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Women are taught, as girls, to behave as passive objects of sexuality: to be admired and sought, but never express their own desires.
During the time I was a schoolgirl in Delhi, a friend and I began noticing a boy’s school on our everyday route to school. Our school-bus took this route through a crowded neighborhood everyday and this boy’s school was right at its centre. She and I always sat together during this daily journey, as she usually ‘kept’ a seat reserved for me.
Being at ‘that’ special age, when we first began to grow aware of our own sexuality, we secretly goggled at the prospect of looking at the boys standing outside their school in this crowded locality our bus drove through, who in turn scanned the windows of all passing vehicles for interesting faces to smile, wink and wave at. It was a daily game of face hogging and flirting, which we girls participated in, taking care to keep our faces visible, pretty and coy but at the same time somehow averted (that it had to be kept averted had not dawned upon me as yet).
We would discuss the different boys, who waved, winked or smiled at us, all agog, once our bus had crossed the boys school with the deepest of animation and pleasure, even as we looked forward to the next day. All the excitement lay embedded in that brief romantic or erotic moment of contact, played out in slow-motion, as the bus reduced speed in the crowded narrow lanes, where all our eyes took the opportunity of scanning everybody else’s faces hungrily in anonymity.
…what had not become immediately clear to me in this complex game or gendered dance of sexuality (if one could call it a dance at all)…was that on no account must any sexual advance or response ever originate from the female side.
But unfortunately what had not become immediately clear to me in this complex game or gendered dance of sexuality (if one could call it a dance at all), since I always had two left feet, was that on no account must any sexual advance or response ever originate from the female side. Now, that was absolutely forbidden. There were strict rules in this game that laid down complete non-expression of sexuality on behalf of the female gender in order to appear both sexually appealing, desirable and respectable at the same time; these words were writ in invisible words of fire.
This key subjectivity surrounded the projection of that feigned Victorian vulnerability that in effect was a huge and painstaking act, learned and put together as a performance through a window frame in slow motion.
This aspect of the complex sexual dance between the genders is still not absolutely clear to me and I found myself agreeing with a gush of relief with my husband’s (then not husband) lamentations about how most men in feminist value circles and despite these values, were forced and expected to live in Western cultures, according to patriarchal double standards.
They were for instance expected to initiate sexual relationships with interested women, even if these were strong and feminist women, according to popular consensus in order to be considered manly, unless wanting to run the risk of being judged un-masculine, or worse still ‘weird’, ‘impotent’, or ‘kinky’ sex maniacs, porn watchers, hyper-masturbating nerdy lunatics and so on.
…how those women proposing and initiating sexual relationships with men were usually viewed as sluts, disrespected as sexual predators and were often at the receiving end of sexual violence and assault within relationships…
We bemoaned the way in which the opposite was true as well; how those women proposing and initiating sexual relationships with men were usually viewed as sluts, disrespected as sexual predators and were often at the receiving end of sexual violence and assault within relationships and how men proposed to or initiated by dominant women within their relationships were viewed as ‘boys’ (not men), gigolos or paid and ‘kept’ men of rich and single widows/divorcees, juniors gaining only sexual experience but disinterested in commitment or viewed as the visa-wanting types, who wanted Western women only to gain citizenship or then the lunatic rapist types with love-hate relationships with their mothers.
We swapped stories about women internalizing patriarchy, who could not love or respect men deemed ‘lesser’, despite gains through feminism and we discussed how men were nearly encouraged to violate confidant women, who seemed to emasculate them by becoming ‘greater’, only through the assuming of sexual initiative in relationships that could be oh, so castrating for the masculine ego! I remember an afternoon-full of conversation as I recounted experiences of how many men I encountered could not desire confident women respectfully and then lost a feel of their own sense of respectful desire with confident women as their own confidence as men felt deflated, as they ended up competing with and hating confident women for castrating them, even while I listened to how the same confident women belittled softer men disinterested in playing the long-haired, tattooed, pierced, masterful and sinewy hunter.
I had never decided about getting into a relationship so fast in my life before as I did on that day and I never got into a relationship with such little data about my partner as I did that time; it was even paradoxical that just an afternoon of conversation about the terrible gendered dance of sexuality, about ‘lesser’ men and ‘greater’ women would develop into such a full-blown patriarchal institution such as marriage. The sexual dance of the gendered world was lethal and here was another, who was as lost in the mire of its double standards as I was. Here was another, who actually believed these double standards to be violent. Hoooraaayy!! I thought.
But this is not a story about happy endings. This is a story about how the terrible dance began for me and how I learned about women dancing it. This is also a story about how I never understood how to dance it and how I gradually learned to take pride in never having danced it in the first place. This is also a story about how such a dance is diabolical and robs women of their safety as sexual beings with normal desires for men within patriarchy. Finally, this is also a story about gratitude; of finally having found friends and partners with whom such diabolical and terrible dances are rendered unnecessary and ridiculous.
