tuned ourselves to accept this as a natural’ way of life – often either not acknowledging it or laughing it off (humour is what we use best in our society) forcing us never to confront the disturbing aspects of these realities. In rendering these forms of casual sexism as irrelevant we allow it to thrive and grow- placing the burden on women to constantly ‘behave’ and be ‘tamed to fit into these norms. This- to the extent that we tolerate not just epistemic but systemic violence against women-in the forms of domestic abuse, violent relationships,emotional abuse, rapes and sexual violence. The strong influence of popular culture- romantic movies that glorify such forms of sexism contributes further in strengthening these ideas of violence as a form of love. Women Tolerating extremely abusive relationships to discomforts and dangerous extents are nothing but a direct outcome of such normalization of violence as an inevitable part of marriages and relationships.

Slut-shaming, beating and abusing women is a norm that is internalized in our society entrenching the essentialist ideas of the ‘good’ and the bad' women. Women are trained and perfected from a very early age to aspire to fit into the former category of the ‘good’ woman- the naari, stri over the ‘bad’ woman-the aimei. Trapped between these narratives, it is the woman who is constantly being scrutinized, morally policed, and controlled through such diktats in the forms of norms. Our Ideas of an ‘abused, helpless’ women are tainted by our perceptions of patriarchy- what we see and believe exists on the ‘Outside’. We are falsely made to believe- women in our societies are free and equal- and to that I ask- are we really?

As a 35-year-old working woman with a clear idea of what I want from life, a successful career and with an ambition to do more- I confront the diktats of patriarchy every day. For the choices I have made- for being unmarried, for having an opinion, for what I wear and most importantly for having a rational, thinking brain. I am a misfit – anomaly and a dangerous one- for I choose to question and that is unacceptable, that is disrespectful.I am often told I should fulfill all my dreams before I get married because a woman’s life is practically over after marriage- it is my duty- as a woman to take a pause in my career, prioritize my domestic life and live a blissfully married, successful and complete life. Every year on the8th of March, we celebrate womanhood- celebrate the image of a successful mother, for her sacrifices- if you area home-maker, for being a superhero if you are the salaried, suave, ‘modern’ woman- for exhausting yourself at work and at home and wearing it as a badge of honor. Complaining about it is a luxury not many women can afford- the aspiration is to be valorized, respected and celebrated for being the perfect woman- the one who can balance it all, after all are women not supposed to have it all- work, children, a successful marriage? All the time- I am simply complaining about women’s labor being extracted to uphold these capitalist, romanticized ideas of marriage and womanhood. Is it not time that we (de)glamourize these romanticized ideas of womanhood and motherhood and be kind to ourselves? As women, is it not time we accept the mental, emotional and physical consequences of this labor accompanying motherhood asa reality that has been blindsided for far too long.

In idealizing marriage as sacrosanct, divorce is taboo in our society. Single women, divorced women are incomplete for after all it is only by finding a man that woman is complete- so much for being so ‘modern’. And is it not seen as a woman’s job to right what is wrong- to take up the responsibility of ‘fixing’ a fully grown man into their fold after marriage and use their feminine powers to miraculously transform a man into the best version of himself? A divorced woman, therefore, is a failed woman and has no place or respect as the ‘adarsh naari’ in our Hill society. No matter what the cost- the years of emotional, physical and mental abuse to sacrifice and bear being in a failing relationship- the choice to walkaway is unimaginable. I have grown up surrounded and suffocated watching women being forced to choose between leaving and staying- paying the cost for both and damaging them permanently for life.

I am grateful that I had an opportunity to remove the tainted glasses to see these gendered realities that continue to define our existence-from girlhood to womanhood in our society. My idea of justice and equality is one which takes into account gendered, caste, religious, ethnic and other inequalities that define our socio-cultural realities in the Hills. I see more women resisting, being uncomfortable and no longer being simply okay with tolerating societal norms and control – my idea of equality may still differ- I identity myself a feminist and I would love to see feminist spaces thrive and grow in the hills- but I enjoy and celebrate these small victories. I continue to falter in places, I continue to find myself speechless when confronted with sexism and rampant misogyny, but I also continue to keep fighting back.

