Let me tell you a story about internal demons.
The Rishikesh-Delhi bus stopped for a roadside break, with burgers and ice-cream instead of the makeshift food shack I expected to see. Bad for my slightly hurt feelings of nostalgia, good for the belief that things are able to change at all.
I walked around and felt like reactivating my body, came across a stable-looking wall and railing (okay. It was stable: I had tested it, which I now do compulsively whenever I see a railing). In a similar situation in Europe, I would have climbed and balanced, or at least stretched in a corner, feeling awkward but deliberate in overcoming the conformity.
Here, I suddenly felt like an ambassador of all that is “Western”, my blond hair shining in the dark, unlike everyone else’s. The predominant voices in my head went along the lines: “Who does she think she is? Coming to this country, permanently invaded by ones of her kin, and then behaving in this way?”. Below the foreigner-directed appropriateness head-police, however, also ran a current of gendered apprehension. In this example, it would also have been a strange thing for a man to climb around stuff, but the reasons that came to mind were ones that were particularly hostile to women – following their impulses, being physical, and looking a bit reckless perhaps (I say “look”, because I am a very non-reckless, reck-full, person, so to speak, even when I do things that look scary).
Here in India, it’s easier to see how outside expectations (or my inside views of what I think the outside is expecting) are restraining me. The expectations are slightly different, and I’m neither adapting nor rebelling effortlessly. Everything I do is a conscious choice, weighing up between being foreign here, wanting to not be disrespectful, and rebelling against conforming to a standard that just feels plain wrong. It’s hard not to impose my idea of morality impulsively on people who’ve led different lives to mine. I try to remind myself that moral views are in large part formed by our circumstances, but then, suffering is the same wherever you are.
And then, also in India, people of different genders agree that something is going wrong, that we’re nowhere near reaching gender equality, and that something has to happen. Be it women, men, hijras, or others.
The unnerving thing about this is that this whole gendered circus is part of my internal life now. Just like when you know exactly what your parents would say in a given situation. I think of it a bit like Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed“, in which you let other actors play out the voices in your head; externalising them to be able to free yourself.
I’d love to get rid of the patriarchy-robot in my brain constantly informing me what a “good girl” should do.
Especially when that includes things that are fine for equally “good boys” to do, like staying out late, or having sex with people you’re not married to, or, *gasp*, don’t even know. It’s just the different nature of these demands that make them stand out so starkly over here. I notice them when I’m being assumed as someone who wants to sleep with everyone, because, hey, I’m white and all, or getting disapproving looks and comments from receptionists for returning late, or endless comments on my looks (again, a receptionist: “You look more beautiful now”, after I’d had a shower and changed into nicer clothes, and that famous time three years ago in Mumbai, when a complete stranger informed me that I’d be sexier if I’d lose five or ten kilos)…. and everything. Like when he gets a bachelor’s party and she is not allowed to leave the house the week before the marriage. Maybe. It’s harder to judge what other people are supposed to do and what they actually do. There are specific and restrictive rules for both women and men here, which are flaunted by both sides along lines I have no understanding of.
Anyway, I notice the “Indian” voices because they are still unfamiliar. But the same stands back home, more subtly.
Sometimes, I think that it’s fine, you know, being women and men, having culturally constructed genders – “as long as they don’t oppress anyone”. But in moments like this one, it’s hard to see how they could exist without oppression. In any case, they don’t, not now. In moments like this, I feel like tearing it all down, all that is “masculine” and “feminine”, and while we’re at it, could we also get rid of that caste-thing and racial oppression? (Are humans made to oppress each other, I wonder?)
Question to you: what do your internal voices say?
PS: There’s lots of things in this post I’m not at all sure of – my own views on what a given cultural phenomenon means, or even is, change regularly, and it’s obviously even harder with the piecemeal outside informations I have about cultures other than the one I’ve grown up in. I decided to publish it anyway for the introspection into my own behaviour, for whatever that’s worth. That’s why it’s even more important to hear what you have to say – would love to read your comments below.