Before delving into another case from the tribal women’s courts, I thought I would share with you all a quick story from my time in India. I recently told this story to some family and friends, and they encouraged me to share it through my blog. They not only found it to be amusing, but they also thought it highlighted some of the nuanced perspectives on gender that VIKALP supports. I hope you find it to be as thought provoking, and amusing, as they did.
This is a story of a cultural misinterpretation. I am sure that many of you who have traveled to far away places have had similar experiences. When you live and work in a country that is so unlike your own, these cultural mishaps are bound to happen. Nonetheless, I tried my best to prepare myself for the culture shock that I would undoubtedly experience when I moved to Baroda as a Peace Fellow for The Advocacy Project.
Patriarchy remains highly prevalent in many parts of India, and as a result, women here face a lot of discrimination. Gujarat is a particularly conservative state as well, so my hosts advised me on the appropriate kind of attire to pack: long skirts or pants and shirts with sleeves to cover my knees and shoulders. There is also a common perception here that Westerners are promiscuous, which only adds to the discriminatory gender roles. Before coming here, I had never lived in a country in which my gender would dictate so much of my day-to-day behavior. So I was quite nervous and did not know what to expect from this experience.
On my first day at the office, I asked Maya about gender roles in India. I wanted to know how women and men interacted so that I knew what to expect. At home, it is appropriate to smile at strangers as you walk down the street. What was the typical greeting in India? Could I make eye contact with and smile at men without being perceived as ‘inviting’? My host advised me that smiling at men can be misinterpreted here, and to be cautious. Not wanting to stand out more than I already did, I took this advice to mean that I should not smile at men. Period. So for the first few weeks I was here, I walked around making every effort to keep a straight face, or to don a slight frown. I must have looked so unfriendly and unhappy looking back on it. And it felt so unnatural. But I continued to do this so as to not draw more attention to myself.
I was made aware of my misinterpretation after a recent meeting for VIKALP’s LBT (lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) community. In its transgender work, VIKALP focuses on female to male (F to M) transgender individuals. Many F to M transgenders behave in accordance with traditional gender roles and adhere to the patriarchal structures that exist in India. This poses many problems because it reinforces discrimination towards women. So how was I to interact with F to M transgenders? One question in particular kept popping into my head during this meeting. I presented this question to Maya afterwards.
“Maya?” I asked. “I know that I’m not supposed to smile at men. But can I smile at F to M transgenders?”
Maya immediately started laughing. “Oh no!” she said. “I never should have told you that you should be careful about smiling. You can smile at men. I just wanted you to be aware that this gesture could be misinterpreted. And yes, you can smile at F to M transgender people. If you are a person who naturally smiles, then you should smile. You should be yourself!”
I felt simultaneously relieved and embarrassed that I had taken her suggestion to the extreme. But I can look back on this and laugh now. This experience also helped me to see just how complicated issues of sexuality and gender are in a patriarchal system. Such rigid gender roles are detrimental not only to people who identify with their biological gender, but also to people whose gender identities deviate from the mainstream. I cannot claim to know how to address such complexities. But I thought this short narrative might spark some interesting discussion. And of course, I hope it makes you smile.
Posted By Alicia Evangelides
Posted Jul 2nd, 2012