Anusha and her younger brother, Aniket, had an equal playing field. Besides the elementary awareness that Anusha was a girl and Aniket was a boy, the siblings grew up in an ecosystem that was gender blind.
In their formative years at home, both had neatly defined roles in sharing domestic chores. While Aniket made beds and was an expert at cleaning the living room, Anusha brushed carpets and dusted curtains. At dinner, Aniket laid out cutlery on the dining table while Anusha warmed up food. Both took alternate turns to prepare tea for father in the evenings.
They accompanied father for walks and hikes discussing the country’s political developments, naming capitals and ranges in the world map, playing dodging mathematics tables, and sharing a new word learnt from the dictionary. Both had to read newspapers and share their opinions on developments across the planet. Every New Year, parents gifted them encyclopedias, ‘Tell Me Why’ series and Archie comics. Anusha specially enjoyed devouring autobiographies of charismatic decision makers.
At school, while intellectual growth was key, both were equally pushed to become well rounded personalities by engaging in the outdoors actively. They participated in elocutions, dances, fancy dress competitions, sports day events, relay races and kabaddi matches. Together, they attended classes to learn swimming, horse riding, croquet, basketball and painting. Whenever Anusha fought with boys in the school bus or stood up against a view she did not agree to, parents always responded neutrally, letting her fight her battles. Remarks such as ‘behave like a girl,’ ‘don’t act like a boy,’ ‘dress up like a lady,’ or god forbid ‘this is not meant for you’ were unheard of. Similarly, when Aniket showed interest in mother’s elaborate dressing table and left every eye pencil and lipstick case squeaky clean, parents never admonished him saying ‘go and play outside like other boys’ or ‘why are you acting like a girl?’
For many years, Anusha maintained an enviable collection of dolls and soft toys. Not because it was ‘natural’ for her to play with dolls, but because she loved their elaborate frocks and glitter. She wore skirts, shorts, pants, dungarees, and swimming costume with equal abandon. The deciding factor was comfort and the best fit for the activity. Anusha’s physical appearance was never a topic of conversation, consciously. Just as Aniket’s wasn’t.
Now because Anusha and Aniket were brought up completely oblivious to the social construct called ‘gender’, when Anusha left home to pursue graduation at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University, and later Aniket began college life at Army Institute of Law, Mohali, both were bursting with dreams and ambitions that were uncorrupted and ‘gender free.’ Anusha for instance imagined herself as a criminal lawyer, creative writer, CRPF commandant, IAS officer, firebrand journalist, all at once!
Now, I ask. Was Aniket being partly disempowered in his life’s crucial formative years?
Of course not.
Aniket was being treated equally to Anusha, and vice versa.
Equality that objectively prepared them both for adulthood with an identity that was gender-neutral. Equality that enabled them to engage with the world with a strong value system and a rational perception towards male-female relationships. Equality that build their confidence and strength to pursue what they believed was good for them irrespective of the gender roles the society had in store.
The girl in this story is me. And today, I am a proud sister because my brother Aniket is not only serving the country as an army officer, but also serving the society as a caring husband. He enjoys arranging his wife’s clothes just as he enjoyed making beds at our parental home.
When children grow up in homes where they see that being a boy or a girl doesn’t come loaded with any privilege, and that roles in families or at workplaces are driven by capability and mutual respect, the empowerment and disempowerment debate will become irrelevant.
Until then, ‘special’ ladies seats in public transport, ladies compartments in trains, reservation in parliament et al, will continue to be scorned at as steps that partly disempower men.
I say, let’s focus on equality. Rest will follow.
This article was long-listed at the Jaipur Literature Festival Blogging Contest 2019.