Having The Last Laugh: Set Your Own Rules, Woman!

Posted: August 22, 2014

From sitting with crossed legs to not laughing too loudly, women have plenty of rules set for their behaviour. Who decides how you must behave, and why should anyone else be setting rules for women? – asks this insightful article.

One of the most humiliating memories of my childhood is that of a family gathering, where an elderly lady relative scolded me – for laughing.

“Don’t laugh so loudly…and…cover your mouth with your hand when you do!” she remonstrated with me, in the presence of a gaggle of assorted ladies and gents.




Girls from good families do not behave like this,” She added.

I think I must have been about twelve or thirteen at the time, pre-pubertal, gawky, self-conscious, and aware of myself in that peculiar way that girls are, at that age.

The incident is too old for me to remember the joke or indeed, anything else. But two things stand out.

The first is that no one present disagreed with her, reinforcing the feeling in my mind that I had done something wrong. This was Urban India, circa, thirty-five years ago. Nice Middle Class Girls did not stand out or make waves, in any way. Clothes had to be circumspect and behaviour above reproach, timings were scrutinised, and most certainly, decibel levels of a laugh were monitored!

Questioning the ‘wrongs about our rights’ never crossed our minds. Unfortunate, but true.

The second was the long term effect. This rebuke, and similar others (from my own mother) created in me a feeling of inadequacy and a need to measure up to that bracket  that girls have to aspire to.

It took a long time for me to reconcile with my own personality. And, that I am what I am.

Sisters and fellow-sufferers, what prodded my memories was this astounding bit of news: The Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey recently made a comment about how he feels the women in his country should smile.  I quote-“She will not laugh out loud in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes, and will protect her chasteness.” And ,“Where are our girls who slightly blush, lower their heads, and turn their eyes away when we look at their faces, becoming the symbol of chastity?”

I visited Turkey last year and was struck by the beauty and vivacity of the women. Their dress, make-up, the overall attitude is extremely contemporary. The streets of Turkish cities are full of women who are working and living alongside men. They are educated, independent, and modern.

Quite like their Indian sisters half a continent away.

We have our own versions of these comments. The Ram Sene men outside Bangalore pubs, the MPs with their ‘boys will be boys’ comments, and political leaders blaming women for their own rapes. Fresh from the parliament session is the pompous statement from a TDP MP, who asks women to dress in a “dignified manner”.

So, who decides for us? Who decides what we wear? And who is say what is dignified clothing? Who decides where we go and what we do? More importantly, do we need these decisions taken for us? And will we be judged by the powers that be, for taking our own decisions?

Has anything changed?

It is a replay of my childhood incident. What was an acceptable level of the decibel level of laughter? Was my loud laughter a come-hither for men? Was the sight of my open mouth an invitation for something unsavoury?

And, pray, what does ‘good family’ have to do with a laugh? It is a mere spontaneous expression of hilarity and joy.

What does this say about us? Have we moved ahead from the time when persons like my aunt told me how to be a good girl? Or are still stuck in a time warp?

I have said this before, and say this again. When I see the women (and girls) of the present generation, I feel that they are far more vivacious, liberated, and multi-faceted than we were. The world is their oyster. They do not need to be straitjacketed by some persons with outdated ideas about how others should behave.

I wonder if these attempts to place these strictures are made by people who feel secretly threatened by the female half of the population which is gearing itself to be the equals of men?

The response of thousands of Turkish women to their vice-PM’s comment was to post smiling and laughing selfies on the internet. In India, we had our own ‘pink chaddi’ campaign.

Sadly, no Indian MPs (male or female) who heard the outrageous comments of their colleagues had any response.

Pic credit: Sarah Severson (Used under a CC license)

I am Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar. I love reading, meeting people, listening to music, watching plays,

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