The following was submitted by an SMIW contributor who prefers to use the pseudonym Girl on the Street, to our campaign #HaveShortsWillSmoke.
Before I begin my story, let me say that it does not really begin today. It begins with the knowledge that, like many of you, I was often too frightened.
The fear of overcrowded streets filled with men who ogled at me, the fear of travelling late at night, and praying to a god I never believed in, when I did dare to venture out after dark. Mostly importantly, living in India as a young woman made me too fearful to dream, to be who I truly am.
While these fears largely left me exhausted and cynical, they also taught me what courage looked like – there was no victory dance, there were no congratulatory messages, there were no loud cheers. But there was, in the very heart of it, a powerful sense of struggle for justice that lessened the load I carried around with me. Every single day.
Every time I was complimented for my looks rather than my intellect, every time people tried to take my achievements away from me by trivializing them, every time I was judged by measurements that should shame the world, I felt small.
But the fleeting moments of this courage brought back my dignity, brought back my faith in myself.
So, without further ado, I begin my story.
I recently had to make a trip to the gynecologist. I had developed a cyst and wanted to make an informed decision on how to get the best possible treatment (girls, get yourselves regularly checked).
The treatment meted out to me by the doctor, however, was not the one I had expected.
Since I am terrified of hospitals and doctors, I like to drag along a trusted ally with me, usually my mother or sister, during such unavoidable outings. In this case, it happened to be my mother. I was, as I usually am at hospitals, at my hostile best. I refused to smile at anyone in the room (there were four assistants to the doctor, although it is anyone’s guess what their purpose there was), and I asked and answered questions curtly as the wily gynecologist explained to me the possible treatments for my condition.
Several times during our discussion, the doctor mentioned that the treatment for me would be so-and-so since I am an “unmarried woman”. I was so taken aback that I did not interject the first couple of times that she used the term and let it slide. Her patronizing voice overpowered me with fear and shame. However, it finally reached a point where I was baffled by her assumption that unmarried women cannot be sexually active and, in a blinding moment of rage, I interrupted her mid-sentence to ask, “Wait, what is the difference between a married and unmarried woman?”
It seemed rather plain to me that at least at this point, she would care to ask me whether I am sexually active – because this is standard medical procedure and basic in the field of reproductive health. It can make a significant difference to the patient concerned – in terms of the tests and treatment involved.
But clearly, the doctor felt differently. She smiled at me, her look an unmistakable mix of disdain and pity – not even caring to respond to the question – as if to say that I was stupid not to know the difference. She would have done better had she questioned her own prejudiced and judgmental mindset that goes entirely against medical ethics, but once again, this was not to be.
All eyes (including the many redundant assistants) were on me as I sat frozen on my seat. Meanwhile, my mother was sitting right next to me and as if almost on cue, she came to my rescue and, said out loud and clearly for all to hear, “It means being sexually active”.
At this point, I was all set to lie. I was ready to proceed with medical tests that may have been irrelevant to me and would have probably not addressed my medical condition. But the prejudice in that room, which included a medical doctor, surprised and enraged me. And it was the fearless support I received in my mother’s candour, that stirred me to speak the truth.
“I am sexually active.” I responded, without a second’s hesitation.
I looked straight ahead, directly into the doctor’s eyes and watched her shift uncomfortably in her seat, visibly taken aback and glancing at my mother to see her reaction to her immoral daughter’s confession.
I was still looking straight ahead, but I know that my mother, the fiery, incredible woman that she is, did not bat an eyelid. She sat by me, stronger than ever, strengthening me, and all of Indian society, in the same moment. The doctor checked herself and began gathering her scattered wits, before scornfully adding, “Well in that case, the tests you need to do are….”
My legs trembled for a moment under the doctor’s desk but I am glad nobody could see them. I calmed as my mother nonchalantly carried on the conversation, asking the doctor where and when we could get the tests done. As we left the room, I was afraid to make eye contact with my mother but I could tell she was making all efforts to make me feel comfortable, not missing a beat as she began chatting with me about Brexit. I don’t think I have ever been so grateful to anybody and I don’t think I will ever be able to measure the kindness my mother had poured into a difficult situation, for the well being of her child.
A small step for a mother, a giant leap for all womankind.
I may not have thought this consciously at that moment, but I feel fortunate that my sister and I have a mother who loves us and cares for our health so much that patriarchal ideas of morality and propriety might as well be damned! Perhaps it was her strength, her ability to sit in a room full of people and talk about her daughter’s sexual life without prejudice which pushed me into a bravado I did not expect from myself. Or perhaps, it was my sister ‘s voice in my head, who had told me time and time again – that there was nothing wrong with living my life the way I wanted – that undid all the shame and guilt which girls like me are made to feel when we do not conform to society’s unreasonable expectations.
I can only feel sorry at the society we have become, where in the 21st century, a medical professional can’t openly ask me the most basic of all questions that would determine the course of my treatment. I feel sorry for all the young women like me who are not allowed to be themselves, in all our odd shapes, sizes and lives, and must face the consequences of an unfair, unequal society, if we do not “fit in”.
I feel sorry, because I know that this doctor is not the exception, but the norm while my mother, is an exception in this society where so many others parents would not have allowed their children to freely be themselves.
What have we become? Where are we going?
Or may be there is hope, after all. At least some of us must be going someplace good because as I dropped my mother off at her office later that day, before leaving, I walked back into her room, interrupting a meeting, and gave her a tight hug whispering “thank you” in a way that only she could hear. I know she understood, because she held me close and tight for many moments.
My heart was bursting with love and strength and I knew it was time to leave the fear and shame behind. I put on some lipstick, got ready for a lovely night of drinks with my friends, knowing I would return only very late. I was on my way.
About the Author
Girl on the Street is a doctoral student at McGill University, Montreal – her research traces feminist narratives in modern India.