It was very early on the job when I first came face to face with exactly how much of a contrast gender was going to be in Anaikatti. Coming from a space where practically nothing was taboo and the boys around us were not “spared” of anything, with some of my closest friends independent of gender bearing the brunt of my period pains and fainting fits, I had been spoilt by the freedom of conversation, comprehension, and camaraderie. I moved to Anaikatti, knowing in theory that things would be different. All my sleeveless clothes stayed behind at home, and I have worn skirts maybe thrice since I got here, all on non-school days.* Yet, no amount of self-awareness and mental preparation would have gotten me ready for the road that I was embarking on.
On the first few days that I was here, I figured that doing laundry was an integral part of moving somewhere. I would wash out my underwear when in the shower, and put them out to dry along with my towel on my way out. This act, that I had so taken for granted, was brought to my attention, clothed in many appreciative noises. Apparently I was brave. I told the speaker that it was only because I needed my bra/underwear to be dry, and I really wasn’t looking to be a pathbreaker of any sort. It was the first hint on what was going to be a road filled with many such acts of “bravery” (?) along the way.
Over the next few months, every day has been a reminder of my gender. Never before have I been so directly, so constantly, and so blatantly reminded of my gendered position as the last three months. I have been told I sound like a man, courtesy a base voice. I have been told I should be careful how I laugh, because it hurts the ears. Soon after I carried a hurt child up to the office, I was told only elephants can be given hard manual labour. I have been told that girls who know how to behave don’t dress the way I do, that it is undesirable and unattractive. I have been told that even if Future Husband is an asshole, I don’t have a choice but to put up with it. I have heard that no matter what I do here, I will eventually end up cleaning someone else’s vessels. I have been asked repeatedly when I am going to get married, and off late this has shifted to how I probably am not, because I mean, look at me.
In a conversation about how his family was looking out for a potential bride, I once heard about how girls were “rejected” because their faces were too round, or not round enough, I forget which. It seemed to be the most obvious criterion to decide life partners, how the face compares against a compass drawn circle. The conversation then went on to talk about how the girl must wear what the man wants her to wear, and behave how he wants her to, and talk to the people he wants her to.
Cut to a snippet of Sports Day practice. There was an event which involved girls doing push-ups, five at the end of a hurdle relay (ish). While hanging around watching the practice, I spent some time trying to teach some of the girls how to do the push-ups right. Make sure you bend the elbows, not strain the back. Two days later, the number was brought down from five to one, which later crumbled into a weird touch-the-floor exercise, because isn’t it wrong for girls to do push-ups? At that very minute, I thought of two women I spoke to for my thesis – one is an international Silambam champion, and the other is a personal trainer and power lifter. Chatting with them about women in sports seemed lightyears away.
Now the catch is this. Through my last two years of high school, I lived through bullying on a daily basis – spiteful, mean and insensitive, just like every textbook describes it to be. My body type, my work ethic, my love life, everything was fair play through classes 11 and 12. And thanks to surviving that, I can tell that things here are fundamentally different. People here are not inherently mean. Those asking me not to laugh and telling me that for local standards, I am undesirable, weirdly enough, mean well. They call me their sisters (because of course that is the only socially accepted relationship possible) and “look out for me.” In their books, the complexity of the English language may effortlessly roll off my tongue, but I desperately need to be taught how to perform my gender. And somehow, such well-intentioned cautionary notes fluster more than mean-spirited high school bullying did.
On a different note, this morning I had two minutes to spare before I had to rush out the door to a day of teaching six periods straight. Not up for sitting and figuring it out, I googled for examples of idioms, and inexplicably, was given a poster that read “A girl should be like a butterfly; pretty to see and difficult to catch.” I was stumped. I shared it on my social media account in the full knowledge that my peers would react with the same resigned horror that was threatening to overwhelm me just then, and went about my life, walking into a day where I was sure to be at the receiving end of some form of sexism. Guaranteed.
Not so long ago, all of us teachers who live on campus had coincidentally gone home the same weekend. A man who knew us only in passing from the town asked us on the Monday of our return where we had been and we were making small talk. He proceeded to ask whether we had all been to same town, and responding to the negative, suggested that we all do that sometime. We nodded in agreement, just because such empty agreement is the fuel of polite conversation, when he pulled the rug so quickly from under me that I did not even know what hit me. Why don’t you all go to Chennai, he asked my colleagues. “Indha Akka-ve paatha thaan nalla perisa irukaange, pasange elaam bayandhe odi poiduvaange. Prachanai varaadhu.” (This Akka only looks so big that all the boys will run away, scared. There won’t be any problems.”) Apparently, if you are 5’7”, you are immune to molestation of whatever kind. News to me for sure.
Today, unlike ever before, gender tires me. I feel the weight of being a girl. I feel the weight of being a tall girl. I feel the weight of being a tall girl who isn’t paper thin. I feel the weight of being a tall, not-thin girl who doesn’t shy away from physical work. I feel the weight of being a tall, not-thin girl, who is okay with physical work and travelling alone. I feel the weight of being watched, being judged, and then being informed of said judgement. Just performing gender, toeing my own lines, and constantly reminding myself to make the distinction between adjustment and transformation, is tiring work.
If anyone were to ask what I do – I teach, I correct, I write, I read. But also, I girl.
*- To be fair, the school does not have a dress code. I just think of it as choosing my battles.