A version of this piece, with additional reporting, was published by Scroll.in here, on October 20, 2017.
Struggling to grow up a feminist. [Update: A version of this piece, with additional reporting, was published by Scroll,…
I was 13, the only child in a family that had just moved to Delhi. As a lonely child, I used to spend my leisure at the balcony that looked down at the busy road. On the other side of that road, lived two young men in a rented flat, with their own balcony. Their eyes taught me my first lesson in what being a man might mean.
Day after day, I traced what their eyes were looking at, down at the road: it was so regular that I couldn’t help but be curious.
Two pairs of eyes would set themselves at something far away on their left on the road, and those eyes would not take themselves off it till it had disappeared on the other side. The two heads would move left to right, right to left, but not randomly. The heads had eyes that moved, stuck with something.
It wasn’t difficult to realize that the objects they scanned were girls and women walking on the road. But, it sure took some time and pubescent curiosity, to learn which part of their bodies the eyes focused most at, from a balcony 50 feet high.
Two pairs of eyes became three. That first discovery of how a man should interact with unknown women was a Eureka moment for my impressionable curious mind. I might be half their age, but I was as much man as them, is what I wanted to tell them, even though the activity itself felt idiotic. I taught myself to find the pleasure not in looking at the walking bodies, but in projecting myself as a male who, at 13, was learning how to do “male things”. Faraway breasts did not do much to my excitement, but trying to focus on them (and having those two men on the other side of the road see me do it) became my way to feel accepted.
I did not know their names, nor did I ever hear their voices. But they looked at me often and smiled. Just like their eyes had talked me into learning a new lesson, their eyes also told me, they were proud to be my teachers. I would smile back.
I abandoned the habit when the two men left the flat in a few months. I stopped because it felt stupid – only later in life could I see it was abuse too. In retrospect, I learned that most inappropriate sexual activity originates not in pleasure (which we attempt to derive from the female), but in the urge to feel validated as a member of the male species (which we actually derive from the male). It could be touching, staring, beating, abuse or even rape.
In search of social validation, it is indeed tough to grow up a feminist. That dilemma meant I laughed at sexist jokes and cracked several myself at high school, yet was appalled at sexist expletives and have never used them publicly, because it was, and still is, an unimaginable choice of words. But for a few years as a teenager, I would use such expletives to myself when I was angry or frustrated and alone. Was I seeking any validation, even in my privacy? Yes, probably my own. With time, I grew resistant to peer pressure, but growing up a feminist is, still, tough and testing.
My personal revolution came when I started writing popular content online, which helped me see the world differently and responsibly very early in life. I even wrote on gender and sexual respect, and ran campaigns through my work. Around the same time, I met a female best friend, and this helped me see the other gender fairly and respectfully, without the lenses of pubescent learnings. These revolutions do come into most of our lives, but why do we need new relationships and experiences to learn basic human behaviour about sex and gender? Would most men be predators if not explicitly exposed to positive lessons?
Teachings were not done yet. As a trainee civil engineer at construction sites, I was told that the labourers wouldn’t work if I as the engineer didn’t subject them to the choicest abuses for their mothers and sisters. My driving teacher taught me words I could use to scare away the rogue car on the road.
What was useful to boost ego as a teenager seeking validation, had now become a “life skill”. I refused to use it as a life skill, and have never looked back.
But my personal revolution doesn’t mean difficulties and my own personal hypocrisies have ended. They cannot ever completely, given the world we live in and the irreversible learnings we men have accumulated. The best we can do is to be aware of them and reflect on them.
To all men, younger or older, and a mental note to myself: the journey of growing up a feminist is terribly difficult in the social dynamics we live in. But even if our efforts to stay on the road of feminism and sexual respect fails, let’s at least attempt to stay put on the sidewalk – so that we do not lose sight of what it means to be either the subject or the object of touching, staring, groping, molesting, or belittling the most sacred relationships through seemingly harmless expletives. Also, let’s make an effort to trace our darkest lessons in our pasts, and see why we took those lessons.
Pornography, “weak” Nos and assumed Yesses, fights and abuses from the aggressive opponents, new colourful vocabulary, and lucrative peer groups will continue to tempt us. But we all are on this journey together as a human race, and our choices matter.