My friend Meghana pointed me to the Mindy Kaling superbowl ad on a woman of color being invisible, and asked “do you feel invisible?”
I had to pause for long and think of an answer. So many unarticulated thoughts, so little coherency….
I grew up in a time when being invisible and “quiet” were considered laudable traits. The quieter you are, the better it is. The less you know, the more of a good woman you are. Why, to this day my mother brings up her goodness by remarking about how her extended family knows the way she has lived, her pure heart and the fact that she “didn’t know anything”.
This “quietness” is so prized in my Tambram (short for ‘Tamil Brahmin’) community that some men have fallen in love with and married downright psycho women, having been fooled by the initial ‘quiet’ appearance. But that’s another story for another day 😀
Growing up as a woman in India, or anywhere for that matter, women’s feelings always meant less, counted for less. Unless you are a powerful man’s mother, daughter, sister or wife. THEN you would matter – by association with the man.
“If a person makes sexual remarks on the street, ignore and walk on. Wise girls pretend they didn’t hear it”
“If the first child is a boy, you can rest easy for the next one and not worry about it. If the first child is a girl on the other hand, the anxiety for a boy will be tremendous”
“So sad – this child too is a girl. This poor woman is cursed with so many daughters!”
“This woman is really mean! No wonder she gets one daughter after another!”
“Ponna latchanama vaayai moodindu iru!” (be a good woman and shut your mouth)
I grew up hearing such expressions. There were other things too, that one heard. A woman asked for her share of the property after her husband passed away. The in-laws refused to give. Her family threatened a lawsuit – and she was labeled as a terrible person and shunned by her in-laws (who paid up her share of the property).
Good women stay silent and on the sidelines, never making waves. A good woman supports her husband in attaining his goals, without expecting anything in return. A good woman foregoes her share of the family property. A good woman never raises her head while walking – she walks with her eyes downcast. A good woman always smiles, and tends to others first, never making her wishes known. A good woman always makes her man look good, and never talks back to him. A good woman instinctively senses what others in the family want, and molds herself accordingly. A good woman is flexible, and “adjusts” to different situations and to terrible abusive spouses. A good woman takes responsibility for everyone else’s feelings and has to make everyone else look and feel good.
Women always served men food and ate last – in large extended families, by this time most of the good dishes have been consumed already. When a man of the family falls sick, people nursed him, prayed for him and tended him back to health. When a woman falls sick, she still needs to care for the family – in extended families, other women may take pity on her and help out. Girls put aside their studies and tended to family duties, while boys were free to pursue their interests, play on the streets and so on. Girls were chided and scolded for not doing more, but boys were prized as future carers of aging parents.
The Tambram cult of female invisibility (which I interpret as silence, taking a one-down position, never standing up for oneself etc) is very strong and powerful. It is held in place by women who believe that they must always be in the good books of everyone, particularly male authority figures.
“Oh but these are ancient stereotypes….girls have come a long way!”
Yes they have and that is by fighting for what they believed in. By not falling for the good woman stereotype and never letting themselves be defined by others. By throwing off the invisibility cloak and daring to defy. And for wearing their battle scars proudly. They were helped by progressive fathers and father figures (who else will offer such unconditional support and encouragement – and make their voices heard even when other ‘good’ women are trying to silence them?). But the women did face and fight a lot of battles alone and have the scars to show.
I have broken a lot of stereotypes of good womanhood, as defined by the society I grew up in: by standing up for what I believed in, never mincing my words, talking back when needed, protecting those I love, and speaking for those who as women in the family and in my surroundings felt they had no voice. And I had often taken flak from a lot of places for trying to be anything but invisible – sometimes even from the people I am trying to protect. I have altered between understanding the women who turned on me, and being aghast at their attitude. And have had an inside look at the manipulativeness that is a by-product of female silence and invisibility.
Indira Gandhi, India’s first woman Prime Minister, once remarked that the way to handle men is this: women should pretend to listen to men and then simply do what they wanted to do. If someone that powerful needs to resort to such subterfuge, then God help the ordinary woman!!
When you cast off that cloak of invisibility, the gloves are off. The men show you a grudging respect but attack you in every possible way when it comes time to give you a fair share of anything – recognition, respect, share in property, equal access to opportunity be it walking alone on streets or advancing in the job, equal respect for your work when you get home, you name it. They will use name-calling, attack your choice of attire, attack your lifestyle choices, and here is my favorite one: talk about how they are really “not upset at what you say, but the way you said it”. Right, these men are too big to be upset by such trivialities as your opinions, just that the way you stated them was totally uncool.
Time after time out will come the correctors of the “way you said it” when the same thing stated by a man would’ve sounded rational and logical. These same people would’ve said far worse things in far worse ways, and some of them being downright dishonest, deceitful and disrespectful. And you would’ve patiently countered every one of these with facts, stated plainly and honestly. And yet we will see these Correctness Police, saying they don’t really object to what you say, but how you said it.
I once saw a comment on a Facebook page: “If I cannot win an argument, I correct their grammar”. I smile, thinking about the various times I’ve had to deal with the Correctness Police.
Here is Mindy Kaling: