Guest Post by wordssetmefreee
I ran into an old college friend here recently. We went out for coffee and caught up with who’s doing what. He’s married now with kids. We talked about our respective families and updated each other on our other friends from the same graduating class. We talked about our interests and I realized he also read “ All the Light We Cannot See” recently and liked it. He also told me he liked adventure sports now, whereas when he was younger, he was “quite the wimp” in his own words.
As I was driving home, a strange thought occurred to me. I had found out more about this guy’s likes and dislikes over coffee today than I did in the entire 2 years I had been in the same class with him and had known him. That’s because I (and many other girls I knew back then) did not have any close guy friends. We knew some guys in our college and we talked to them but we weren’t really ‘friends’ in any true sense of the word.
When I was a kid, (since my sister was much older), I mostly played with three boys – my brother and my 2 cousins who lived down the street. I was not taught to “play like a girl” nor was I bought “girl toys” (did they even exist then?); so playing with the other gender did not pose problems. We played ‘land and water’, ‘hide and go seek’ when we felt like running around. When it was too hot to play outside, we played Scrabble, Chess, and Chutes and Ladders.
It was only when I got older (entered high school) that I began to have less interaction with boys. My brother continued to be my friend, of course, and so did one of my cousins. But he and my cousins now had their own friends and they were a group of boys. I had my own friends, a group of girls. Some of my girl friends had friends who were boys, while others were strictly forbidden from male-female friendships.
My parents didn’t have strong opinions on the matter. They didn’t mind if a boy from my school called about something or dropped by. My aunts and uncles (who lived in the same house) highly disapproved but my parents mostly ignored them. However, I did not form any deep or remarkable friendships (or even casual ones) with boys my age. I found that many of them (if not all) behaved or thought in ways that made me uncomfortable –
- they stared at girls in an obvious way
- they made fun of girls’ skills and abilities
- they made remarks on the appearance and physical attributes of girls
- they assumed that they are smarter than most girls
- they wanted to keep their interaction with girls secret from their parents
- they considered aloof girls “good” and friendly girls “bad”
A few boys did not fit the above description. They did not make girls feel uncomfortable. But the environment of girl-boy friendship was so uncomfortable. There were my aunts and uncles who would be walking around in the background when a boy came over to my house – as if he’s some kind of a convict. Where exactly were we supposed to interact then? Every other public place is equally disapproving and hostile to high school age boy-girl interaction.
And that was high school. The college years exaggerated these differences. Women as a group were made to even feel more self-conscious.
Our female instructors would caution us, “‘Oh watch out your chunni is slipping!!” as they passed us by in corridors.
Another instruction in the labs was: “Be careful how you sit when you wear skirts, your panties are showing!’
We were made self-conscious about what we wore, how we sat, how we walked, and whom we talked to. It was all so exhausting. It was easier to hang out with women. Friendship with men, although not forbidden to me by my family, simply did not seem worth it to me.
I’m not saying this is the case for everyone in India – I’ve known a few of my friends who did have men as good friends – but this has been my experience, and I believe what I’m describing here is the experience of the majority in small town India.
It was only after I came to the US to go to grad school that I finally breathed around men. The men in my classes and labs did not stare in awkward places. They looked at my face and listened to what I had to say. They either agreed or disagreed. They did not try hard to impress me nor did they look down on me. It was so casual, easy, relaxed. I stopped paying attention to how I sat or how I walked. I saw men and women wearing shorts and no one spent the entire class time staring at each other’s their legs. I began to wear what I wanted. For the first time in my life, I began to make friends that were both women and men.
There was this guy in our group who loved his beer, Shakespeare, and bungee jumping. Another guy was super smart and super lazy. He would often be caught napping on his keyboard by our professor. There was an Iranian guy who joked, “I ran from Iran.” He could make wonderful gourmet pizza and he often brought us leftovers of his amazing cooking. We would go to the university theater, which aired old B&W films including some Hitchcock classics. Then we would discuss them the next day in the lab instead of getting work done. One of our favorite hangouts was a coffee shop downtown called Second Cup. We would sit there discussing politics, books, and movies, while having a second or third cup of coffee 🙂 For the first time in my life, I began to see men as people.
Some friendships were just friendships. Others became more involved. If a guy liked a girl in a romantic way or vice versa, they would simply take the friendship to the next level. If not, they would just remain friends. There was no automatic assumption that every girl who talks to or is friendly with a guy must have something more on her mind or owes him something.
I think it’s very important to have these friendships between boys and girls, men and women. By forbidding these friendships or creating an environment that makes platonic friendships sinister, an artificial separation is created in childhood and this gap only grows wider with age and takes on unpleasant forms:
- Girls are objectified from a very young age because boys are only allowed to ogle at girls, not get to know them as people.
- Girls and women begin appearing “mysterious”. They develop their own way of communicating. Their language is often not understood and thought to have hidden meanings. When a girl’s behavior can’t be explained, it can be interpreted as “whimsical” or “illogical”.
- Men give up on trying to understand women.
- Women start thinking “men just don’t get it”.
- Men stop seeing women as human beings. Human beings can be good or bad, kind or mean, generous or selfish. Men tend to stereotype women as good/kind/generous, which can also in their minds mean weak/unassertive/accepting of unfairness.
- Women begin to stereotype men as selfish, which they come to associate with assertiveness and aggression, which are seen as “masculine”.
