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India Or US, The Definition Of ‘Inappropriate’ Girl Remains The Same

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Editor's note: This post is a part of #BHL, a campaign by BBC Media Action and Youth Ki Awaaz to redefine and own the label of what a 'bigda hua ladka or ladki' really is. If you believe in making your own choices and smashing this stereotype, share your story.

By Gayatri Mohan:

What exactly does being comfortable with your sexuality mean? From a young age, all children, especially girls, are taught about specific ‘values’, and how we all need to behave in a certain manner or else we’re being ‘inappropriate’.

However, I think the term ‘inappropriate’ simply means, “You should be ashamed of your body and should only think about concealing yourself.” And somehow our teachers, elders and others around us expect us to be automatically comfortable with our sexuality and with how we look, as they continue trying to control and impose their ideas upon us.

Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to impose their opinions on others.

At the school that I attend, the teachers always impose their views on us. Whenever a teacher sees a girl and a boy hold hands or standing ‘too close’ to each other, they automatically feel the need to threaten the students, telling them that they will call their parents and send them to the Principal’s office.

But what’s wrong with two people showing some PDA (Public Display of Affection)? Teachers feel that dating is ‘indecent’, and that it will always lead to trouble. However, the real reason teachers oppose dating so much is because they don’t want to be in an uncomfortable situation: they don’t want to be burdened with parents calling them to say that their child dating someone is unacceptable.

Due to this, teachers get scared that the parents will pull their kids out of the school which could cause a controversy and create a bad reputation for the school. Teachers also control their class by making students fear and/or ‘respect’ them. This means that we can never ask any questions, especially questions about topics like sexuality, our development, and relationships, because all this could lead to a bunch of students giggling and embarrassing the teacher in front of the class.

Maybe our teachers are embarrassed to speak about these topics in their own life, so the idea of addressing them with students is unfathomable. But that is not all. Teachers also shame students for what they wear. I have noticed that when a girl’s skirt is too short, teachers have no problem pointing it out and scolding us for it. But when a boy’s pants are too low, teachers simply ignore it. It may just be my imagination, but I feel that teachers blatantly show biased treatment in how they check uniforms, further reinforcing sexism.

Schools in the U.S. aren’t really that different either. People there may not be as open as us when it comes to criticising women or homosexuality, although discrimination still exists. A friend of mine recently informed me of an event that took place in my old school over there.

Apparently during break, when everyone was seated in the cafeteria, one of the new staff members made all the boys leave early in order to give the girls a speech. I don’t know why or how this particular piece of ‘advice’ was supposed to help them, but he told all the girls that even though it was very hot, they still shouldn’t wear clothes that are very short (my old school didn’t have uniforms) as it makes the teachers uncomfortable. Them wearing short clothes, apparently, also distracts the boys. But why should it distract anyone?

Shaming people for what they wear is not restricted to school and to teachers. It also takes place outside of it. When I was in the US, I regularly wore shorts and sleeveless clothes. However, when I was about to come back to India, my mom and I had an argument over what was acceptable and unacceptable to wear here.

My mom kept insisting that I should wear shirts and jeans whenever I go out, and that anything else would be frowned upon. After I arrived here, I found this to be somewhat false, but not totally untrue. Once, I wore a maroon, spaghetti-strapped dress to a party that an old friend of mine invited me to. When I got there, everyone started staring at me as if I’d grown two heads or something. I asked my friend whether I had something on my face or between my teeth and she said that I was just being paranoid, and that nobody was staring at me.

Later on, however, a few girls came up to me and started making some small talk. Then they asked me how I was comfortable wearing such a thing, and that these clothes were looked down upon in India. I told them that I didn’t really care about the societal standards everyone is expected to live up to, but what they said really did shake me. They basically implied that I could get harassed.

Going beyond clothes, people also have funny ideas about what women should be doing. There are quite a few people in my life who simply cannot let a girl relax and enjoy herself; they just have to tell her to go off and work. On many occasions, when I sit on the couch and mind my own business, somebody just has to come and say something. Once, a friend of my father who had come over said that the womenfolk should go to the kitchen and prepare snacks while the men engage themselves in chitchat. Who do they think they are? This is a (moderately) free country, I have my rights! And it is my right to sit wherever I want, and not be told off by some man who couldn’t be bothered enough to walk a few feet and get himself a snack.

They say that people’s outlook towards men and women have changed in the 21st century. But in my opinion, nothing has really changed; the only difference is that just a few who live among us are now more careful about pointing out how someone should act. Most people seem to assume that since we are kids, we don’t have our own thoughts and opinions when it comes to things like sexism. They feel like we should only concern ourselves with our studies, go off to college and live lives oblivious to all the injustices taking place. However, I think that they should know that we can see when something is hypocritical, biased, unjust and simply wrong. And we have the right to call people out on it.

And it is not just ‘older people’ who we need to call out on injustice. Many times, people my age also partake in it. For example, many students in my school tend to use words like gay, lesbian, etc. as insults. They think it’s funny to make fun of sexual orientations and that these words should be used to embarrass and insult people. I think it’s cruel of them to simply throw these words around whenever they want to. Who knows, maybe some of the people they say these things to or in front of, are indeed homosexual? Then the students are not only insulting homosexual people’s identities to make everyone else laugh, they are also quite probably pushing them towards a life of fear and shame. Even if the person being subjected to these insults is not homosexual, these words and phrases teach the general public that being gay is bad, and that gay people should be alienated and bullied.

This just shows that today’s teenagers might be a new generation, but we can be as discriminatory and sexist as the previous generation. So, it’s important for us to be more aware of our own actions and words.

This article was originally published here in the May 16, 2016 edition of In Plainspeak, an e-magazine on issues of sexual and reproductive health in the Global South.

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