I WAS one of six people selected to speak on Women’s Day and share an anecdote of my experience of breaking the bias. I was given three minutes to tell my tale. But I struggled to find a way of fitting an entire lifetime of defying stereotypes into three minutes. Yes, a lifetime, i.e. I have battled to #breakthebias for 36 years of my life and I can’t say that I have won yet.

However, I was not sure about writing this piece. Underneath my revolt against customary gender discrimination, there was guilt that may be I will be betraying my family. But then, this happened…

Our house help, Alka, brings along her little 8-year-old girl, Nancy, to work. Nancy loves Noni (our youngest dog) and me, she says. And above all she loves talking. Her curious mind observes things and she constantly asks questions. What I put down as inquisitive chatter, was just useless banter to her mother. Alka often gets irritated with her daughter’s queries and will tell her to shut up or else she will get one tight slap.

The other day, at my silent disapproval of her admonishing Nancy, Alka looked at me and said: “Yeh bohat bolti hai, hai na? (She talks too much, doesn’t she?).” I told her it was okay with me, that I didn’t mind it at all, she has an inquisitive mind and I absolutely love that about her. That I would any day prefer Nancy’s questions than dealing with the nonsense that adults throw around. At that, Alka smiled and said: “Vo toh thik hai Didi, lekin ladkiyon ko itna nahi bolna chahiye (Understood, Didi, but girls shouldn’t talk so much).” Irritated at what I heard, I asked her – but why? What’s wrong with that?

And then it came. Once again. Yet again.

Alka said: “Arre sasuraal mein nahi chalta hai na yeh sab. Vahaan itna thode na bol sakti hai! (But all this won’t work at her in-laws’ place [once married]. She can’t talk so much there).”

I froze at her words. The only thing I could feel was my blood boiling and tears welling up in my eyes. Little Nancy was not Nancy anymore. She was a mirror and what I saw was myself standing there. It was as if these words echoed from my past and had made their way into my present – the kind of words that made me want to #breakthebias.

Words can hurt

I was not raised by my parents as their daughter. I was raised as the “daughter-in-law” that I was going to be to someone one day. And with all good intentions, my parents tried their best to make me the most acceptable version of that (which meant changing the very fabric of my existence, of my being). Every small or big decision of my life was taken by keeping that north star – the institution of marriage – in mind.

How I look, how I speak, how I dress, how I think, how I eat, how much I eat, my habits, my waistline, my thoughts, my opinions, my relationships – everything had to be aligned to that one goal. Just like my father was obsessed over the idea of aligning my teeth. He would tell me, “Smile with your mouth shut, don’t laugh.” He also took me to a dentist to have my teeth ‘fixed’ and only gave up the idea when the doctor said, “What is there to be fixed? I don’t see a problem.” How would the doctor know what a serious threat an unwomanly smile could be to my future?

The struggle to #breakthebias is long and hard, and it begins at home

My father was particularly watchful of my body weight and a growing waistline. He started trying to take care of it early on. I must have been eight or nine years old when he would take me for 3 km walks every morning at 5 am. He would keep me physically active, make me skip 100 times, and cycle. And though as a child I resisted it, even hated it, I now feel I have benefited immensely out of it.

I never questioned his concern for my health. But there was an underlying current of pressure, of shame. There is this one particular instance that haunts me, hurts me still. It was our usual dinner time. We were all sitting on the floor, cross-legged. And as I took my first mouthful, my eyes fell upon my father. He was looking at me with disdain and disgust. With a lot of difficulty, I swallowed that mouthful of food, but it has taken me 30 years to swallow the shame, feel comfortable in my own body and #breakthebias.

As I grew older, the boundaries of my playground slowly and gradually started shrinking. There were restrictions on who I met, who I spoke to, and who I spent time with. Men friends were the first to get struck off the list. Close bonding with guys was absolutely discouraged as it could create problems in my married life because it would make my husband insecure, and would certainly not reflect well on my character. It also raised the possibility of me liking and wanting to be with someone outside our community and caste and the shame that would bring to my entire family.

I was encouraged to learn to ride a bicycle, motorbike, scooter, even a car. I know how to ride them all. But inexplicably, my father would be worried about letting me go alone anywhere, even to a dairy shop nearby. What I also don’t understand is society’s unease of letting girls work, stand on their feet after they have finished their studies. What else would these degrees be used for? Of course, what I don’t get is that they are just another embellishment to decorate a daughter’s biodata to find the best prospective groom.

I was made to learn all the household and kitchen chores. My mother would constantly compare me to other girls we knew who helped their mothers and hence were good daughters. If I resisted or did a bad job or mishandled something I was told “Sasural mein olhane laayegi (Your in-laws will blame us [for not teaching you to do household work properly].”

So when Alka said what she did about her daughter Nancy, it felt like life had come a full circle.

#Breakthebias

And though I have pulled myself out of the circle to #breakthebias, dared to listen to my heart and make my own choices, choices I had to fight very hard for, choices that people now call a privilege, choices that should have been my basic right – I wonder and worry who will tell Nancy that she too can #breakthebias.

The essence of #breakthebias is to live life according to one's terms

Tell her that though society says this is all you can do, you can always go beyond. That there are rules that should and must be broken because they shouldn’t have existed in the first place. That you have the right to choose for yourself. That you must not ask for it – no one can give it or take it away from you. That even if no one agrees – out of 100 even if 99 of them stand on one side and you alone on the other – you must go on, you must decide for yourself and live life on your own terms. You should #breakthebias

I so wish someone told my father that his daughter didn’t need a fix. That she was absolutely fine just the way she is. That her destiny, her purpose and the meaning of her life is not bound to one thing – marriage. That it is for her to choose what she wants to make of her life.

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