When the central goal of raising girls is to make them invisible, see-through and non-existent, then ensuring that girls do not have a voice and cannot make a disturbance becomes a matter of some urgency. Once parents are assured that their newborn baby girl has a functioning sound system, they teach her not to make a sound.
Not to be noisy. And once parents are assured that their little girl has no speech defects, she is taught not to speak. The task is to subvert nature. Biologically, girls are equipped to start speaking earlier than boys and as a result have a greater vocabulary at 16 months. But they become less able to speak as they grow older. Most women we interviewed were not aware that they had been systematically trained not to speak. But as we spoke, their stories and the pain from their inability to speak up came tumbling out. Mom always said kam bolo, dheere bolo, speak less, speak softly.
When little girls are told over and over again by their mothers and fathers, the very people they love the most, not to speak up, they stop. The most common term associated with speaking up is its opposite, chup or chup kar or the polite form, chup karo or chup raho. It means shut up or be quiet. Chup is such a commonly used Hindi word that it has now become an English word, and has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
DON’T SPEAK, SPEAK SOFTLY
Priyanka, 22, has an MSc degree and remembers how her mother trained her to become silent. She says, ‘When I used to go to my friends’ homes I was already a quiet girl, but they were the opposite so my mom was, like, not liking their nature. She said you should be a bit sober.’ ‘Sober’ is a very Indian usage to indicate someone who is quiet, serious, unsmiling, walking a straight path and not getting into trouble. A sober girl is a safe girl, a marriageable, moral girl, whose very invisibility makes her culturally desirable. When girls persist in speaking, qualifiers are brought in. Girls are told, if you must speak, speak softly.
Loudness among girls evokes great agitation in mothers. It is forbidden. Loudness breaks the cultural agreement to train good girls to become invisible, not to exist. The agreement itself is never spoken about. It too is silent. It is treated as harmless training for politeness. Girls must stand behind a curtain of politeness and silence.
Shefali, 15, who goes to the elite Modern School in New Delhi, says, ‘When I speak loudly, my mother does not like it. She says I should speak softly.’ Metali, 21, who works in the stock exchange and lives at home, says she was constantly told that her voice is too loud. Both mothers’ instructions were almost identical, ‘Kam bolna chahiye, dheere bolo, apne aap ko itna loud mat karo, you should speak less, speak softly, don’t make yourself so loud.’ Girls who speak loudly are scolded and punished.
The desire for adult approval leads girls to lower their voices and give up the hope that they will be heard. Menka, 24, a writer and trainer of young women in self-expression through dance and movement, says, ‘My parents often snapped at me when I was 5–7 years old for speaking too loudly. This did two things to me: I stopped trying so hard to get my parents to listen; and I lowered my voice. I wish I hadn’t . . . I was different then and comfortable being loud.’ The culturally preferred word to persuade girls not to speak is to label them bevakoof, fools. Sonal, 24, from a well-off family, recalls a childhood in which she was frequently called a fool.
‘Once my grandfather introduced me to his friends saying, “Yeh bevakoof hai. She is a fool.” I was 11, I felt very bad, so I told my mom and she said he meant it in a joking way.’ Most mothers automatically support the ‘other’ and discount their girl’s concerns. Keeping quiet is one part of a complex of behaviours to make girls fit in. This closing of the mouth starts very innocently but goes devastatingly deep when it is reinforced in schools. Girls give up their voice to belong. Aasha, 21, learned very early at home a lesson later reinforced in nursery school that to be noisy, playful, to be heard and be seen leads to punishment.
‘I remember I was in nursery school. I was punished because I was doing masti with my friends. When we got punished I still remember the thought that I asked myself, “Why did I do this even though I knew it was wrong?”’ As a four- year-old, Aasha had already learned that to make a noise is wrong. It is bad. It is better to be quiet. It is a short step from keeping quiet to becoming invisible. Rina, 40, from a wealthy home, says she learned to become invisible in school. ‘I was non-existent in school, so that is why I could not speak up. I would shiver with fear.’ Schools may teach girls to read and write, but not to speak their minds. So if a girl can’t speak and be noisy, what should she do? It is obvious. Girls should become listeners.
LISTEN AND FOLLOW
In a conversation, the spotlight is on the speaker. Girls are taught that they do not need to be in the spotlight, that it is better for them to remain invisible, as listeners. This learning is mostly a silent transmission. Mothers are a girl’s first role model. Young women like Jivika, 24, frequently told me, ‘My mother is a good listener. I get it from her.’ Some said it in a different way. Shuchi, 30, an educator, said with a giggle, ‘My mother remains mum rather than make it chaotic. I also prefer to remain mum.’ Silent mothers, silent daughters. Over time, listening and not reacting becomes the default position, the factory setting.
‘Keep quiet, listen, udne ki koshish na karo, don’t try to fly, don’t stick out,’ is what Neeti, 25, who has a BTech degree and works at Accenture, repeatedly heard her mother say. Appeals to modesty, a prized virtue in girls, reinforce the modest act of listening rather than the brazen act of speaking. Listeners are polite; they follow the conversation. They do not step out of the shadows into the spotlight. Packaged as modesty, invisibility is made palatable. Modesty alone is not enough.
Girls are also expected to be perfect. Perfection as a goal kills everyday speech. Telling modest girls to be perfect has the effect of putting their mouths on lockdown because it takes a long time to formulate the perfect thought and say the perfect thing at the perfect time while your mouth is swashing in waves of fear. As if seeking perfection is not enough, perfect timing is made more complicated by the need for permission.
Trishna, 32, who teaches in Delhi University, says, ‘Dad always used to say girls should talk only when asked to do so.’ This focus on listening and waiting trains girls to become more comfortable following rather than initiating. In fact, mothers tell their daughters to be followers, to just follow, like little ducklings, and not speak.
Deepti, 33, a stay-at-home-mother with a master’s degree in economics, summarized it as, ‘A good woman is like her mother, she follows everyone.’ Follow father, follow husband, follow society and follow boss. To follow you don’t need to say much. Ancestral sediments slowly choke the throats of girls. Wait for others to say something first. Pehele aap.
LOSE YOUR OPINIONS
When girls are expected to only listen and follow, having opinions seems pointless. Unnecessary. Having an opinion is actually egoistic, it is an expression of the self. It indicates fearlessness in drawing attention to that self. Mariam, 21, was trained by her mother to ‘never talk about myself ’. Breaking it goes against the cultural indoctrination of girls not to exist. It makes sense then that most writers of opinion columns are male. Men are expected to have loud and firm opinions, but women are not.
Girls learn this very early at home by watching their parents. They also learn who has more power.
Namrata, 30, who has a postgraduate degree, says, ‘Papa never gave value to my mother. He respected her but never asked for her opinion. He might consult her about social situations but never on any other matters.’
Himanshi, 21, who describes herself as ‘big on fitness’, says she feels hurt when she sees her mother keep quiet or change her opinion in front of her father. ‘I don’t like it when she sometimes sacrifices her opinions or needs in front of my father. If there is an issue and my father has an opinion that is A and Mom has an opinion that is B, my father won’t change to B, my mother will change to A.’
Himanshi does not want to be like her mother but she may be like her mother after all. Initially she said with great gusto, ‘Usually I am pretty open with my opinions,’ then her voice dropped as she trailed off, ‘but sometimes I forgo them for the family.’ And then she added almost in a whisper, ‘I usually keep quiet in family affairs.’
#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. You can read our reportage here.