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It’s a uniquely strange experience, when you try to put yourself into others’ shoes. It feels fake, dishonest even, to say that you “understand” how the other person must be feeling. Empathy can be a strong force, but it can never be a substitute for the original feeling. A caucasian man can never feel what an African-American man must be living with, day in and day out. Same thing between a Brahmin and a Dalit, and a man and a woman.

We’re swimming so deep into the ocean of privilege that a mere acknowledgment of it stands out. Nowhere have I found it to be so stark when thinking about gender. I was having a conversation with my partner the other day about how traveling solo is a lovely experience and the serendipity and chance encounters make up for a unique experience. She said that if she travelled solo, every minute she would be worrying about her safety and the thought would overpower any other experiences that she’d be having. I would’ve never thought about my safety, she would’ve never thought about anything else.

All of this, just because I happened to be born a male.

I’ve tried to educate myself over the years, mostly by reading books and interacting with others. “Chup” takes the leading place in that body of work which tries to show and explain gender imbalance. I came across the book when Alice Evans brought it up during an episode on the podcast The Seen and the Unseen (I cannot recommend this episode enough!). It comprises of a series of interviews taken of women who are feminist in belief but not in behaviour. These women are not explicitly suppressed or subjugated by patriarchal dominance, however it lays bare how generations of cultural and societal reinforcements dominate one’s thoughts.

The author, Deepa Narayan, holds no bar when discussing how society trains women to be non-existent. She writes:

Drawing on the details of the lives of women and men I interviewed, each over several hours, I found that girls are trained in seven cultural habits of non-existence. These are - deny the body; be quiet; please others; deny your sexuality; isolate yourself; have no individual identity; and be dependent. It is deep training in these habits that makes so many women feminists in belief but not in behaviour. Feminists with bad habits.

To summarize all the findings shared in the book would end up me just regurgitating the entire book. However, I’ll try to highlight few points that stood out to me below:

How raising awareness about bias is not enough, that it can actually increase bias. “If everyone does it, why not me?” Only when the biases are labelled undesirable do they disappear.

No women used the word “ambitious” to describe herself, it is still a dirty word even for women who have taken a strong intellectual stance on equality. When we asked women about their biggest fear, it is invariably about loss of family and safety of family members, it is hardly ever about the self. This too makes sense. Most women are searching for freedom within families, not freedom from families.

Men who argue are called leaders, while the language of war and weapons is frequently used when talking about women who argue.

In a land of 1.3 billion people, one can safely assume that sex is not a new discovery. Yet we still act like we found something novel.

The tendency to put a rug over or speak in a hush-hush voice about Menstruation. Think about it - it’s a routine, monthly process through which half of the population goes through every month for at least 30-40 years of their lives! Yet, women still feel ashamed to say “I’m having my periods today”, instead opting for more benign “I’m down today”.

Men, on the other hand, have a lot of words for vaginas, none of which are used in polite company or denote respect. Most are used as swear words. This is true all over the world. Women whose mother tongue is Hindi or Punjabi are more comfortable saying the word vagina in English than the words in their native languages. It is safer saying the word in a foreign language than in the language of their own heavily shame/guilt/fear-laden native context of their childhood. This was true for women from the ages of 17 to over 65. Babies come out of the “susu wali jagah”.

At a Filmfare award night event screened on television, every major female superstar from Deepika Padukone to the young Alia Bhatt bent her whole body forward, head towards the lap, and covered her mouth with her hands while laughing, so that her face was almost hidden. None of the male stars did so – they laughed heartily with their heads thrown back a little and mouths wide open.

The most institutionalized form of competition and meanness is evident in the saas–bahu soap dramas, a response to a structured system in which women derive their power from competing and fighting for control over the same powerful man, the son/husband.

The first time I took the Implicit Gender Bias test available online, I was stunned. I discovered that I was biased against women. I took the test several times, but the results did not change. This means of course that I am biased against myself. My cultural habits went deeper than my intellectual awareness, my work and my commitment to equality.

This book has helped me notice my own biases against women. It has transformed the way I look at gender relations, and perhaps an unintended consequence, made me more hopeless about the state of affairs. I’ve tried to circulate its copies to people close to me, not as a gesture of holier-than-thou “you should read this” frat boy attitude, but simply because I think this book deserves a wider audience.

If you want to explore more on some related topics, here are a few jumping off points.