7 Common Habits that Prove Women are Trained to Delete Themselves
Silence is a betrayal of goodness and decency. End it now.
Meera, 25, sits across from me, leaning forward, in a meeting room at Harvard University, USA. She looks striking, in a black kurta, silver jewellery, a tribal shawl and with kajol lining her dark eyes. But she shares her life hesitantly, pausing to breathe, trying, as she says, “not to cry”.
“I remember that deep sense of choking. In my family, as a child, I learnt to observe too much, silent, listening. My mother is a good listener; not my father—he is very dogmatic, always strong opinions. My father is a liberal in his thoughts, ‘You are free to choose anything, it is your life’ but ‘being a doctor is desirable’. He is a doctor. There is a big disparity between how he thinks and how he lives. I wanted to study psychology, but it was forbidden. I went to medical school … it was my father’s dream … It’s very embarrassing … I ran away from medical college after three weeks. I was 17. I left all my things in the hostel. I felt … I had no other way … I was dying. I took a bus and then a train for two days and nights and landed in Chennai to go to college to study psychology—I got admission … but I had no place to stay. It was already evening, I had very little money, I saw these women at the bus stop, it was at Marina Beach. I started talking with them; baaton baaton mein, by and by, I told them I was hungry. They gave me a beedi to smoke. I had no place to stay. I did not want them to know I was vulnerable, so I said I am on this research project and want to live with you to understand your ways. The women agreed on the condition that I would look after their children when they went out at night for dhandha, sex work. They would pay me. I lived with them.’
Meera is a Delhi girl. She grew up in Saket, New Delhi, with her dadi, chacha, bua and parents in a middle-class family that prospered with the opening up of the Indian economy.
But Meera also lived in a slum community with sex workers under a broken bridge for over a month before her many relatives arrived with the police. I ask her if she felt safe with the sex workers in the slum. She says, ‘Most safe. The most secure I have ever felt. In my family we lived together but there was a rule of silence. Nothing was ever said. It was so hypocritical; we never were a family, just individuals living together. I grew up thinking unless my father sanctions my existence, I am not alive. I was always waiting for validation. If he said you are fine, I would be fine.’
Her existence was his reflection.
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India is in the middle of an independence movement. For women. As the country marches forward with high economic growth rates, millions of women in the cities have come out of their homes. They go to colleges, universities, IITs and IIMs. They can be seen on the streets, in buses, metros, offices, malls, movie halls, coffee shops, pubs and in Parliament. They drive scooters, cars, airplanes and fighter jets. They are employed in large numbers. They are government officials, entrepreneurs, scientists and wrestlers. We thought that when women became educated, they would be valued, free and unafraid. They are not. We thought they would speak up. They don’t. We thought that when women earn their own money, violence against them would stop. It has not. We thought that when laws change, and women have rights to property and maintenance after a divorce, they would become independent and safe. Women are still not safe.
While it is deeply satisfying to focus on the outer independence movement of women—we can count the changes—this approach is also deeply flawed. It is misleading and, worse, it is diversionary. Just because women are visible, it does not mean that they are not invisible at the same time. This focus on visible external change assumes that the cultural ideology that kept women invisible, and even denied women life itself, has evaporated. This assumption is wrong.
We are all cultural creatures. We are born naked. Our cultures sculpt us into becoming Indian or Sri Lankan or English or American. Living with our families in particular homes and in particular neighbourhoods, we absorb through osmosis our values, behaviours and characteristic ways of being and thinking. We inhale the dos and we exhale the don’ts. We absorb these cultural values early, unknowingly. They seep into our body, our mind, our morality and our spirit. They are our foundation. Our belonging. Our core. Our culture. Our compass.
And this invisible cultural compass leads to camouflage, contradictions, condemnation and even death. We worship goddesses, but we murder unborn girls by the hundreds of thousands. Our cultural compass is inside us and we take it everywhere we go, even when we leave India. The moral compass that guides us, usually without our awareness, can be distilled into our response to one core cultural question: What does it mean to you to be a good woman or a good man? The strength of this seemingly simple question is that it pushes people into going beyond ‘enlightened’, politically correct answers.
I asked this question for three years. After meeting students at the elite St Stephen’s College, I asked this question of 600 women and men, young and old, mostly in Delhi but also in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad. Again and again I was surprised by what I heard. I started asking women and men to write down their answers so it could not possibly be an issue of hearing wrong or misinterpretation. I thought maybe the next generation had changed. I spoke to younger and younger children. In many ways they were little echoes of their elders. I met young women and men from Greater Kailash, Moti Bagh, Khan Market, Aurangzeb Road, Rohini, Punjabi Bagh, Noida, Gurgaon and Ram Das Colony—the home of those accused of Nirbhaya’s brutal gang rape in December 2012 in New Delhi. I could hardly see any links between what women said and their education, their wealth or where they lived.
In early February 2013, while New Delhi was in turmoil awaiting justice for Nirbhaya, two Supreme Court justices also in New Delhi ruled that killing a boy is worse than killing a girl. It was a small news item in the Times of India. Justices P. Sathasivam and J. S. Khehar, in a ruling that justified the death penalty for a man in the killing of a seven-year-old boy, wrote, ‘The parents of the deceased had four children—three daughters and one son. Kidnapping the only male child was to induce maximum fear in the mind of his parents. Agony for parents for the loss of their male child, who would have carried further the family lineage, and is expected to see them through their old age, is unfathomable …’ Higher valuation of boys, or one could say devaluation of girls, has been decreed by the Supreme Court of India.
