I have a peculiar walk. I have a walk that makes people cringe and move out of my way, fearing bodily harm. I swing my arms, put the entire weight of my body into my toes like an awkward penguin, and stomp-walk into seminars, dates, weddings, and team meetings. Growing up, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard, “Don’t walk like an elephant rampaging through the house.”
Abashed, I would try to soften my footfalls, draw my arms in, and fold my body every time I had to walk in the presence of strangers. In senior school, friends said, “you walk like a man.” I was never sure whether that was meant as a back-handed compliment, because men, I thought, were never told to shrink themselves. And when breasts sprung post puberty, I stooped more to keep them concealed from the male gaze.
What I didn’t know growing up, is that this is a shared experience for millions of women in India. We don’t talk about our bodies enough. We don’t fully fill the spaces we occupy. We are told to blend into uniformity, our walks, laughter, words measured so that they don’t rupture the pervasive silence of our unexpressed desires.
A chapter in social scientist Deepa Narayan’s upcoming book Chup: Breaking the Silence About Being Indian’s Women, explores this particular duality of Indian society - denying women their bodies to push them into invisibility while at the same time objectifying them to feed masculine profligacy. Over the course of hundreds of interviews with women, Narayan outlines the forced withdrawal into our selves to make the spaces we occupy less conspicuous.
“When I was a little girl, we never spoke about bodies, our bodies. There were eight of us in our middleclass family who lived together, five children, my parents and my grandfather. I didn’t even get as far as seeing my mother’s legs. They were always covered. We were always covered. I never saw my own body,” she writes.
In our square-footage lives in middle-class homes, a separate bed is a luxury, leave alone a ‘room of our own’. Wearing churidar bottoms and salwars inside the bathroom without getting the edges wet is performative art, second only to taking off the bra under the bedsheet after everyone’s gone to bed. A cousin slept with a sheet covering her entire body even in the May heat because she was terrified her night clothes will ride up, exposing skin. I always found it astounding how middle-class morality, over the years, enabled lubricious scrutiny of even the simple act of sleeping.
When intimacy with our own bodies comes at the high premium of shared rooms and labels (“good girls keep themselves covered”), it’s evident that women have internalised centuries of patriarchal learnings about occupying physical spaces and passed them on from one generation to another. We hesitate to sit with our legs spread, we bathe with camisoles on, make love in the dark, do not know our own bodies intimately and almost never own full-length mirrors. Benevolent women on metro train coaches tug our truant bra straps in, partners signal across a crowded room to pull up a slipping dupatta, and the first menstruation often arrives amidst complete shock and misinformation.
What should be the most natural act in the world triggered an avalanche of comments criticising a woman’s right to partially expose a breast in public. Photo: Grihalakshmi
What better example to highlight this than the recent cover of an Indian magazine showing a woman model breastfeeding an infant? What should be the most natural act in the world triggered an avalanche of comments criticising a woman’s right to partially expose a breast in public. I’m not a fan of the image’s aesthetics – I’m wary of any hyper-aggressive attempt to glorify motherhood through traditional symbols of marriage, such as the red bindi and sindoor – but having said that, the outrage surrounding the cover sends a clear message – society has a bigger claim to a woman’s body than her own infant.
This blatant denial of a woman’s body, force-association of its expression with morality is at the core of her subjugation. Imagine the degree of alienation from our own bodies that being told to “grin and bear” menstrual pain for years, or being denied pain medication during labour, or the subconscious association of marital bliss with heteronormative relationships, and disgust at bodily hair seem perfectly normal. That is how deep the perversion runs - to be so removed from our own emotional and physical needs that we are willing to label it as sacrifice and patience.
There will come a day when women will spread out and comfortably fill all the spaces they occupy and refuse to participate in the exotication of their bodies. Revolution cannot be prescriptive. It will take more than Women’s Day and merchandising of women’s rights to bring about that revolution.
I have great hope from young women leading the march on feminist movements in India, be it their right to loiter, organising against hooliganism during religious festivals, reservation, healthcare, equal pay, or their right to be heard. For the longest time we were told that acknowledging our body and using it for self-expression would be seen as boldness, a trait in “unlikeable women”.
We’ve been so conditioned to see likeability as a social currency that its real purpose as a tool of exclusion has obfuscated our minds. It took me years to walk without a care in the world, like no one was watching. I know we have miles uphill before we reverse centuries of damage. The revolution will not come till we gain control of our bodies and then of our surroundings.
I leave you with the words of the wise Maya Angelou: “...Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise That I dance like I’ve got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs?”