When Children ‘Perform’ Gender

In rural Uttar Pradesh children exaggerate ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ when performing gendered actions. But are things as black and white as they seem?

Shankarlal Raikwar was in his teens when he started acting in all female roles, as part of his village theatre troupe. “Some people would tease me. There are all sorts in the society, what can you do?” he says. He has always had full support from his family and later, his wife. Today with the decline of folk art forms and people preferring televisions over mythological plays, the local theatre troupe has disbanded. Shankarlal now only performs once a year, as an anchor, in the enactment of Ramayana–an Indian epic–during Dussehra, a Hindu festival that celebrates Lord Rama, the eponymous hero’s victory over Ravana, symbolising the victory of good over evil. He earns his living as a farmer and a Video Volunteers Community Correspondent.

Shankarlal is of the opinion that there aren’t serious restrictions on women in such acting pursuits, just that rural women are not really interested in this. “I imbibed feminine mannerisms from what I saw around me and this helped me perform the female roles realistically,” he says. However, he credits a training on gender and patriarchy at Video Volunteers with learning to look at gender difference more critically. “Before the training on how patriarchy plays out in everyday life, I did not think much about how gendered behaviours influence children. But after my training I became more aware of how children learn such behaviour from their surroundings.”

He decided to make a video with children from his family and community, documenting their ideas about gender roles. Featuring children between seven and seventeen, including his two teenage daughters, the video sees boys and girls performing various actions imitating how girls do things and how boys do things. When asked to enact how girls sit or stand, both the boys and girls look down demurely, cover their head in scarves and transform into models of bashful, feminine propriety. “I had told them to act out how these things are supposed to be. Nowadays does any girl sit like that? If they do people will be concerned and ask them if they are okay!” says Shankarlal. He thinks these actions are also performances–much like his own enactment of the role of Sita or Draupadi.

He had a conversation with the children and asked them where they were drawing their inspiration from. “The boys said that they have seen their sisters and other female relatives behave in similar fashion,” he reveals. But clearly, the dance sequence is inspired by Bollywood. Girls do more complicated moves which invariably involve swaying of the waist. On the other hand, boys are seen to be mostly jumping around and moving their shoulders in fairly simplistic exuberance. Interesting also, is the use of veils by both girls and boys while performing the feminine actions. This reflects the near universal practice of purdah among grown women in rural North India–the girls in the film do not habitually cover their heads. They are adopting sartorial modesty only when imitating women they see around them. In a very interesting sequence on girls imitating how men sit, one of them rests her ankle on her knee and pretends to smoke a cigarette, puffing at the imaginary cheroot in between her forefingers. Cigarettes are evidently markers of maleness as the veil is unquestionably female.

The video brings out two very interesting traits that are the hallmark of feminine and masculine as understood by the children. Men as assertive: they stand with arms crossed over their chest, legs wide apart, they walk with swagger and look straight at the camera–all indicating their superior position in the power hierarchy that patriarchy is. In contrast, women hide their faces, lower their faces and eyes, rest their chin on their hand, take less space while sitting. Even more interestingly women are seen as sitting on the floor whereas men sit on chairs.

Eyes fixed on the ground, women are expected to be demure and submissive.

Men, on the other hand, are expected to have an air of authority.

But as Shankarlal attests more and more girls are coming out to work and study, breaking traditional domestic roles. His eldest daughter is on her way to finish her Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Science as is his son. He hopes that both of them will help him better production on his farm. Shankarlal discusses his work, and shows his films to his children. But he’s not the only one. He feels there’s a churning all around in society that has made inevitable that sexism and patriarchy, violence and discrimination are topics of everyday discussion. Shankarlal runs a gender discussion club with men from his community. He hasn’t yet broached the topic of how children are indoctrinated as girls or boys but they have discussed gender roles in context of household chores. “A lot of people have changed after our discussions. Many men now help with household tasks,” he happily reports.

While gender roles are being challenged daily, there are entrenched patriarchal practices, ideas and ways of thinking that make it hard to dismantle it. One of the most persistent myths of patriarchy is the idea of the opposite genders and even that of the distinct male and female bodies. Nivedita Menon once famously said in a lecture clearly a human male and female have more in common with each other than a human male and a canine male. So the myth of binariness of ‘opposite’ sexes and concurrent gender identity has to be constantly manufactured and reinforced. This is done through punishing those who exceed the culturally sanctioned gender performances. Shankarlal was teased for playing a woman. In popular culture, the desirability of conforming to gender roles is constantly reinforced. In the immensely popular Bollywood blockbuster Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the female lead is rejected because she’s a ‘tomboy’. It’s only when she transforms herself into the ideal feminine, with makeup and suitably long hair, and discards pants for lehangas does she finally win over her beau.

The ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of Kajol, the lead in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

Going against the grain is difficult. But in each generation women have broken new barriers and paved the way for the next generations. Shankarlal’s daughters are the first generation of women from his family in rural Uttar Pradesh to take up higher education. Their everyday struggles and negotiations may not be as widely acknowledged as a political coup, but is not any less revolutionary in it’s upending of patriarchal mores. Each such micro story is ushering in a more equal world for all genders.

Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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