Sunday 19 May 2019

On what it takes to puncture a manel and overcome internalised conditioning in a patriarchy

As a journalist, a writer, a poet or as someone invested in gender issues, if I am invited to speak publicly, there is often a pattern to the sequence of events that unfold. There are aspects of internalised conditioning that I have to work against to publicly be as full and true a version of myself as I want to be.

If I am the only woman on what would otherwise have been a manel, I wonder if I have been invited for the sake of tokenism. A grassroots activist organisation called me for their programme once on short notice saying they are all men and that they need “some woman” on stage. At times like these, I sit down with myself to believe that maybe it is some effort, however small, made by the organisers to be diverse. I have to remind myself that what I am going to share comes from the work I have done, however limited, and from my lived experiences. And that since sharing this has resonated with people in the past and encouraged others to speak up, it is important that I continue to do so regardless of the organiser’s agenda in inviting me. In fact recently I came across an excellent tweet where the woman is aghast at being invited as a gender diversity showpiece. Then she remembers how men have been getting so many invites for ever simply by virtue of being men. This calms her, and me, down.

On these public occasions, I remind myself of my school days when I spoke too fast because I was, as so many women are, afraid of taking too much time or space. This was despite encouragement by teachers who had read my articles in the local paper and had thus asked me to speak in the morning assembly. But in writing I could quietly put my thoughts out there and withdraw; in speaking I had to convince myself and a full school playground that my words were worthy of their time. My friends in the audience used to gently tell me that I seemed hurried, and that they would have liked to hear more from me. When I recall this today while being on stage, I slow down and learn to use the time allotted to me, even as I marvel at how most men around me leisurely exceed the time limit. I remember an exceptional case, a poetry event when I used up all my time while the men finished sharing their works in a shorter duration. I look at these instances, or occasions of taking a couple of additional minutes, with a mixture of guilt and embarrassment at having got “carried away”, and exhilaration at having finally claimed my time and space.

Once I am off the stage and if people I do not know come to compliment me on my words, I am reminded of all the times my confidence was labelled as arrogance. I try extra hard to prove to them that I do not think too much of myself. I labour to appear as polite and humble as I feel. From the point of qualifying or rejecting others’ compliments to realising that it is disrespectful both to them and to myself, I have now reached the stage of biting my tongue and saying a tight thank you, and then worrying about whether I would have struck the other person as being too cold.

When it is a man praising me I listen with bated breath hoping he won't ask for my number (unless for a clear, work related purpose). If he doesn’t, I am relieved. If he does, I give it because I do not want to be rude. Later I am angry with myself for buying into the notion that my concern about not being harassed (arising from experience) is less important than a man’s feelings.

The next time it happens I say no, and offer my email instead. The man notes down my digital address and gives me his phone so I can punch in my number, as if he never heard my no. Ironically, my talk at the event where I was the only woman on the panel was on listening to women’s stories rather than imposing our stories on them. The man’s dogged pursuit of my number while ignoring my own consent makes me feel like once again someone is trying to force me to link my Aaadhar number with every shred of my identity. As I wonder if I would have to get a Supreme Court order to make his volatile effervescence subside, my friend approaches me and subtly fixes my sari palla slipping off my shoulders. I am suddenly aware of all the people, all the men around. I am now too tired to think and don’t want to get into an argument so I end up feeding my number. I return home frustrated with myself again for having caved in, for not having stood up tall enough, long enough for myself while I had aimed to do that for other women in my speech. I get some semblance of a closure only when he calls me up later and asks to meet and “just chat about stuff”, and I respond with a terse no and hang up and block his number.

I am a feminist, I am 33, I am called to speak on issues concerning women, I am perceived as bold and outspoken by many. Yet I struggle to occupy space, to take time, to say no without explaining or apologising, to make people believe in my humility. The most taxing part of my feminism is not fighting others but resisting my own conditioning. Through poems I write, plays I act in, reporting I do and books (like The Courage to be Disliked) I read, I am constantly schooling myself that I can be who I want to be, that I do not have to be who I am supposed to be according to gender roles.

So, while meninists would like to believe that our claws are pointed at them, the truth is we are more engrossed in a nail biting battle to peel away our own conditioning. For the longest time, this truth used to piss me off. Eventually, as promised, it has started setting me free because this phenomenon reiterates that patriarchy is not a monster coming at us whose head needs some slaying. It is a claustrophobia inducing tent that covers all of us, getting hotter with global warming, one that needs to be deflated from within. And if I ever get on pins and needles facing it again, I want to prick it right in the gut and say, “Yes, I have a number and no, I won’t give it to you,” and walk away and without stressing about whether my gait would be seen as haughty.

First published in Firstpost, 9 May 2019.

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