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skindeep's picture

‘I cannot believe that I’ve never thought of this before’

These words circulate in my head as I sit here trying to write this essay. Scanning my past I realize now that gender and sexuality were never discussed, let alone questioned, in my country. It was almost taken for granted – I was a girl. I would learn how to run a house. Marry a boy. And maybe branch out and get a simple, non-stress-related job. The only things I can say I know about gender related issues are those that I’ve observed growing up as a girl in India.

I grew up in a kaleidoscope, the image of my childhood changes every time you tilt your head at an angle. So, if you will, turn it around a few times, pick out an approach and look carefully at the pieces as they come together to form one of the many images in my picture book.

What you can see right now is me running around my friends house, shooting pellets at him as we pretended to be cops and soldiers for hours at an end while his sister arranged and re-arranged her dolls. I spent years playing soccer, teaching myself to roller skate, playing cricket and generally finding ways to bruise myself. I never did spend enough time bothering to clean or look after those wounds. They just took care of themselves.

My parents spoiled me as a child. I was the first baby in the house and so nothing was too much to ask for. They were protective, yes. But when you’re five years old, there’s only so much your parents need to protect you from. There was no pressure to be someone, or achieve something. One of the first conclusions I drew (that I would later revise and revise again) – gender doesn’t influence anything. It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a boy. You just need to be.

                Let’s turn the kaleidoscope again. This is me in fifth grade. I’m the one in shorts instead of a skirt. The loud one arguing with the teacher in class. The one rushing into class just as the last bell rang and finding ways despite that to make my teacher laugh. This was the real education I received in school – how to state my point of view and defend it, how to stand up for something I believed in. It didn’t matter that I was a girl, it didn’t make me any less of a person.

My parents were changing a little, but I was growing too, so it didn’t bother me much. Talks about reputation became frequent, and the importance of maintaining a high standard in the eyes of other people was being embedded into me. Was this so important because I was a girl? Yes.  A girls reputation is easily ruined and I was never to make that mistake.  This was my education outside of the classroom – there is a difference between being a girl and boy and even if you don’t think so, there’s no way to escape it in the eyes of society.

I attended an all girls school up until the tenth grade. To fully explain the impact this had on me I’m afraid I’m going to have to integrate different images from the kaleidoscope together, so bare with me as we jump around a little bit.  Seventh grade – I remember being accused of being a lesbian, and I remember being very offended, until something in my head stopped moving and said ‘why?’ What possible difference did it make if I was gay? It was just a choice in sexuality. Did it make me a different person? Not at all. So I continued being straight but with a better understanding of who I was and what I viewed other people as.

All through my school years, like I’ve mentioned before, we were asked to take a stand and be independent. I was always more of the tom boy in school and so ended up being the protective one, the wall. I faced things on my own and helped my friends face their problems. But you don’t always need to be the backbone. And that’s something I’m still coming to terms with. You don’t necessarily always need to deal with things on your own. You can be strong by being weak.  And that goes regardless of what gender you are.  Education outside of the classroom moulded by people inside the school.

My school, as evidently stated, was liberal and believed completely in the righths of women. The irony lay in the fact that attending that school with me were girls who came from homes in which they were suppressed. Girls who would be coerced into marriage, who had to live up to the expectations that Indian society had placed on the shoulders of the ‘good girl.’ The way they are treated at home clashed constantly with what they were allowed to believe in school. And I believe that their education gave them the space to define themselves. And I received my education watching them, living with them and struggling to understand concepts and ideas that they were forced into accepting. Accepting. Not believing.

Back to my parents – because well, what happens in your house impacts you more than most other things. As I grew older they seemed to crawl inside themselves. They weren’t as open as they used to be and there was no scope for conversation because all attempts to build one ended up in lecture. And my mind does not react well to lectures. Eigth grade - my father told me that he would have been more lenient with me had I been a boy. And he said it very matter-of-factly, like it was meant to be that way. And I remember how my mind seemed to explode at that moment. It couldn’t grasp the concept.

Lets tilt that kaleidoscope again. I now entered the eleventh grade – in a co-ed high school. And then I realised that gender is such a big deal only because it affects the way you look at yourself. I was a girl, I wouldn’t let my friends who were boys swear at me, even it was just as a joke. It was important for me to carry myself well, like my parents had taught me. As you can imagine, this lasted for about three weeks. I realised then that it didn’t matter. I would rather be comfortable than carry myself well. And my boy best friends push me around, but they respect me. And that’s all that really matters.

Now viewing my life in retrospect (with this new found outlook) I realised that my fathers hypocracy and over protectivness probably only bothered me so much because I was constantly viewing myself as a girl, and attached to that was a long list of stereotypes describing what and how a girl is supposed to be. I also realise that my friend is not constantly asserting herself because she’s a girl. She does it because the environment she grew up in caused her to believe that she could not be all that she is capable of. And so, she would be asserting herself anyway. Regardless of her gender. Yes, in all probability, her society would not have pushed her down had she been a boy, but if they had, she would have reacted in the same way.

So this is my kaleidoscope. It’s interwoven and so it might be a little hard to pick up individual pieces and view them objectively, but sometimes that’s the point. You need to live right in the center of things for a while so that you can zoom out later and look at things from a birds eye point pf view.

I’d say that my education in my first high school was empowering in the sense that I was always questioning things, searching for my own answers, doubting concepts and finding my beliefs. My second high school was a phase during which I’d say I was tested, and my beliefs questioned. But  there was no room to express that, to represent what you stood for. So lifting off from that, I’d like college to be a space on which I can question what I see, what I know and the general concept of belief. But at the same time I want the freedom to be.







interwoven spaces11.52 KB


Anne Dalke's picture

Turning the kaleidoscope

the very striking image you evoke here--that of a kaleidoscope--serves you well as a way to organize a cacophony of impressions; it serves you less well as a way to arrange the paper, which moves awkwardly via phrases such as
"back to my parents." How might you keep the richness of various experiences, yet organize the material sequentially, so that it seems less random?

I noticed in particular two dimensions highlighted in your kaleidoscope. First is the relationship between education that occurs inside, and that -- such as instruction into the difference between being a girl and boy-- which happens "outside of the classroom." "Education outside of the classroom," you say, is "moulded by people inside the school. " Can you tell me a little more about how you understand that dynamic? (See also Beta's paper, which speaks to the same interchange, and also confuses the directionality.)

The second most striking section of your paper, for me, was your claim that "gender is such a big deal only because it affects the way you look at yourself," that what mattered, in your education into systems of gender, was not how others saw you, not how well you "carried" yourself, but rather your "viewing yourself as a girl." The ways in which that sort of internalized perception operates--the way, for example, gendered bodies oppress themselves--is one of the key insights of the field of gender studies. If you want to learn more about it, you might begin by looking @ John Berger's Ways of Seeing.