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KOLPITA BASU

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 3/10/2015 |





STEREOTYPES AND THE GUILT FACTOR

February 19 witnessed quite an uproar on social media. A meme showing a list of what constituted the quintessentially bad Indian girl was trending. Girls who ate more, girls who ate less, had big breasts, travelled to Goa alone, rode motor bikes, fell in love in parks, leched at boys, could not perfect in the art of roti-making, etc, etc.

Shocking! Outrageous! Yes. The list, created by a bunch of 22-year-old art students from Bangalore, was meant to be a satire on vernacular (read Hindi) visual literature. The satire somehow blurred the actual and the virtual, and this is what the students had desired - to arouse shock, anger and outrage, and laughter; to a great extent, and they succeeded in creating that effect.

But my problem was elsewhere. As much as I expressed my share of shock and outrage, and rolled on the floor with laughter, I was intrigued by the use of stereotypes and the conflicts. Where is the conflict between riding a motor bike and making a perfect roti. I may excel in one and fail in another, or excel in both, or be a complete failure in both. And why should there exist any guilt if I can't accomplish that?

Stereotypes are the biggest hindrances to liberation. The distinction between a good girl and a bad girl somewhere rolls back to our childhood when we were strictly told by our elders what we should do and what we should not. As much as values help us in shaping our lives, so do stereotypes. With stereotypes, come another aspect. And that is guilt.

Now I will go back to the quintessential bad girl list. Let's begin with the one that says you aren't a good girl if you don't know how to make a round roti. When we were children, we were often told by our elders that if we did not learn how to cook, we would be greeted with immense misery after marriage. That it was the duty of a good wife to cook and do household chores and tend to her husband, in-laws and children. No matter how good we were in our studies or sports, how well we painted, sang or danced, our greatness would fall apart if we failed to be the quintessentially good daughter-in-law, wife or mother. Even if daughters grew up to be professionals, the key to a good woman lay in tending to the house, rearing and raising children and being obedient.

This means that in spite of breaking stereotypes, women have to mould themselves in the archetypal mode to fit in, failing which could invite dissatisfaction, and often leading to a feeling of guilt  by the women for having failed to please the majority at large. I have seen women getting stressed out trying to be a perfect worker in office, a great wife, a doting mother and a dutiful daughter and daughter-in-law at home. Expectations from us are high, said SBI chairman (yes, that's what she calls herself) Arundhati Bhattacharya. We have to be an excellent homemaker and yet crack the male bastion at work, she said.

A former colleague of mine once told me that she constantly worried about her child when she was not at home and felt she was somewhere not being a good mother as she could not attend to her child all the time. This led to immense stress, causing depression, and one fine day she left her lucrative job to do what she felt she was not doing.

Let us move on to the list where a big-breasted woman is labelled as bad.

Some in our society distinguish a good woman from a bad one by dress codes. Wearing jeans provokes men to rape women, hence, there are so many rapes happening in cities, rants a self-styled moral guardian of a right wing cultural organisation. As this list above shows, such organisations and people consider a big-breasted woman bad for society. She is the essential provocateur, a symbol of lust, hence a threat. So when Nirbhaya got raped, there were many, including women, who questioned her morality, asked why she was out with a guy at 9 pm, many even going to the extent of justifying the rape of girl/woman who hang around with guys that late at night. In other words, arouse a sense of guilt.

Many women feel guilty of committing acts that are otherwise natural to human beings. If a woman travels alone in an express train and is harassed by her male co-passengers, her family and relatives put the blame on her shoulder for not being cautious. On top of the humiliation meted out to her, she ends up feeling guilty for inviting trouble.

This brings us to the other aspects of the list. Stuff like travelling alone, leching at boys, falling in love in parks and riding motor bikes break stereotypes. They challenge the popular notions of womanhood. And the list that threatens such popular perceptions is endless.

I will now draw an inference from an old Bengali movie Agnishwar. In the film, there is a scene where the protagonist Dr Agnishwar Mukherjee attends to an ailing and under-nourished mother of multiple children. She is advised by the doctor to replenish herself with nutritious food, but the poor woman feels guilty of eating those good foods alone and distributes the eggs chicken, fruits, milk, cheese and other nourishing food articles among her husband and children.

Being the mother, she cannot bear to eat those goodies alone while her children and husband remain deprived. She tells the doctor that since her husband comes home after a day of hard labour and can't afford sweetmeats for the children, she provides her husband with the milk and makes sweets with the cheese for her children, thus depriving herself of the nutrition when she most needs it. Somewhere in her sub-conscious, she has the social and religious hierarchy that keeps women in the low rung of society that forces them to eat the last remnants of the pot after providing the male members and the children with the cream. Agnishwar was about a story before independence, and a lot has changed since then. But as they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.This brings us to the list of eating too much or too little.

I have often seen mothers, including mine, keep the best portion of mutton or the chunkiest pieces of fish and the best or biggest sweets for the father and children. The smallest piece of fish would always be assigned for the mother though she cooked for the entire family. The mother always makes the sacrifice, or else she is ridden with guilt. And the above-mentioned meme reinforces that feeling. I have seen my well-provided former land lady divide one omelette into two and distribute that among her two pregnant daughters-in-law, when they probably required two eggs each a day. I have seen one of them secretly sneak into her bedroom and eat behind her mother-in-law to nourish herself, of which she was being deprived of.

It is ironic that while a lot of food goes wasted, there are some who stay malnourished. According to Unicef, malnourishment in kids is so common in India and sub-Saharan Africa that every one child out of three is malnourished. The Unicef cites around one-third of all adult women are underweight as inadequate care of women and girls, especially during pregnancy, results in low- birth weight babies. Nearly 30% of all newborns have a low birth weight, making them vulnerable to further malnutrition and disease, says the world body.

Hence, the meme while making fun of the perceived notions, subtly questions the visible inequalities prevalent in our society.

We, as a society, strive for perfection, create rules and stereotypes, often at the cost of our own happiness and well-being. We feel immensely guilty if we fail to do something that is expected of us. We try to constantly please others without thinking whether that's needed or not. We sacrifice a lot for others without a thought for us.

There is nothing called an ideal society or an ideal man or woman. Each of us is unique and each of us have the right to live the way we desire, without hurting others.

So, as we approach yet another year of International Women's Day, let the man, woman and child in us celebrate by being happy and living a guilt-free independent life. Let us do away with stereotypes and eat, dance, love, work, travel, celebrate our body like there's none other.


[KOLPITA BASU]


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