I had a classmate who ‘had an affair with a boy’ in school. Though I wasn’t sensitive to it at the time, the fact that he was a Muslim and she wasn’t was a double whammy. It was the 90s after all, when the Babri masjid issue forced up the simmering lines of religious resentment among the adults. It’s possible that my 14-year-old friend knew about these faultlines already. I received a conscious upbringing that tried to let me discover my beliefs and identity for myself. It also meant that I didn’t have the set-in-stone references of morality that my peers did. So when our classmates deemed her ‘a corrupted girl’, I didn’t know who to ask why. Eventually I just decided for myself. We had been friends for years, and her behaviour towards me had not changed in any alarming way so she was the same person that she had always been. My friend. Right or wrong was not for me to think about.
Years later, we reconnected, now well into our 30s, with the millennium, career crises and toxic men well-weathered. As we caught up on the years, we examined our chequered love lives. She had just ended a relationship with a cheating partner and I had just crawled out of an abusive relationship. To my mind, we had both come to the same place through slightly different journeys. She seemed proud of me for having finally gotten on the love life track; it seemed like she thought that I had finally grown up. That surprised me. I never thought of myself as immature. If anything, I’d been responsible a little too early in my life. But yes, I had been a late beginner in the mating stakes. I had been focused on becoming a person that I would feel good about being – examining my ethics, exploring everything that came my way, working hard on a career and other ways to be independent. And in that, I had fallen behind on the thing that seemed primary to most girls – love, sex, relationships and all the euphemisms for these. It hadn’t occurred to me to think of this as a metric of maturity. Was she right?
Then in one conversation, she talked about one of my other friends,
“Look, I’m a bad girl. But this other friend of yours is a good girl. I don’t think I want to meet her again.”
I was intrigued by her choice of words. What constituted a Bad Girl (even Madonna doesn’t seem to know)? And why would she refer to herself as one? I realised at that moment that we when reconnected, she’d taken a beat to move me from the box in her mind marked ‘Good Girl’ to the one labelled ‘Bad Girl’. I’m still not sure what difference she sees in the two since the conversation with my other friend was commiseration about our similar (mis) adventures with men.
A different friend from a different time. Plenty of admirers, lots of boyfriends way before the swipe-right ideology was deemed acceptable for women. Sex, lies and intrigues might describe her early 20s. But she was my friend so why would it be any of my business what she chose to do. I did have one conversation with her when my (frankly horrible Delhi) boyfriend called her a taxi “because anyone can get a ride off her”. It had upset me deeply and I had had a fight with him over it. When I told her, she tossed her hair and said,
“They can say whatever the hell they want. Why should I care?”
It made me respect and love her all the more. Her independence helped me shape my own personal womanly ethics. It was around the same time I saw the movie Grease. The character of Rizzo made a big impact on me. Especially this song.
There are worse things I could doThere are worse things I could do’ – GREASE
Than go with a boy or two
Even though the neighborhood
thinks I’m trashy and no good
I suppose it could be true
But there are worse things I could do
I could hurt someone like me
Out of spite or jealousy
I don’t steal and I don’t lie’
Both these girls were Rizzo. I never once saw them indulge in the spiteful attacks that girls and women around me routinely practised on each other. I felt safe with each of them. They were my friends, real people, not toxic rivals for a prize I didn’t even care about.
This is why it broke my heart when a decade later, this friend asked me,
“I did everything right. I married the right man at the right time. I worked hard to build a good career. I had a child when I was supposed to. Where did it all go so wrong?”
I wish I knew, my precious one.
On the other side of this are the girls who were proud flag-bearers of the standards of femininity. Everything from their dressing to tone of voice morphed depending on which man was watching. Male relatives would approve of their modesty and good values. Male classmates would write them love notes and make blank calls that these chameleon girls would snigger about the next day. They wore high heeled sandals, not boots and sneakers like I did. They tittered when the boys called me ‘a non-male’. They pointed out my unpainted nails and the looseness of my cotton pants as signs of my failure to be female. They also sniggered and talked about muffin tops when I wore shorter teeshirts.
Most of them kept multiple boys hanging, none of them certain. Not that I was sympathetic. These women’s fandoms were the kind of men who called women they didn’t like ‘taxi’. The name-calling and judgements reserved for women like my friends, not these chameleon girls. The chameleon girls after all, were of their own ilk. The fellow natives of that obscure land of Indian morality that my friends and I could never figure our way into.
Here’s what AI tells me about Internalised Misogyny:
Internalized misogyny refers to the internalization and acceptance of sexist beliefs, stereotypes, and attitudes towards women, by women themselves. It is a phenomenon where women may unknowingly perpetuate sexism and discrimination against their own gender due to social conditioning and cultural norms.
For example, women may internalize the idea that their worth is solely based on their appearance or their ability to conform to traditional gender roles. They might undermine the achievements of other women, participate in slut-shaming, or engage in body-shaming. Internalized misogyny can also manifest in self-doubt, lack of confidence, and feelings of guilt or shame for not conforming to societal expectations.
It’s crucial to recognize internalized misogyny and challenge these harmful beliefs in order to promote gender equality and create a supportive environment for all women. By encouraging self-empowerment, education, and open dialogue, we can work towards breaking down these internalized barriers and fostering a more inclusive society.
I wish I could say that these girls got it right because at least that would make sense. But well into their thirties, these women are still tearing down other women. They are resentful of single women and the wild sex they assume that we are having. They judge us for being drug addicts and alcoholics (because that’s what an unattached woman must be, right?). They call us selfish for not having children. And then they call me vicious when I ask how responible it is to bring a child into this overpopulated, frankly dangerous and financially precarious world. So much hatred comes from deep unhappiness.
So which of us got it right after all and why did it all still go wrong?