By Tara Vidisha Ghose:
When I was still in school, I remember telling my mother, “I don’t understand why women cry so much about inequality. We can vote now and they reserve seats for us in the Parliament. We are equal.”
Sure, back then, it seemed that way to me – because it seemed perfectly normal that every boy in the boys’ football team in school was a hero, while the girls’ team spent years and years fighting just to be allowed to take part in inter-school competitions. There was nothing strange about how one of my friends (who had had lots of boyfriends) was systematically alienated from our group and was slut-shamed by everyone, including the boys who had been involved with her. I barely thought twice before starving myself for days on end to bring my waist size down to 23 inches, because to me, more than being a good student, being beautiful was what gave me value.
It wasn’t until my college hosted an academic conference on gender that I realised how gender affected even the smallest issues in my everyday life. I sat there, getting increasingly emotional as I heard about how women across the country were subjected to abuse everyday – from facing violence from their families and communities, to having to risk sexual harassment and rape just to use public bathrooms in certain areas. They were putting their lives at risk just so that they could do things that I took for granted, like getting an education or even just leaving their homes. I realised how sheltered and privileged I had been to even consider the possibility that women and men were equal. Over my remaining college years, I engaged more strongly with subjects related to gender, and had more conversations with my classmates and friend-circle about all of it.
I found that at the end of three years, I had earned much more than a Bachelor’s degree. I had developed my political outlook, and thrived as a result of living in an atmosphere where my gender did not limit me. I was provided with opportunities and spaces to discuss these issues freely and without discrimination. I was able to break out of toxic thought patterns, like my tendency to judge women because of the clothes they wore or their dating habits. The environment in college lulled me into believing that everyone is working for the benefit of women and other genders everywhere, and that ultimately, the world was a good space for women – at least, for women like me.
Then, in the most unlikely of places, the bubble burst. After my graduation, I spent one year in a women’s college in Japan as an exchange student. At first, it was amazing – I could walk down secluded roads in the middle of the night in shorts without fear, feeling like I had real joshi-ryoku – a Japanese word meaning ‘girl power’…
Until I learned that this word referred to one’s proficiency at being feminine.
Throughout my time there, I had this nagging feeling of discomfort – every day, I would find myself in the middle of at least one conversation about body weight and physical beauty. I found that a lot of the young women around me felt a lot of pressure to be beautiful and to find boyfriends quickly. Keynote speakers at college events have encouraged young women students to do the same! On another occasion, one of my friends told me that she loves to donate blood because it meant that her body weight automatically went down by 200 grams!
Being in Japan showed me how complicated patriarchy is and how it functions in different contexts. I used to think Japanese anime was great for prominently featuring female characters who are strong leaders and fighters. Then, I realised that in most cases, they’re always there to protect and defend male characters, or reflect pedophilic fantasies centred around beautiful teenage girls!
My time in Japan proved to be a reality check. It completely undid the idea I held that developed countries necessarily had greater gender equality, and it showed me how complicated and culture-specific patriarchy can be. Things I had initially interpreted to be signs of the high status of women in Japanese society turned out to be symptomatic of a different form of patriarchy. Along with this, gender became visible to me in every conversation I had, ranging from discussions about plans for the future to what we wanted to eat for lunch. Yet, I had friends who told me that they never bothered much with issues of gender because they felt that it never applied to them. They didn’t feel that the everyday pressures they felt (to control their weight) were problematic.
In the end, going to Japan taught me not to get too comfortable in the bubble I tend to find myself in – where I’m surrounded by people who not only support, but also advocate for gender equality. I found that I had taken it for granted that all women my age were aware of these issues, regardless of the contexts they came from. I completely underestimated how differently patriarchy could work in different contexts and how complicated it could be to overcome gendered barriers.
Discovering this bubble in itself proved to be an important part of my journey in understanding how gender works. It taught me to be less complacent when I found myself getting comfortable spaces that did not limit me on account of being a woman. Don’t get me wrong – I still feel very positive when I hear stories or go through experiences where it feels like the situation of women has indeed improved. But, I have learned to take a step back and remember that my experiences are shaped by my context, and that there is a large world outside my bubble where women are fighting battles that are very different from my own.
The author is an Associate Coordinator (Communications) at The YP Foundation, New Delhi. She graduated from Delhi University in 2016.