In Kool Kanya’s theme for November ﹘ Challenging Gender Roles ﹘ we unpack the stereotypes and biases that govern women in the workplace.
I am referred to as the ‘activist-type’ at home.
In fact, when I told my father that I was writing this article, his first reaction was to call me just that. Well, for those of you reading this piece, know that it is not written to question my parents’ values in any way. It is to recollect certain gender stereotypes I wish I wasn’t raised with.
As much as I love them, I was expected to abide by rules that confused me as a child and suffocated me as an adult.
The 13-year-old me wished for these stereotypes to be nipped in the bud, but couldn’t do much about it. But here’s me now, recollecting some limitations that came to me by the virtue of being a girl, and wishing my parents had busted them while raising me, if they’d known better.
My old folks always wanted a baby girl. I’ve heard stories about how my father had already decided my name during my mother’s pregnancy. He came to the nursing home with a strawberry cake, a giant pink teddy bear, and a pink oilcloth for me, as soon as I was out of the womb.
My mum was thrilled too. Not only because she had me, but also because she finally had the chance to ‘play with a human doll and dress her up’. If she had her way, she would happily do it today as well. But my parents have given up on my un-ladylike wardrobe.
Before I dive right in and lay out the gender stereotypes that were a part of my growing up, here’s something I realised along the way:
My parents learned whatever they could about parenting from their parents. Sometimes, they allowed society to call the shots. Other times, they grasped and relayed what the media portrayed.
They shaved my head and gave me a ‘boy cut’ when I turned one, but also prohibited me from having anything but long hair after that.
They enrolled my brother in the sports club, but put me in Rabindra sangeet classes because every Bengali daughter is supposed to know how to sing.
In their defence, they did everything they could to give me the life other parents were giving their daughters in the 1990s.
Cut to today, when my parents have transformed themselves into liberal individuals and are more accepting of my lifestyle choices. Maybe that is what makes me feel comfortable about writing this throwback of an article and highlighting the stereotypes I wish my parents could demolish while raising me.
Read on and tell me if you relate to them!
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- Why Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’ makes me want to wear lipstick to work again
- Men are from Mars, women from Venus? These workplace stereotypes need to go
- Letters to Kool Kanya: How do I deal with a sexist coworker tactfully?
Barbies and kitchen sets are an apt gift for girls
No. They aren’t apt for every girl. In fact, playing with dolls as a kid made me want to have a body like them when I was in my teens. My body image issues grew exponentially when I entered junior college. I once told my mother that I didn’t want to go to college because most girls had Barbie figures and I didn’t.
I remember winning the 3rd prize for a costume contest in school. The medal did not fascinate me as much as the gift did. I received a remote-control racer car set, and most of my evenings post that event were spent navigating it in my society compound.
Maybe I hated dolls because you couldn’t do anything with them apart from braiding their hair. At least this toy kept me busy.
I enjoyed playing with my kitchen set though, but the 26-year-old me believes that if this were given as a gift to young boys as well, maybe they would participate in the kitchen as adults without feeling like they’re doing a huge favour to the women in the house.
Girls like pink, boys like blue
Or maybe my parents suffered from ‘Pink and Blue syndrome’. This simply means that from the moment a child is born, hospitals and parents start assigning a colour to the baby according to their sex.
When you visit the newborn nursery of a hospital, you would see baby girls wrapped in pink, and baby boys wrapped in blue cloth. Parents do the same at home. They spruce up their child’s room on the basis of their perceived gender. You will see pink wallpaper, furniture, stationery, and clothes in a girl’s room. Meanwhile, a boy’s room will have more ‘masculine’ and stereotyped decor like bike and car posters on the walls.
There is a rather interesting reasoning behind this sexist differentiation. In the 19th century, when pastel colors started becoming popular for babies, blue and pink were chosen because of how they complimented hair and eye colours.
Blue was meant to go with blue eyes and blonde hair, and pink was for brown eyes and/or brown hair. Then, blue was assigned to girls, because it was seen as a dainty colour. And pink was seen as a stronger colour, so it was assigned to boys.
So, how did we reach the ‘pink is for girls and blue is for boys’ stage?
It is found that girls were reassigned pink because it was close to red, which is a colour associated with romance. And women are considered to be more emotional.
I’ve never been fond of the colour pink. And my room is a testimony to that. Black and blue dominate my wardrobe, and the colours of the rainbow make up my room. So naturally, my mother has a problem with that.
“Why don’t you wear feminine colours and designs sometimes?” is one of her favourite dialogues. She used to love shopping for me. Getting pink satin frocks with frills, buying matching jewellery, pink footwear, and pink hairbands.
And now that she has no choice but to accept the blacks and blues, she resorts to harmless taunts.
Perhaps, had this conditioning been quashed by her when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have to bear the endless comments on my style or personality. I wouldn’t be labelled less feminine.
Talking about periods in public is a sin
And so was entering temples for me (high-five if you’ve been told that too). Aunt Flo visited me when I was 10. I remember my parents telling me that a sanitary napkin is like a ‘bandaid for adults’.
There were rules: Sit like a lady, dress up like a lady, walk like a lady, and talk like a lady. I was a 10-year-old adult, or so I was made to believe by my buas and maasis.
As a child, I was told not to mention the word ‘periods’ or ‘pads’ in public. So during my P.E classes in school, I would tell my male teacher this: “I have a girl’s problem today, so I cannot play”.
However, things changed as I grew up. Today, I no longer feel guilty about entering a place of worship while I am bleeding. I also tell my male friends to get me a pack of pads if I cannot step out.
Just last week, my father got me a whole carton of pads from a chemist nearby, and he wasn’t ashamed to buy it. And there’s nothing that I am happier about.
Be home by 9 PM without fail
Every daughter has had to listen to this, irrespective of her age. I remember heading to a shady bar in South Mumbai with my college friends during my first year. That was my first official outing with a bunch of cool people, and I wanted to stay out until the party ended.
On reaching home at 3 a.m, I was told that I had crossed my limits as a woman.
I retaliated with two very simple questions: Why are these limitations set on women? What are these stereotypes? And who decides them? But the activism dialogue made an appearance again, which led to an ugly fight.
While I do understand how concerned parents can be ﹘ thanks to how unsafe it really is for women ﹘ my issue with them was different. They wouldn’t question my brother for staying out till the wee hours of the morning. I wish they were concerned about him too.
Being questioned for returning home late as a teenager made me feel claustrophobic. Every time the clock struck 12, I would start feeling guilty for not being home. And I wish it didn’t have to be like that.
Today, my parents feel safe when I head out with my partner because they know that there is a ‘male-figure with me. But if I were to paint the town red with my girlfriends or alone, I’d have 50 missed calls.
On a positive note…
Gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our society, and expecting our parents to catch up with our generation as swiftly as we type our messages is like shooting an arrow in the dark.
So when I turned 19, I sat them down and started having healthy discussions about the small steps we can take to make things easy.
We cannot go back in time and erase the norms I grew up with, but to watch my parents put in effort to understand how a woman’s role in the society has changed ﹘ and become more accepting of it, ﹘ is a treat to the eyes.
Still, my father often tells me that he has ‘allowed’ me to embark on solo trips across the country. And I always correct him by saying, “Allow nahi, bolo ki support kiya hai’. And the banter continues…
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