body policing

Jaded's picture

Cataloging Gray Areas

As a person who is born and identifies as a (dusty) lady, noticing how my ‘body’ or the space it occupies is as natural as breathing; though this space is hued coloured over and eventually pushed to the fringe. As I’m considerably tall, it would be hard to not see me, one would assume. In fact, there are so many places where I slip in and out of corners and rooms without anyone noticing, sometimes this sort of partially-cloaked-conscious invisibility surprises me too. At first, this un-seeing of my body — whether consciously done or otherwise — seemed liberating. I could spend hours in my room reading or writing before my mum or aunt would come to check in and see what I was up to, generally hours would pass before they’d notice, or at libraries I would take in the smell of old musty books without the clerks giving me cold stares. Lately, this is changing as I’m “growing up” and my “womanly assets” are becoming more evident¹, but this hasn’t affected my (in)visibility. All that has changed is a few parts of my anatomy now stand for my whole person, and I remain as faceless as ever in most public and private spaces. I was self-absorbed enough for a while to think I Was The Only One and yesterday when I heard a lady behind me yelling at a rude dude who brushed past her, “Can’t you see I’m standing here?” when it hit me that being or identifying as a feminine body is more than enough to render anyone (in)visible. Interestingly, even when I’m in NotIndia, my body is more-or-less (in)visible, but what glows is my epidermal tissue. The Feminine Body — assigned or chosen — is more or less voiceless, especially if we’re hued bodies — how else will infinite access and possession be assumed univerally?  – and this is the voicelessness of a privileged, able-body. Which is exactly why hearing about the women in most psychiatric wards left me numb and horrified last week. I thought I was (in)visible partially, when these women are seen as bodies devoid of complete agency.

Like most things we do say think assert about most aspects of behaviour is mediated, specifically from Olde DoucheColonial Standards to the New Standards Of The New Empire, especially when it comes to matters of psychology, psychiatry, medicine, sexuality and everything else, so do our definitions and boundaries of ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, ‘normal’ are still incredibly Western in chalking these lines, and as young as 40ish years in establishing the Indian Association Of Clinical Psychologists. The intelligence tests we take are Weschler’s revised tests, not all of them necessairily suit the Subcontinental Mode of learning and studying, most of these tests fall apart once we question the colonial mode of education that we still follow. I remember learning poems like ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Death The Leveler’ ‘by heart’ as a child; I’d be asked to recite these poems and the grown ups in the room would look at me patronisingly while saying, “She’s such an intelligent child! And the pronunciation! Perfect pitch!”, today I push those memories away as a violent master-slave dichotomy forms whenever I see yet another kid made to perform such poetry-acts. The doting adult steps in the shoes of the Omnipresent Coloniser, rewards the child for obeying the Empire’s mode of speech; all this while the text seeps in the skin and is absorbed by the ‘body’ as it were. Which is precisely why having the access and ‘command’ over English is seen as a matter of pride, not privilege. Psychology tests that are suited to Indian sensibilities were made first in 1999 and revised in the last few years, however most don’t take this colonial intake of knowledge into account²; similarly tests that detect ‘mental’ illnesses and disorders are still crafted for a part of the globe that isn’t as hued or as caught in colonial chains as we are. If the (in)visible feminine body is cataloged as ‘crazy’ (read deviant), and even ashrams as fluffy looking as this one — I don’t know what a white lady is doing in the header — become sites of dislocating and disrobing  agency and consent as ‘those crazy women don’t know what they want anyway’. And this is one of the few spots that doesn’t peddle ‘crazy’ women as prostitutes as many government hospitals do, mainly because the ashram caters to women with class and to an extent, caste privilege. Meanwhile the detongued-subaltern-woman-animal that women and other feminine identified bodies roar silences as their caste, class and religion puts them in a position open to exploitation and manipulation.

Jaded's picture

Slipping Out Of Gendered Spaces

Earlier this week I was discussing Wuthering Heights with my class of 11th graders. We were talking about how demarcations, borders and outlines of the Body are continuously challenged in the text, in such a way that the Body becomes a hybrid of human and beast. At one point Catherine exclaims, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He is always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being”, here the Body possesses masculine and feminine spaces simultaneously, which by extension ‘queers’ love, as well as allows the Body to dislocate itself from chronic heteronormativity. I was about to explain how the text polices this ‘abnormal’ body when one student asked me to stop. He couldn’t reconcile the idea that a woman’s body can embody and imprint from her lover’s body and identity. He didn’t like that she remained autonomous of her identity while slipping into Heathcliff’s body (figuratively speaking) at will. The way he put it, “Why isn’t she happy with the space she’s given?”. As trans-phobic his statement was, I could understand where it stemmed from. Even when all I wanted to do was stop the class right there and start discussing transphobia, probably also whack him on the head¹ with Gender Trouble till he saw how pungent his assumption was and all I could do was try to not start ranting and fuming, I could see why he thought this way. As a culture, we’re told to see transsexuals and intersex people as the Other, we’re encouraged when we participate in erasing people who identify as trans; so my student’s reaction was hardly out of the ordinary. What stuck with me is how ‘natural’ it was for my student to say what he said, without even pausing to consider that androgyny or ‘gender bending’ may go beyond people who are ‘born that way’.

