The Cracked Glass

Guest Author: Vibha Shetiya

Originally published here: https://feminismandreligion.com/2017/04/30/the-cracked-glass-by-vibha-shetiya/

I haven’t shared this story with too many people, yet it is one that has always remained on the back burner of my mind.

I was almost thirteen and as boy-mad as an almost-thirteen-year-old could be. I remember me and my then best friend coming of age in Zambia, our experiences manifested in squeals of “Oh my god, I think he’s looking at us” or in the life-and-death decision of “Ooh, should we really walk past them?” for the ultimate target of a not-really-necessary packet of crisps, the “them” referring to equally silly, starry-eyed boys.

I thought these were universal expressions of puberty; shyly glancing over to catch someone’s eye, wanting to look your best while Jello-ed legs and a temporary loss of voice inhibited your ability to say a simple “hi” to the object of your very existence, the raison d’etre of your life, well, at that particular moment anyway.  Or deciding to spend the afternoon at the movies, never mind what was running, so long as cute guys would be hanging out for pretty much the same reason as you were. Of course, all of this was accompanied by the attention span of a freshly pubescent brain with expressions wrapped in innocence, with harmless and fleeting murmurings of the heart.

Very quickly, however, I learned – the hard way – of the power of cultural expectations and norms. At a family wedding soon after I had freshly arrived in India “for good,” a 19-year-old cousin of a cousin took a certain liking to me. We chatted, laughed, and at one point, even held hands. And then after the celebrations, I went back to my life, and he to his. Or so I thought. A few months later, he declared his love for me. I was at a loss – I hadn’t thought of him even once since then, although ashamed of my “shallowness,” I lied that I had.

Of course, by then, I had also been amply introduced to the ways of my new surroundings.  A woman’s character was like glass, you see. No amount of adhesive, soldering, covering, coaxing could hide a crack. I still remember the effect this declaration by an aunt had on my adolescent brain; what did that “crack” represent? What constituted a crack? Had I inadvertently caused a crack when I had gotten friendly with that young man? Did a crack necessarily mean my entire life would be worthless? I was suddenly very scared… I now realized that talking to boys was a sign of overt sexuality, perhaps sexuality gone out of control. I had learned a lot in the short months I had already come “back home” to India, notably about that famed chastity belt worn by women, and how it had to be kept under lock and key at all times until, of course, the wedding night when the key would miraculously resurface, whether you wanted to take off that belt or not.

By now, my fickle adolescent brain had layers of “Indian womanhood” to it, rather layers of what good Indian womanhood ought to be. Of course, there would always be bad women; women who drove men to do unsavory things, and whose own wicked ways caused that most sought after chastity to crumble, never mind crack a little. No way on earth did I want to be that woman.

I was a quick learner. I learned to suppress my blossoming sexuality; to feel that even having a silent crush on someone was wrong, that admiring a man’s good looks was unbecoming, that speaking to someone of the opposite sex would mean I was secretly having an affair with him, and hence tarnish my compromised image, which I was desperately trying to save after that disastrous encounter with the cousin-in-law. That didn’t stop me from having crushes though. Nevertheless, it was always a dichotomous experience – a crush would relieve some of the internal pressure, but I always ended up feeling it was wrong, and ended up hating myself for secretly being “in love” with someone, that something was wrong with me for being “boy mad.”

These injunctions slowly began to pervade other areas of my life. I began to feel the need to always be a “good girl,” to always say the right things, sit the proper way, wear the right clothes… I began to feel like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. While I never really did explode, the long journey towards implosion had begun.

I had forgotten my one week “fling,” but he hadn’t. Ten years later, I learned of his intention to marry me. A few years after that, he said I had promised to marry him. Not only was my reputation at stake now, my integrity was too – I had reneged on a promise. It didn’t matter that I had said nothing of the sort, and that the whole one week “affair” had climaxed into all of a holding hands session. People began to gossip. Someone even asked my mother: “Was it true?” To her credit, she dismissed the whole thing, a courageous act considering her own standing within the community was on the line as a mother of a young, out-of-control woman, a mother with a now potentially unmarriageable daughter on her hands. After all, what did that say about her child-rearing capabilities? I’m sure even today there are stories circulating of me and my “wildness.”

As I have grown older, I realize that this could be categorized as obsession and abuse of power given the fact that I was a minor. But as Bollywood movies often depict, the refusal to let go, and a dismissal of the other’s wishes, is supposedly an indicator of true love (on the part of a man). Decades later, I’m still trying to process the whole thing. Was I indeed an “over-sexed” teenager? After all, my cousins knew better than to chat with an unfamiliar male, never mind “flirt” with him. Did I ruin his life? I hear that he has pretty much turned into an alcoholic. Was it because of me? Was it my “Western” upbringing that had led to this confusion and mess? Maybe I was a bad person at the core. Or maybe I was someone who just enjoyed playing with people’s hearts.

As my (American) husband keeps reminding me, the fault was not mine but of extreme patriarchal expectations. On a rational and intellectual level, I know that. And I have definitely come a long way since then. But on the emotional, every now and then, I still find myself struggling, years later, with feelings of guilt and shame.

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

Questions from Priya:

  • why is a woman’s sexuality feared so much?
  • why is a woman’s desire seen as shameful?
  • why is a crush seen as a full blown committed relationship?
  • why is rejection (in romantic relationships, especially rejection of a man by a woman) seen as such a terrible thing?
  • Going beyond this post …….
  • a woman who has many casual relationships is seen very differently from a man who does – she is a “slut” while he is a “stud” – she is demeaned while he is simply “scoring”
  • what are your thoughts and experiences with dating?  how are man/woman relationships different/similar in today’s India compared to the past? cities versus smaller towns?
  • do men still require virgin wives while they feel this doesn’t apply to them?

