I was watching an episode of ‘Kim’s Convenience’ where a concerned (possibly over protective) family is talking to their daughter about her love life. One of them asks,
“Does he treat you well?”
And I realised no one had ever asked me that. Not family members, not friends, not classmates, peers or anyone who has claimed a right to an opinion about my love life.
My love life has been a series of independent choices and each of those occasions to independence have had to be fought for. It’s not as simple as whether my family ‘allows’ me the right to choose my partner. Even in thinking about this as a decision that someone else gets to allow or negotiate with you about, there is oppression & disapproval. Even ‘progressive’ families take a binary choice of ‘if we can’t control you, we will ignore & invalidate you’. The same goes for friends & other peers. We are all part of a social structure of relating that filters any interactions with women through the lenses of entitlement, permission, duty, morality & conformity.
I think most people don’t even realise that when they look at me, they’re automatically assuming what I owe them (in appearance, communication & behaviour) & assessing where I fall short on that. I know this because all interactions, new & ongoing are tinged with a sense of resentment & incomprehension, like somehow I’m deliberately refusing to speak a language they understand. “Obviously, XYZ..” is a phrase that often comes up with a sneering, exasperated tone. I’ve taken to calling it out by gently saying, “That’s not obvious to everyone.” since saying “You assume this because of my gender or age?” provokes instant rage. I also know this because a few longtime relationships are evolving into a space of thinking about this. At least a handful of people have told me that they realised they were trying to control me or felt entitled to a certain behaviour on my part. A couple of these were former romantic paramours, many were friends, usually male. This is not to say that this behaviour is limited to cis men but for a number of reasons people of this gender in my life seem to be going through an awakening about their behaviour right now.
I know it’s not deliberate but it feels like this sentiment has been deliberately, systemically withheld from me. The question “Do they treat you well?” conveys concern & care but also a fundamental respect for the listener’s agency to decide what is good treatment. I live in a world that believes it knows better than me, what is good for me. Any opposition to this is an assertion of my individuality, my agency & my identity. And the only reaction to this is hatred/rage. Indifference is a silent form of rage. It’s a wordless way of saying “Go to hell and I hope it hurts you”. This is the other side of victim-shaming that happens later, when a decision goes awry. It is not a coincidence that the very same people close to me have penalised me for years with barbs, taunts, vicious attacks, verbal abuse & negotiations for other things ‘because you did this’. They do not see this as cruelty; only justified actions to claim what they’re entitled to.
Some months ago, on Clubhouse, I came across a young man who proudly presented the following opinion.<Trigger warning: abuse, domestic violence, patriarchal families. Please skip to the next paragraph if this could disturb you>
“Regarding women who get beaten up, agar usne love marriage kiya, toh usko yeh bhugatna hi padega (if she chose a partner for herself, she has to face the consequences). Agar usne family ke pressure mein aake shaadi kiya, toh usko apne pairon pe khade hoke khud situation sambhalna hoga (if she married under family pressure, she should stand on her own feet and handle the situation alone)”
Thus, there is a seething rage against women for existing. Any act of independent agency is a good excuse to punish. If the heavy policing doesn’t deter the woman from making a choice, then bad consequences are a second opportunity to attack her. This system tells people that they are entitled to control & subjugate a woman and punish her if she puts up a fight.
I’ve struggled for years with people smirking at me for my love life decisions with questions like “Why did you choose him?” and “Why didn’t you just leave?”. I don’t know how to answer. There is no space for the confusion caused by the contradictory message of “You have to adjust”. And finally because I don’t know how to make a ‘good choice’. Some of us (and I say that because most people don’t even want to acknowledge or think about this) are still trying to figure out what makes human beings abusive towards others. Why do people ghost? Why do people rape? Why do people violate and hurt others? Is it lack of education? Is it a smalltown/metro city thing? Is it a religion, a linguistic culture, an ethnic background? We know and I know firsthand the answers to all those questions is NO. So how then, should I go about making a choice that works for me?
Another thing I hear a LOT is “You’re so independent/feminist/intelligent/successful/strong, aren’t you? Why do you need anyone else’s support?” I know now that this is not a logical question. It’s a statement of resentment, of attack. All human beings need support, validation, space to not know. Independence is an assertion of one’s being, of being a person. It has nothing to do with knowledge, strength, maturity or any of those other things that one has to achieve. Agency is a fundamental human right and the silliest, most ignorant, weakest of us deserves it.
I sound resentful and truthfully, I’ve spent three days feeling very bad about my world because of this realisation. At the other side of it though, is a new insight. I know better now, how to make good choices. If a person isn’t treating me well, they should not be in my life. Regardless of their relationship to me. Even if they have a mental illness. Even if they’re stressed or worried or disabled or poor. Even if there’s a global pandemic on. Anyone who offers up these justifications is arguing for the right to treat me badly, the right to abuse me. I deserve better than that. I am not required to be anybody’s therapist, healer, punching bag or emotional support animal. I am not required to be anyone’s knight in shining armour, superhero or saviour. I deserve to be treated with respect and that supercedes any other consideration, justification or excuse.
“Does this person treat me well?” is going to be a permanant part of my social playbook now.