Sometimes cognitive dissonance can be a good thing.
I think it was this guy's stare that caught my attention as we were walking out of the theatre. A look that I’d interpret now as nakedly lustful; a look that strips clothes bare. Then, 20 years ago, I thought it was a stare of admiration with eyes that drooled. The young man's open, aggressive stare was directed at my friends. Girls. Obviously!
In a moment of extreme intelligence on my part, I asked the girls after we'd exited:
"Hey, did you catch those slum boys staring? Don't you feel flattered at all the admiring looks?"
My girl-space-friends (NOT girlfriends) were quick to disabuse me of my notions of what constituted admiration and which looks were flattering. But I can't say that I really understood. Then. Or Now.
What went unremarked then was the casual judgement in the term slum boys. As if 'respectable middle-class boys' like me didn't stare at girls (we did, but only when we thought they weren't looking). As if we didn't pass comments about them (we did, but only when they weren't in earshot).
The insults that we employ in our daily lives offer an interesting reflection of our own inherent and sometimes hidden biases. We pour so much creativity & effort into our insults! We use all sorts of terms including animal metaphors, physical/mental disabilities, sexual preferences and caste, class and community references (as hilariously described here). But between boys (oh, who am I kidding? Men, too!), the insults that compare somebody to a woman must surely count as one of the most common, if not the most common, terms of pejoration:
"You catch like a girl!"
"Stop crying like a girl!"
"Oye coward, why don't you wear a saree, put on some bangles and hide behind your own pallu?"
The commonality to all of these insults is the presumed superiority of one group over another. Middle-class folk are obviously more genteel than slum fellows. My religious practices are obviously more moderate and sensible than the extreme and regressive practices of your religion. The urban rich are obviously more educated and sophisticated than their poor, illiterate country cousins. Men are obviously bigger, faster, stronger, braver and less prone to emotional outbursts than women.
Any man who doesn't live up to these male ideals is liable to be compared to a woman. Maybe even a dehati aurat, because if there is one thing that is more demeaning than being a woman, that is being a village woman.
A few months ago, I got into an argument with my partner about labeling clothes. My partner was questioning the need for categorizing clothes as men's or women's wear.
"Assuming a kurti or dress is the right size and fits well, why can’t a guy wear a ‘woman’s’ top? Would you wear one, if it fit you?” she asked.
“But! But!” I sputtered. “I can’t wear them because these tops and kurtis are fashioned in women’s styles. They are distinct!”
“Who decides what is women’s style anyway?” she asked. “After all, no one thinks it’s weird when women wear shirts, pants or even suits! These are unwritten conventions that people choose to follow based on their perceptions of propriety. Why do you think wearing a skirt would be demeaning?” she challenged.
That was an interesting line of argument. I tried hard to rationalize to myself why I wouldn't wear women's clothes. But I didn't get very far. I wouldn't wear dresses mostly because I feared the terrible aspersions that would be cast on my mardaangi (manhood) by society. And I would - in fact I have - cast similar aspersions on somebody who dared to break the mould. It seemed to me that we had set up a self-serving societal system to propagate these sorts of stereotypes.
I decided then that my partner was right and that there was no logical reason for me to shun "women's" wear. At a conference that both of us attended afterwards, I wore a full-length blue skirt for almost an entire day.
It was an interesting experience. The first 10 minutes in that crowded hall were extremely awkward. The longer I wore it, the easier it became however, and I began to truly appreciate the skirt for its sartorial elegance (much more comfortable than a lungi and far less prone to wardrobe malfunctions than a dhoti).
Every puzzled stare and bemused comment (and there were a few!) was another opportunity for me to appreciate just how ingrained some of our beliefs are, as illogical as they may be. Society adjusted to the once dissonant sight of women wearing pants and shirts many decades ago, but men wearing dresses? Hoo boy!, that would be considered so effeminate and hence, demeaning!
These same sexist biases are also manifest in many different ways in our lives: at home, when the ‘head’ of the house expects to be served dinner at the table without participating in the cooking or cleaning. Or when we quietly accept that our mothers have essentially labored away their entire lives for others - their younger siblings, in-laws, husbands and children, in that order - but rarely for themselves. And at the workplace as well, where even if women, perchance, may happen to stray into traditionally male-dominated bastions, they often don’t get paid as much as them.
The cognitive biases of a society have very stark effects on those who don't fit into the rigid ‘mainstream’ framework. Unfortunately, it's only too easy to classify someone as different. Homosexuality may have been recently deemed legal in India, but as a society, we will probably tolerate homosexuals only as long as they don't fall in love with our sons and daughters. How often have we shooed away transgenders from our weddings without acknowledging the social ostracism and daily discrimination that force them to show up there in the first place? Are we even aware of the horrifying levels of persecution that Dalit women face at the hands of upper caste men - a double whammy of belonging to the ‘lower caste’ and the ‘weaker sex’? Sadly, these narratives often do not find sympathetic ears willing to listen.
The cognitive dissonance I faced while wearing the skirt in public forced me to view myself through different eyes. Except, they weren't so different after all. They used the same prism of patriarchy and gender bias that I used to view the world: I just hadn't realized it before. Recognizing these prisms for what they are allows me to confront them. Hopefully, in time, confrontation will lead to change.
I look forward to the day when men wear skirts for more than just protest marches or pushing boundaries. When our biases aren’t so rigid and society as a whole, is a lot more accepting of those who happen to meander outside the unbroken white lines of ‘mainstream’ thought.
Pavan Vaidyanathan is a biologist, programmer and amateur photographer. Sometimes all at once. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and volunteers with the Association for India's Development (AID). He tweets as @pavanapuresan