I don’t really remember how I finished the class, I do remember mulling over what my student said even as I was waiting on the platform for my train to come. Before I knew it, I’m standing in front of the ‘Ladies Compartment’ marked with blue stripes and for a second I couldn’t move.  We gender our spaces wherever and whenever possible, and this differently ‘marked’ compartment proved just that. The reason behind keeping separate train compartments for Ladies and Dudes is to keep groping and sexual harassment to the minimum — by employing the Cure The Disease And Spare The Symptom Method — but the boundaries are clear. If I look like a Lady, I must travel in the space alloted to me or I shouldn’t complain when I get assaulted when I travel by the ‘general’ compartment; questions whether I identify as a Lady are quite easily ignored. At social gatherings and dinner parties, somehow unanimously women use separate rooms or tables, where even the talk is gendered. The Dudes sit sipping alcohol and talking of ‘dudely’ things finance, architecture, politics — I don’t even know what else as I’m generally in the opposite section — whereas Ladies talk about children, husbands, cooking, chores and ungrateful relatives. As a child I used to think that men must speak a different language altogether as they seldom talked to girls or women. This isn’t to say the two genders never interact socially — we’re one of the biggest populations on the planet, so some social intercourse is happening somewhere — but that in the presence of these different spaces, we don’t step out of our boundaries. I am often uncomfortable in such gendered tables or rooms as the manufactured differences always get to me; not because I’m uneasy in my prescribed gender but because there is no scope for me to transgress if I ever wanted to. Media and social traditions foster the idea that a person who identifies as queer or trans is a laughing-stock. In fact most encounters with hijras leave people giggling, because opinions like “can you imagine being a man down there! It’s so sad and funny!” are too commonplace. In fact, “Bobby Darling” is used as a slur to discourage boys from showing their effeminacy, effectively silencing the woman behind this slur as a body who independently chose her trans identity.

Jaded's picture

UnVeiling Hued Bodies

This weekend over a family dinner, I was seated at the ‘women’s table’ as usual, wondering when did I morph from child to woman, old enough to be the invisible ear for middle-aged Ladies who need to vent out their LadyEmotions through the forms of humour and snark. As the conversation turned to ungrateful husbands and disobedient children I looked at the table at the end corner of the room where a young mother kept on glaring at her daughter of about six years of age for hiking up her dress or sitting 'inappropriately'. I always had the same problem growing up; I could truly empathise and almost wanted to send her an invisible signal reassuring that she'd learn to ignore such comments soon enough as I watched her burst into tears later. Body policing is something Ladies Of The Dark Regions learn very quickly and rather subtly, only when someone points it out, the cracks in our disciplined bodies become visible. I remember reading Freud's theory on Penis Envy -- and rolling my eyes to eternity of course! -- and realising how bourgeois and Euro-centric the theory was considering MudSquatter kids like I and my friends weren't generally allowed didn't play with boys till about the time we were aware just how and why our bodies were different, we knew how girls were supposed to run, jump and be and how 'those boys' could be as carefree as they wished, to ever want to voluntarily see the little dudes up, close and personal to ever develop envy for that dangly appendage. In fact, after facing direct sexism and existing under the thumb of patriarchy as many DustyLadies do, then this supposed envy comes out, just so we can -- for a while -- be as unmarked as the culture lets us be.

The point is, as 'occupied bodies' the body -- theoretical or literal --  is a taboo subject to explore, discuss or even think about. There is a popular superstition that if a little girl swings her legs -- non-applicable to little dudes --, one of her parents will die thus effectively blackmailing the girl into sitting still and poised at all times. The body is something that hardly goes unnoticed out here which is directly ironic to how much effort goes into negating it.  The motive is to police, tutor and chart it the way the DudeCouncil wants, which will make these unruly bodies into wives and mothers of the Dutiful Variety. I went to a Girl's Convent school and can still remember how certain Muslim girls would suddenly start wearing full length tights under their uniforms in sixth or seventh grade, the way other girls would whisper "she got the curse¹!" much to the poor girl's embarrassment. The shock on seeing classmates changing into the hijab or donning the veil everyday the moment they stepped out of school is still raw, I could never reconcile the Girl I Knew with the Girl In The Veil, to me they were separate bodies altogether, one marked as someone else's and the other as bits of 'herself'. I am not saying the veil is an imposition and there is never a possibility of it being a choice, rather that to a person who will never be expected by society or her religion to practice veiling, the invisibility of the veiled body bears a certain meaning to me, which may or not go along with the traditional space of hijab and its many practices.

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