Thus, not allowing/encouraging, or enabling these friendships has a cost to individual members of the society, as well as society as a whole:
- It becomes harder for men and women to work together and effectively in teams. Workplaces are full of gender stereotyping situations for women. This places severe limitations on productivity, by not tapping into the talents and potential of half the work force.
- For those who wish to get married, how exactly are they supposed to find a life partner and not settle for a stranger? In India, this separation makes it almost impossible to meet people of the other gender, get to know them, date, or find a life partner on one’s own. Many people are left with little choice but to follow the arranged marriage route; they are thus deprived of the opportunity to make a sound decision regarding their primary relationship.
- Most of all, this gender gap of understanding results in a lot of unfairness in the treatment of women.
- Women get objectified in the extreme by men raised in conservative settings – they’ve never been given an opportunity to get to know any real women – therefore they don’t see women as people first, they see them as caricatures – the sexy secretary, the motherly teacher, the shrewish boss, the sisterly neighbor, etc.
- The male gaze (both literally and figuratively speaking) makes many environments (colleges, workplaces, streets, public transportation) uncomfortable, intimidating, negative, or even hostile for women.
But even for people belonging to families that are open minded, there are obstacles to male-female friendships. It is not as simple as not having anything against it.
- Indian schools actively discourage and even punish interaction between boys and girls. By the time they reach college, they have more freedom – although they’re not punished for platonic friendships, these friendships have less chance of occurring or being successful. Men and women in the college environment already bring with them the baggage of their conditioning. If men can view women in their college only through stereotypes (the outgoing “loose character”, the traditional “nice girl”), women feel uncomfortable and tend to avoid these interactions with men.
- Boys and girls are conditioned and socialized differently. In some societies like India, boys are raised with a sense of entitlement and privilege. They are often not required to help out with chores. Girls are expected to adjust and accept unfair and unequal relationships. This inequality mars adult male-female friendships as well.
- In almost all societies, boys are raised to be assertive and girls are encouraged to be docile. The resulting differences in thought patterns and communication styles also pose a problem for male-female interactions. Boys’ jokes may sound ‘rude’ to girls and girls’ interactions may appear ‘mysterious’ to boys.
How can we change this? Some thoughts and ideas that might help break this mindset:
- The first step is to raise your son or daughter free of stereotypes. If you have a son, assign him household chores. Encourage him to express himself and offer him emotional support when he needs it. If you have a daughter, buy her toys that allow her to explore, design, build, create, imagine, analyze, and solve (rather than dress up, feed, and care for). Examples of great toys for both boys and girls are any type of building blocks (Legos, Bionicles, etc.), pretend spy gear, fossil kits, ant hill kits and other science experiment kits, puzzles, board games, and art supplies. Giving them a journal to write in or a camera to take pictures keeps their minds busy in healthy ways – also writing and recording through pictures can be very empowering to children. Fun/healthy activities for both boys and girls include reading, hiking, biking, swimming, engaging in sports of any kind, singing or dancing to music together, and visiting aquariums, museums, and historical monuments.
- If you have a son, emphasize the importance of relationships and working in teams. Teach him to listen more and be responsive. If you have a daughter, encourage her to be assertive and instill the value of physical fitness. Teach her to be vocal about her preferences and to speak up and object even when the smallest things are assumed or taken for granted. (When someone says to her, You’ll absolutely LOVE the iced latte, teach her to say, Actually I haven’t decided what I want and I’ll let you know when I’m ready.)
- I’m not trying to imply that sons shouldn’t be taught to be assertive or daughters shouldn’t be taught to value relationships. I think those things are going to happen to some extent naturally. The environment most of us live in encourages those traits already. So, as parents, we can work on teaching them things that the environment doesn’t encourage, or in some cases, actively discourages (assertiveness for girls, listening skills for boys).
- Send your child to a co-educational school that embraces diversity, if possible. In my son’s school, when kids work on team projects, they must sort through differing ideas and viewpoints. They must learn the process of consensus. They learn to work with kids of all races and both genders. There is also a committee at my son’s school for the protection of gay students from being bullied. This is an ideal environment to focus on people’s minds and ideas, instead of stereotyping/objectifying them. (If this is not possible or such a school is unavailable, home is always a great place to teach inclusiveness.)
- Allow friendships (for your child) with the other gender. Encourage your child to see his other gender friends as human beings, as individuals. If they start interpreting their friend’s actions based on gender, (she did that because she’s a girl), gently correct them and illustrate how you would’ve done something different even though you share the same gender.
- Lead by example. Keep in touch with your own other gender friends. I go out for lunch with my colleagues from work that are obviously both male and female. This is the most common type of interaction between adult men and women. Last weekend, I invited some people from work, both men and women, single and attached, with or without kids to hang out with my family on Memorial Day, for a backyard barbeque. Children watch and learn from their parents’ behavior much more than they listen to their parents’ lectures. If you interact with adults of the other gender and from varied backgrounds, if you treat them as individuals and focus on their minds and their ideas instead of their bodies, their skin color, or their gender, your child will likely do the same.
Please share your experiences and thoughts on platonic relationships. How did they happen? Or if they didn’t, what were the obstacles? Do you think it’s important for men and women to interact and be comfortable around each other? Do you encourage your children to have other gender friends? Why do our elders reject male-female interaction and friendship? What is it that they fear? What happens in societies that forbid such interaction? Who benefits from such rules? Who loses?