Related Posts:

Teenagers!

Inter sex mingling in coed schools – permitted or not?

What do you think of this mother, and this family?

Who benefits from criminalizing consensual teenage sex?

Pregnant at fifteen? No moral issues. Unmarried and pregnant at fifteen. Degeneration of society.

Boys and Girls Holding Hands …

Don’t fall in love NOW!

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6 thoughts on “The Cracked Glass

  1. I think there are two issues at work – sexual repression( of both genders) and subjugation of women.
    – A woman’s sexuality is feared because it’s an instinctual expression of her personality, beyond the wife/mother/daughter roles. Freedom as such is not supposed to be the right of any woman, and that includes sexual freedom.
    – There are a lot of myths and questionable scientific studies that proclaim that most “normal” women are biologically monogamous, not sexually active, only sexually active when they are emotionally attached. This makes a lot of people see women with multiple partners as evil/abnormal- this is seen as complete blasphemy, and indicative of deviant/sociopathic behaviour. They can’t grasp the fact that just like men, women can also move on from relationships, fall in love multiple times or simply indulge in healthy sexual relationships.
    – Another trend I notice is that a lot of people seem to feel that women deserve equal rights only if they meet the “perfect virgin who is capable of no evil” standard. There is no such standard for men, they are entitled to their rights no matter who they are.

    My experiences with dating have been more of an experiment in gender studies than anything else :D. These are a couple of things I’ve noticed:
    -there are still a number of well-educated men who find the idea of a woman expressing herself/being sexually active as novel. While some are repulsed by it, there are still others who don’t really know what to think. It’s so new to them.
    – As compared to the past, I find that a lot more men are more upfront about what they are looking for in a relationship (if they want just casual sex, they feel the need to communicate it early on).
    Personally I think this is a welcome trend. It paves the way for openness and honesty.

    There’s a lot of confusion and outright chaos because of repressed sexuality in our society. If it were only viewed as healthy and normal, things would be much easier on both sides.

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    • All well made points. If a woman is in control of her body and her desires, if she can choose whom to be with and how to define that relationship and how to address her own needs, it becomes hard to control her.

      My own experience is outdated. I interacted with men in India in my late teens and early 20s. Am in my late 40s now. Back then, it was exactly the way the author of “the Cracked Glass” describes. A woman smiling at a man was considered shady.

      I feel things have changed so much since then. Men and women interact so much more now and some people date and some people choose to have live in relationships (in the urban areas?)

      Still there are all these patriarchal nuances and expectations surrounding these relationships, as you pointed out? I know this guy who likes the idea of dating but he says, he likes to date “fun girls” and he makes it sound derogatory. Like he wants to have some fun with “these fun girls” and then settle down with a “nice girl”. Not saying all men are like him, but this is the feeling I sense from some of these relationships of my younger cousins, nieces/nephews.

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      • Wow, you should really put down those experiences, they’d be a great read! I’d say the concept of dating itself hasn’t caught on properly even in urban India, because of these patriarchal stereotypes. Like you say, a lot of men seem to view women on Tinder and OkCupid as “fun” (Read: lacking in “values”, immoral). Because of this, a lot of women(including myself, intially) are extremely skeptical of online dating(also because of potential safety issues, given the state of things in our country). I really wish we were spared all this judgement. It’s human nature to respond to societal pressure, so no wonder that things are the way they are.

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    • Your second point reminds me of an anology a teacher made in 10 th grade “sex ed” class ” -Women are like white cloth , every time you interact with a boy ,black spots grow on the cloth” , now if she is trying to insinuate that “interaction” with the opposite sex might lead to some kind of fungal /bacterial STD , I’d have more faith in humanity but I’m afraid that I’m quite off the mark with my STD interpretation xD She followed this quote by stressing that we have to be pure for our husbands and other classic conservative lines . Though , I do have to say she is in the minority and she got several “is this woman serious” looks from everyone the teachers and students present .

      The concept of dating has caught on in cities , atleast with teenagers or people in their 20s .Almost every college kid I know is on tinder or grindr depending on their sexual preference. You’ll find a few douchebags here and there but I feel like the men/women in my generation and social strata are quite liberal.

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      • I wish more sex ed classes would focus on actually educating instead of preaching some skewed sense of morality. But I suppose one has to be happy that schools are *finally* seeing the need for sex ed. In my school, all we got was a talk on menstruation (where girls were separated from boys).
        You’re right about teenagers and 20 somethings – I notice that a lot of younger people are dating quite openly and normally. But interestingly, some of my friends who work with dating apps and sites tell me that the number of women who sign up for these services are very low when compared to men. I’ve heard this from men too, who resort to swiping right on every single profile to find atleast one match. But I hope things improve with time.

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  2. Its been a long long time since i dated so its probably different in india now. My experiences go back 25 yrs ago. i worked in a diff city than my parents and have dates ( lunched/dinners,movies ) , if one would call that dating. I learn in the initial few times, who to avoid which kind to avoid etc., The ones i did date were all nice, no judgement, atleast not obviously. sure there was some talk at work but for the most part harmless.
    If and when my mom asked i told her it was just like evaluating potential marriage candidates 🙂 , since they were actively searching for a guy and did ask me to have coffee wit random men !
    I think for the most part i was left alone. but also many of the girls who worked with me thought me too forward. thats probaly changed nowadays and life is a lot free.

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