Coming back to the story, I had no clue at age twelve about women never being allowed to initiate, express or reciprocate sexual interest in men openly, even as my friend and I obviously found all these fifteen-year-old boys staring, waving and winking at us super interesting; these boys couldn’t have been older than fifteen or sixteen because they were still in school. Moreover, I had no clue that my friend knew all about the rules of this rather complex dance before participating in it.
To add to this conundrum, she did not know that I had no clue about these rules either, since she seemed to assume that girl’s training, learning and knowledge about these gendered roles within sexuality were almost cradle-esque. I was moreover too busy staring at the boys myself, to notice her playing by the rules and to learn and imbibe them myself as we passed the boys school everyday. I have only come to understand and recognize these rules gradually as my own hormonal rushes have quietened down over time.
Her eyes were always downcast and her face always remained averted, while the whole process of noticing who smiled, waved or winked at her constituted only a flicker of her eyelids in terms of acknowledgement.
Retrospectively speaking, my friend was most decorous, a phenomena that was mystifyingly know as ‘adaa‘ (style) and ‘nazaakat‘ (delicacy), something I never came even close to developing. I remained painfully brutal, sharp, argumentative, inquisitive and confrontational as always. She never looked at those boys like I did, with open curiosity. Her eyes were always downcast and her face always remained averted, while the whole process of noticing who smiled, waved or winked at her constituted only a flicker of her eyelids in terms of acknowledgement. Her ultimate response constituted only an expression, a twitch of her lips or an incline of her head. Otherwise she resembled Nefertiti: beautiful, immaculate, stoic and visible. The fact that the window of the bus seat next to her was open was itself indication that she was ‘dancing’.
Thinking back, I didn’t deride anyone then and I don’t have any intentions of doing so today. I just felt terribly gauche then, which I try to stop feeling now. I admired the power, grace and poise of these excellent and graceful dancers mutely as I fumbled, stomped around and helplessly toppled…..
Playing this game for women basically involved building capacities and abilities for men to play it actively; being passively viewed and liked was the way for women to play the game. To be inactive was to be active. Actual activity was the zone for men. Playing or ‘dancing’ for women did not mean visibly reciprocating and it did NOT mean initiating or expression. Under NO condition. Women were meant to be liked by men in a certain passive way and for this purpose they had to be completely and entirely inert and allow visibility in some feminine and quasi-available form. Only then could and would men like her, feel attracted to her and yet manage to marginally respect her because she still remained somewhat unavailable to them.
If she initiated and expressed sexuality on the other hand, then they could not feel any respect for her. For that kind of fun, they went to other kinds of women, whom they could have the possibility of perhaps paying.
If she initiated and expressed sexuality on the other hand, then they could not feel any respect for her. For that kind of fun, they went to other kinds of women, whom they could have the possibility of perhaps paying. Or if they got their girlfriends to respond, then they allowed their friends to look in from hostel windows, often taking money from them for ‘window seats’ and tried to never marry these girlfriends and lose them as quickly as possible so that they could marry virgins. Confident and ‘forward’ women, our mothers warned, could expect violence from men and it was very very difficult to hold one’s ground as a dignified but a sexual woman in the Delhi of my childhood. These are however only my experiences. I am sure other women have contradictory experiences. Now this was something that at the age of twelve I had no clue about.
I found especially one of the boys out of those hanging around outside the school gates with the other boys really nice. He reminded me of a film star, who had recently starred in a tragic love story of the time. I confided in my friend about liking him and told her about how I thought he resembled the film star. She completely agreed but there it stopped. She grew alarmed, bewildered and appalled when I declared my intentions of smiling, winking and waving back at him the next day. She paled in horror.
When I actually made good my intentions: winked back at him that is, he paled as well. He had clearly not expected my response. The next day, the seat window next to my friend remained shut. She told me that she had changed her mind about those boys and that she would tell the teacher in the bus if I forced her to open the window. So I went to another window at the back of the bus and winked at my film star to his utter shock and then delight.
The situation had somewhat changed the next day. He had grouped together quite a few boys on the next day to show them that the winking girl in the bus was no lie. And I felt quite the heroine when they all cheered as I winked and waved back. I felt accepted as the bold heroine among the other quiet and mousy girls. This carried on for a week or so as larger and larger crowds gathered outside the boy’s school to see the winking girl till it started making me feel uncomfortable. I thought the winks between the film stars were more private.
