It starts when you’re young. When you’re really, really young.
It starts when you’re just a toddler and are asked to wear a dupatta over your salwar kameez. You don’t even have breasts, but how does that matter? Guys have wild imaginations. Have some shame.
It starts when your cousins don’t allow you to be a soldier during playtime, because who wears a frock during a war? You’d just look idiotic holding a gun, standing there with your billowing pink skirt and lacy bloomers. Just use that cardboard box as a stove and make them some dinner.
It starts when your brother receives a remote-controlled car for his birthday, and you get a kitchen set. To be fair, you played with all his toys, but they were never given to you, were they? No, because they were never meant for you.
It starts with Raksha Bandhan. You need to be nice to your brother so that he protects you from goons when they tease you. Don’t you want his protection? Let’s all just overlook the fact that he’s seven and you’re fifteen. Shh, don’t be sharp. Your brother is your lifelong bodyguard. Now smile and give him your chocolates.
It starts when even as a tiny kid, you’re told that your saas (mother-in-law) will not accept you if you don’t learn how to cook. It’s all in jest, of course, but you grow up with a nagging thought: if you don’t know how to cook, you’ll fail at being a woman.
It starts when you have guests over, and all the little girls serve water, lay the table, and smile sweetly. The boys? Oh, they’re outside playing cricket and yelling at each other like hooligans. Just a bunch of boys being boys, you know? Hehehe. Why don’t you wear those pretty bangles your uncle got for you and show us?
It starts when you’re barely ten, looking for a second-hand school book in a busy market, and a man grabs your butt. You laugh and tell your sister about it because it seems funny to you. Because it’s so absurd in your head. You don’t know what that even meant. But you both keep quiet about it. Because maybe it was your fault. Who asked you to wear jeans and expose your butt like that?
It starts when you’re not allowed to wear shorts when you go outside. You’re not even allowed to wear shorts when you sleep. Because don’t you know the house help’s eyes are gliding over your legs? Don’t you have any shame? Why are you attracting his attention (even though you’re completely oblivious and unconscious in that state?)
It starts when you’re barely 12, and a bunch of boys pass lewd comments at you, and all you get to hear is “Isi ne kuch kiya hoga.” (She must’ve done something.)
And so it continues.
When a salesman runs his hands over your back when you’re trying out a sweater, and you storm out, livid. Why were you not careful? If you giggle and make small talk with him, obviously he’ll get the wrong signal, no? Just be quiet. No need to be nice to strangers. What kind of a girl does that?
When your driving teacher grabs your breasts shamelessly and has the audacity to flash his tobacco-stained smile at you. You rage, cry silently, and then you quit. But nothing is done about it. Because “Baat ko aage badha ke kya faayda?” (There’s no point in talking about this any further.)
When you’re followed by a bunch of guys on your scooter, but you’re told to not do anything about it. Ignore. God knows what they might do if you retaliate. You know about these acid attack survivors, right? Oh, and always wear full sleeves. And tie a handkerchief over your mouth. Don’t grab their attention with your face.
When your entire family wants you to get married, not because you want to, not because you feel ready – mentally and emotionally – but because “this is the right age for girls. Boys ka kya hai? Wo to late shaadi kar sakte hain.”
When you’re questioned (after being in three long-term, committed relationships), “We don’t trust you. Tu kisi ek pe tikti hi nahin hain. What if you run away from this one too?” Do you have any idea what the boys in the family are up to? No? Thought so. Because it’s irrelevant, right?
When you’re told “Thank god you’re not like those new year party type girls. Why do they drink and celebrate every year when they know what happens?”
To be honest, I could have been one of them. Heck, I am one of them. And I live every single day of my life looking down at my body like it’s a curse. To see whether any part of exposed skin may incite some dirty look, some snide remark. I look down at the road and walk. Because I don’t want to witness anyone gawking at me, chewing their paan, scratching their crotch, undressing me in their head. My fists are always clenched, senses on high alert, music volume turned down so I can be prepared in case of an unfortunate event.
Sometimes I feel like wearing a skirt, or a nice summer dress. But it’s not worth it. Who knows? Maybe that means I’m an adventurous little wild cat, who is just asking to be groped? Why take that risk?
So, parents, dadas dadis, kakas kakis, mausas mausis, and all other random relatives and well-wishers, there’s something I want to say to all of you. I’m not questioning your intentions. You obviously know it’s a big, bad world outside and you’re only trying to protect us. You mean well. You’re looking out for us.
But these are the little things that have made us so timid, so scared, so afraid of the world we live in. By asking us to ignore every situation and every insinuation, you’re allowing them to thrive, become bolder, more evil than they already are.
It’s years and years of conditioning that has turned us into angry, frustrated, hapless women that are desperate to be heard, respected and treated equally. In fact, it only seems like a distant dream. Something we pine for, but something we have all accepted we may never actually witness.
We’ve been asked to stay quiet, look down, cover up, obey, bear, tolerate, adjust, listen, and never, never answer back all our lives. It’s because of this that we feel inherently weaker than men. It’s because of this that we are always targeted and accused. Please, don’t let us grow that way. Don’t take away our shine. Don’t ask us to hide, to bow down, to suffer silently.
Teach us how to fight back. Teach us not to feel limited, helpless, or inferior in any way. Tell us that this world and its pleasures are limitless and we should run, unfettered and free, to experience it all. Tell us we deserve every bit of freedom that boys have and that we should get it and enjoy it without any shame or reservations.
Let us be. Set us free. And maybe, someday, slowly, bit by bit, we can create a world where we don’t have to feel stifled. Where we can begin to love ourselves for who we are, where we never have to cry and shout to the skies, questioning why we ever had to be born a girl.