This deeper cultural story touches all of us without our conscious knowledge, from Supreme Court judges to the local policeman to the male or female CEO, to each father and mother and son and daughter. The same culture that leads to violence against women also leads to fewer women in technology and leadership positions. It leads to talented young women being locked up at home for their own safety. It leads to educated women saying they are afraid to speak up. It leads to the seemingly harmless behaviour of women waiting for men to speak first while they listen. It leads to women feeling a bolt of raw fear when they see a group of men walking towards them.
A life lived in fear is an abbreviated life. It is a feeble life. Meera’s story is in some ways extreme so we can see the fear patterning clearly. But fear and the search for physical and psychological safety—where women feel free to express themselves without fear of being laughed at, humiliated, demeaned, followed, threatened, punished, cut off, stalked, trolled or raped—shape the lives of many women.
Fear traumatizes. Fear truncates. Fear drains life. Women’s fears keep society stable. It serves society but it costs women.
Even in Kerala, the state with the highest literacy rate in India, large numbers of women experience both physical and sexual violence. Clearly, education and income are important in their own right, but are not enough to change the cultural arithmetic that reduces women from a plus to a minus, to less than zero. This is not just an Indian problem; it is a universal problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in three women in the world experiences violence in her life, usually from an intimate male partner. Sexual violence and harassment are also widespread problems in the rich countries of the West including the USA, the UK and Sweden as evidenced in the #MeToo movement.
Based on the thousands of hours of listening to girls, boys, women and men, I offer one unifying idea that helps make sense of the hundreds of definitions of a good girl or a good woman and a good boy or a good man—our cultural and moral compass.
Our culture trains women not to exist.
Being a woman is itself taboo. Not allowed. Invisibility is just one manifestation of this cultural training. One way of ensuring that women do not exist is to kill them. A safer and less crude way is to train women to disappear. This helps explain the hundreds of ordinary, everyday behaviours, proverbs and admonishments that are part of a cultural morass that sucks us all in to perpetuate a culture of non-existence for women. The idea that women should simply not exist explains the deep and persistent inequality between women and men despite laws, education and wealth across many cultures. I focus on India, but the behavioural research seems to indicate that the same forces are at work in the US.
The culture of non-existence is kept in place generation after generation because nobody talks about it. It is a nameless cultural secret. It is so unpalatable that it is disguised and buried in the cultural morass; otherwise women would surely object. Instead what we see is hundreds of cultural practices that we learn so naturally growing up, that hundreds of young women say, ‘Ma’am, this is normal’. Why is it normal for young girls not to tell anyone that they have been sexually molested or for a girl not to be kick-ass strong or for a woman not to share her opinions in front of men?
The culture of non-existence gets locked into clusters of behaviours that women and men absorb through training. In isolation, these behaviours seem harmless, inoffensive, sweet and even morally virtuous. But in combination they destroy, they kill softly. These clusters of behaviours observed and repeated become the habits that define a good woman and a good man. I deliberately use the word habits, because habits are learnt and can be changed. The focus on habits also makes the big idea of culture manageable. But these habits acquire great power because they become entangled with our notions of goodness. They become moral habits. Parents everywhere teach their girls and boys good habits, to make them good women and good men. Habits make our behaviour run on autopilot. Habits beat rationality. They become shortcuts to decision-making.
Drawing on the details of the lives of women and men I interviewed, each over several hours, I found that girls are trained in seven cultural habits of non-existence. These are—deny the body; be quiet; please others; deny your sexuality; isolate yourself; have no individual identity; and be dependent. It is deep training in these habits that makes so many women feminists in belief but not in behaviour. Feminists with bad habits.
These habits are not personal. But each woman thinks she is alone, she is the only one, and so she hides. When ten women are apologetic, it may be personal. But when hundreds and thousands of women are constantly afraid and apologetic, it is no longer personal—it is systemic. It has to do with the lack of power of a group that is not supposed to exist. When women can’t speak up, blame themselves, despair and collapse and repeat the behaviour the next time, it serves cultural expectations. An unequal culture survives on collapsed women. It is political strategy. This collective problem cannot be solved through the escapes of individual women. It takes collective action, working together to change unequal cultural, economic and political systems.
In writing about these habits, I describe patterns of behaviour and tendencies. I do not constantly qualify, but please know that I do not mean ‘every woman in New Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai or Ahmedabad’ or ‘all Indian women’ or ‘all men’ all the time. It is cumbersome to constantly qualify. Readers will have to decide what patterns apply to them or women in their circles. Sometimes the patterns emerge more strongly at home and at other times in offices and sometimes most unexpectedly and occasionally not at all.
Many of the behaviours I write about have been portrayed in essays, in poems, in novels and most recently in films ranging from Secret Superstar to Lipstick under My Burkha. There are also inspiring books on divas and other women leaders who have won many awards. [But] I take apart women’s everyday behaviours that do not always make women look good. My reason is simple. Unless we understand the grip these behaviours have on us, we cannot change despite our intellectual beliefs. And our world will not change.
Is silence a virtue or is silence betrayal? I was taught that silence is a virtue. Silence is polite. Silence is good. Silence is spiritual. But there comes a time in one’s life and in the life of a society when silence becomes betrayal. A betrayal of goodness. A betrayal of decency. It is time to end this silent betrayal now.
Dr Deepa Narayan is a global expert on poverty, gender and development. India Today and Foreign Policy magazines have named her in their list of influential global thinkers. She has authored and co-authored 17 books. This passage is excerpted from CHUP: Breaking the Silence About Indian Women published by Juggernaut