Other students in the bus began looking back towards my seat in the bus, sniggering and laughing and cat-calling my name, when the crowded locality came, where I mostly sat miserable and alone in the bus ride to school. My friend of the bus soon stopped talking to me altogether and I heard a lot of laughter behind my back. She started sitting on the other side of the bus and closing the window entirely as we entered the crowded locality, choosing to sit in the stifling heat for full ten minutes instead. And I sat at the back of the bus. Alone.
Walking into a stationary shop the other day, I wandered into a section titled ‘retro’ and picked up one of those two-way picture cards that one has to turn this way and that for the picture to do two different things. I stared at the picture of a kitten that slowly blinked one of its lazy grey eyes as I turned the picture back and forth. I tried to hold the picture at an angle of mid-wink but then the whole kitten became blurry and disappeared that way. One had no choices it seemed to tell my childhood: one had to either wink or not wink.
On that particular fateful day, as soon as I passed the boys school, the enormous group of boys waiting for me unfurled a large poster of one of the most popular pin up girls of the time in Delhi, who had achieved some notoriety for her enormous bust size: Samantha Fox,for me to see. She was as close as possible as India could have for a porn star in those days. As the boys waved the poster in front of my window, it was clear for me to understand that the poster was obviously for me and represented my status in their eyes. Their shouts sounding like jeers for the first time, rang in my ears as they waved the poster. And suddenly it all became nightmarish.
I began to feel nausea as my throat choked simultaneously. My head started pounding and tears welled to my eyes. I tried to close the bus window but it could not shut completely as the back seat of that bus was mostly unused and small with a tyre on the floor. And even as the bus began to roll along, I saw to my horror, my film star running up along the bus, thumping its side, weaving his way between the many cycle rickshaws ringing their bells wildly. There were two or three other boys with him and they began yelling and laughing loudly as they threw a paper tied to a stone inside my half-jammed window.
The crumpled paper showed a crude female figure drawn on a ruled school sheet with ink. She had a pin head with scrawny hair, pointed and jutting ears and teeth sticking out in accompaniment with beady eyes, stumpy arms with three twisted fingers emanating from either ends of the stumps, held akimbo, no legs, two lopsided breasts with pointy nipples, and an extremely vast and hairy vagina. I had seen such pictures in public toilets before with phone numbers next to them. But this one was supposed to be me. It was the first sexual assault that I recognized to be one and it filled my whole being with nothing but nausea. I jammed the paper into my pocket and stared mutely at the stone on the floor as our bus came to a screeching halt.
It was the first sexual assault that I recognized to be one and it filled my whole being with nothing but nausea.
Everyone in the bus, who had seen the Sam Fox poster, felt the thumps and heard the stone clatter to the floor, turned their furious eyes full of contempt and accusation on me. Even though I have understood ways of defending myself against the quality of that glare and that shame that accompanies it with time, it always reminds me of that first time, when I wanted to die under its radar righteous gleam. And the teacher got down from the bus to ask the boys about why they were throwing stones at our bus. A long argument ensued during which I was pointed at by my filmstar. I was thereafter marched to the Principal’s office as soon as we reached school and made to wait outside for a long time, during which time hard glares were thrown towards my direction. I sat there in a kind of mute stupor….a paralyses.
After that I was taken to the social worker, who spoke to me about inappropriate sexual behaviour and immorality and the need to behave in a manner that was responsible and safe and my parents were called to school, when I insisted that I had not done anything wrong, since all the girls flirted and even had boyfriends. I was forced to apologize to everyone. Endless rows ensued at home and my mother wept and did not have her dinner. My sexuality was such a terrible terrible problem.
Worse still, the principle in the morning assembly warned all the children of abstaining from risky behaviour in the future, making a public example of ‘one unfortunate student’. And so many of my friends, who were past masters at dancing the ‘dance’, decided to take the moral high ground in the future and finally boycotted me. Ah the beauties of sexual morality and the power of the moral high ground!
At the same time we all attended weddings, ‘arranged marriages’, wherein perfect strangers were expected to sleep with each other because their parents had so arranged it to take place respectably. At twelve, it was all extremely nightmarish. At 40, its just the wonders of patriarchy I guess, that I have just learned to recognize and keep at bay. That small incident of winking back that escalated into how female sexuality is publicly defined, even if all hell broke lose privately between partners, taught me a lot about friendships, loneliness and relationships.
However, I kept this first picture of ‘me’ for a long time and don’t really remember when I really lost it. I recalled it only recently, when with a sonography machine embedded deep somewhere within me, my German gynecologist began measuring the myriad tumours and fibroids inside my body and I gradually and ambivalently began to face the reality of a surgery that would finally separate a part of my body from me, that had once been at the root of that terrible, terrible dance.
First published at the author’s blog
Pic credit : Image of young girl looking through window via Shutterstock
Deepra Dandekar is a feminist historian working on narratives of religion, community and violence in
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