I started the day being shaken, finding myself in a space of confusion, anger, dismay and disgust over my encounter with casual Pahadi sexism. I narrated it to my mother- who reacted by becoming equally angry breaking free of her old habits of telling me to let it go (as she would do when I was a child)- clearly my long conversations with her on gender, feminism is working. Ispoke with my partner- a heterosexual man- a product of this patriarchal society – who began by explaining the rampant sexism as the natural order of our society, pledging his support to stand by my side in whatever way I chose to fight. I find an ally here. I spoke with my newest baini/bhai/friends/collaborators – despite not knowing each other personally- we have in the past few months managed to cultivate a safe space –thriving as a small academic support group. We shared our experiences as women- all of us forced to choose different ways to acknowledge and deal with these sexist experiences. So Much for being such an ‘advanced’ and ‘modern’ society in the Hills- we are yet to acknowledge the basic, preliminary conditions of women’s realities, convinced by our false assumptions of being a safe, free and equal society. And after ranting for a while and being unnerved-I decided to write about it- for that is what I believe I do best and where I have the power to make a difference. I Chose to write so that we begin these conversations and create safe spaces to have these conversations- to begin with.

I see these as small victories for today- to make peace with myself- I have allies, I am not alone and that these conversations matter. The question is – when will we be ready to take it up as a whole?

Pratishtha Chettri’s photo series ‘Deconstructing Women In the Domestic Space’, which accompanies this article, brings to the fore our discomfort with the idea of a free spirited, opinionated women. Her work forces us to revisit spaces often imagined as free from gendered biases and stereotypes to 'see' the same through these biases. It Forces us to revisit these spaces pushing us to imagine what a un-gendered space would like. A household may practice egalitarianism when it comes to chores yet there can be many all-pervasive factors that affect the domestic experiences of a woman. One of them being, the “modesty of a woman", which relentlessly shadows them into their domestic sphere. The presence of male members of the family, or even male helpers, afflicts their freedom of fully exploiting domesticity -tangibly or intangibly-resulting in a very one dimensional and restricted experience. Policing of women’s clothing has always been patriarchy’s prerogative, invariably permeating our households.

Often rebuked for how I carried myself around the house and constantly reprimanded for what I wore even within the confines of my house due to the ubiquitous presence of men, I never had a sense of space that belonged to me where I could be away from the strictures of gender roles and nurture myself. Through a series of self-portraits, I Have tried to explore what it means to be a woman in an unrestricted domestic realm (that I share with my husband). It’s an attempt at reinterpreting a version of domestic, which is freeing and detached from any claustrophobic male gaze.

As I transcend from a gendered to an ungendered arena, I find that the absence of over-sexualisation of women is an integral part in liberating oneself and stepping outside of tightly structured gendered expectations, where there is no “right” way or an appropriate manner in which I choose to lounge in the comforts of my house. This freedom has helped me reclaim a space of my own in the domestic that empowers me, where I can battle depression without being called a lethargic; free photograph anomalies in the house and not be looked upon as an oddball or a disgrace to womanhood.

Pratishtha Chettri is an independent documentary filmmaker and photographer. She undertook a Master’s course in Middle Eastern & African Studies at the University of Tel Aviv,Israel and holds a P.G. Diploma in Communications for Development (UNICEF) from Xavier’s Institute of Communications, Mumbai, India. She uses photography and documentary as a medium to create visual evidence in the field of developmental communications. She has previously worked with the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development as a short filmmaker and has assisted various NGOs in Policy Research & Advocacy. She sincerely hopes that her photographs bring to the fore issues that need human empathy the most and contribute to the world’s dialogues on development. ‘Deconstructing Women in the Domestic Space’ was first exhibited at Through Her Lens: Reframing the Domestic. A visual research programme in collaboration with Zubaan Publishers Pvt Ltd and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which aims to expand women’s photographic practices in the eight Northeast Indian states and Darjeeling Hills.


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