11.04.2017

After a gap…

It’s been a while since I visited here. Tonight, at the end of a long working day, I’ve silenced my creaking joints, defied a body that’s crying for rest; and allowed my mind and resolve to take the lead and am sitting down to do this.

I’ve got it coming out of my ears – this question, again and again. “Why do you have to do this at your age?” I’ve stopped replying now and answer with a vacuous grin, which can mean nothing or a lot – depending on who it’s directed at. If it’s a person who’s genuinely concerned for me, it can mean a lot, and I reassure them that I’m still fit and will be fit hopefully for many more years to come. If it’s a person who’s bound by social norms and believes that a woman who crossed a half-century+10 must wrap herself in a shawl, wear socks and shuffle helplessly around the house, it means, I didn’t want to be rude and ask them to ‘you know what’!

That brings me to social norms and a conference I attended a few weeks ago. During the discussions, I realised with a mental thud that we in society are tyrannised by social norms. Social norms are, as I learnt, norms of behaviour that society expects us to conform to and we do it, fearing sanctions on failing to do so. And this is why I will think twice before going to a bar or pub without a man accompanying me – I don’t want to be seen as lacking in character. This is why I will refrain from dining out with a male friend from college, if my husband does not accompany me. Or this is also why I will refrain from walking out of a bad marriage, even if I’m being beaten just short of death, physically and emotionally every other day. What will people say?  What will they think? Who will marry my daughter? And the list goes on…

Social norms are ubiquitous. There are norms for every action in life – dressing, talking, marrying, not marrying, eating, and I read yesterday, there are even prescribed norms for women and their hair – hair shastra! And they all seemed to be designed and reserved for this special species called woman, who everybody in the world is out to protect, and strangely enough, destroy at the same time. Hmm..

Am I lecturing from an ivory tower? Have I tried to change things? Have I had the courage to walk the ‘road less travelled?’ The answer is yes, and the answer is also no. I tried stepping out for dinner alone one night when I was out on business travel in Delhi, and bored of eating kathi rolls night after night, sitting in my room and watching or rather hearing Arnab Goswami screaming into my ears. There was a famous restaurant down the road from my hotel and I figured no harm could come if I popped in and popped out after gorging on their renowned tandoori chicken. How I wished I hadn’t. All the while I was there, I felt the glare and the unease of the manager, the waiters and the other diners on me, questioning, maybe judging or conjecturing too. The chicken tasted like charcoal in my mouth and I beat a somewhat hasty retreat after doing some service to it. And yet, when I went to Liverpool, UK recently, I had to step out alone for dinner and didn’t attract even a glance from anyone – my ego was shattered, but…

But there are happy experiences too. My mother, recently left alone after my brother died, decided she would have none of staying with her children. She was determined to live in the home her husband had given her and where his soul still lived. She’s managed pretty well and has managed to silence all those awkward questions that have come her way. It’s difficult though, and more strength to her.

We are seeing more examples as we see our daughters rebelling against norms, sometimes at great cost to themselves. But the churning has to happen and someone has to pay the price before things get better for women. Our support is with the women who are daring to swim against the tide and hopefully a time will come when a 60-year old will not be questioned when she wants to stay alive mentally and wants to work well beyond society’s perceptions of when she should curl into a hole and go to sleep!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

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2 thoughts on “The tyranny of social norms

  1. Way to go Bharathy!! Admire you and your determination and spirit to be gung ho!!
    Always admired Sarala Aunty and now even more. Pavitra has always been close to me and am so happy that she has the support and backing from you both.
    Carry on …. regardless!!!

    Like

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