Boys like blue. Girls like pink. Men drive better. Women cook better. For decades sweeping generalizations have dominated everyday conversation reducing individuals to little more than puppets of societal perception. Giving you a fresh perspective, our young writer, Ruta Bagal, traces how gender stereotypes have evolved over the years by sharing anecdotes of women around her. In today’s ‘modern’ homes, where the battle for the more obvious rights like education has been won - subtle stereotypes still persist. [All names in this article have been changed to protect individual privacy.]
Shirley Chrisholm once rightly said, “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘it’s a girl’.” The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) defines a “gender stereotype” as a generalized view or preconception about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by women and men. OCHR further analyses that it is harmful when it limits women’s and men’s capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers, and make choices about their lives. At first glance, one would think that this is an age-old phenomenon incompatible with today’s modern society. However, reality paints a vastly different picture. Conversations with women from a variety of age groups gave us an insight into the ways that gender stereotyping has presented itself over time.
Chaaya Bhargava, a woman who grew up in the 1940s, shares that during that period, sending a girl child to school was a rare exception in so-called “modern” households. The commonly held belief was, “What is the point of educating girls if they are going to get married and leave the house one day?” Further, when it came to their own marriage, women were usually not given any say in the choice of husband. “Sometimes, the bride saw the groom for the first time on the very day of their marriage!” she says. She explains that women were explicitly told that their role was limited to preparing food and managing the household. So stifling was the air of oppression that they did not feel comfortable rebelling or even asking questions, because they knew they would be met with strong criticism. It comes as no surprise that the fear of God and subservience to religion were also used as tools to influence women.
Anupama Singh, who was a teenager in the 1970s, recalls the gender stereotypes prevalent in that decade. “Young girls were allowed to go to school, but only to nearby local ones which offered low quality education,” she says. She added, “Because of decades of conditioning, even women never believed that they could do much more than raising a family or taking care of their husbands - they had lost faith in themselves.” Adding to the dehumanization that women faced from a society that had robbed them of their own identity - they were often referred to as “paraya dhan” or “someone else’s property.” Rukmini Sachdeva, who also grew up during this period said, “Women had to stick with whichever family they had married into and divorce was out of the question, irrespective of how much they were suffering.” She adds that if a woman could not conceive a child, she was humiliated by society and her family. However, the two of them also remember this as the time when things began to change - women began asking questions and standing up for themselves. Isolated instances, few and far between, but it was a start.
Fast forward to the last two decades, although far more implicit and subtle, gender stereotyping is still prevalent in educated, privileged homes. It camouflages itself in “societal norms” - but due to the callous normalization, any calling out is dismissed and considered an anomaly. The systemic brainwashing carried out over generations still affects the outlook of the younger family members. One of the most common example is - when you see someone driving a car poorly, people immediately assume that the driver is female. Derogatory remarks like “girls can’t drive well” are relatively commonplace even today. However, this has become so “normal” that women are not surprised when something like this happens to them. This is the time to question and redefine this “normal.”
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “We slaughter one another in our words and attitudes. We slaughter one another in the stereotypes and mistrust that linger in our heads, and the words of hate we spew from our lips.” As a society with access to endless information at our fingertips, our collective responsibility is to be aware and unlearn the toxic practices of our predecessors. Only when every member of our society is treated with the same level of dignity and respect can we truly call ourselves evolved in every sense of the word.
Co-authored by Ananya Bhardwaj
Edited by: Sahej Marwah