Learning To Say No

‘No’ is the most powerful word in the English language. Due to social conditioning, many women and some men have difficulty saying this simple word.  That’s because our brain has been trained to operate in pathways that tend to avoid the word ‘no’. It can be intensely stressful to ignore a well reinforced pathway and forge a new one.  Saying ‘no’ to the things we don’t want (for people who tend to have difficulty with it) is a habit that must be worked at consistently, until it becomes second nature.
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I was not born assertive.  But I was always curious about how the world works.  And that includes me, who I am, and how I respond to various situations.  As my self awareness grew, so did my ability to say ‘no’ to things I did not like.  If we do not know who we are, it’s hard to assess what we want.  Knowing what we want can help us turn down the offers we don’t want.
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However, self awareness takes us only so far.  The ‘yes’ response is so primeval that we may say it even when we don’t want to and are aware of what we dislike.  Saying ‘yes’ to things we dislike or are uncomfortable with can build a lot of stress – in some cases, this can even lead to severe anxiety or other psychological illnesses.  It is therefore crucial to understand the subtleties surrounding this ‘yes’ inducing behavior and keep those in mind to counter it.  On my road to becoming increasingly assertive, I’ve tried to observe myself and understand what makes me say ‘yes’ when I don’t want to.  Based on these observations, I’ve tried to come up with certain strategies that would help me counter this illogical urge to say an unwilling ‘yes’.  I hope you find these strategies useful.
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Know your rights
In many Eastern cultures, a sense of entitlement and the need for conformity can create relationships driven by control.  Unsolicited advice (with intentions ranging from well meaning to downright evil) is given in the name of caring for the other person. Resistance is often greeted with a range of negative emotions.  In all cultures (including Western), there is at least some degree of societal pressure to do things that someone else sees as appropriate.
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Know that other people cannot tell you what to wear (except for reasonable professional requirements in a workplace ), what to eat, how to schedule your day (when to wake up, shower, etc).  As an adult, you get to decide when to go out, who should or need not accompany you, where to go, and whom you’d like to hang out with, and how you get to spend the money you earn.  You alone have the right and responsibility for ensuring your well being, safety, and financial upkeep.
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Many of us know these rights but conditioning keeps kicking in – so reminding ourselves of our rights is a good idea.
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Recognize signs of boundary crossing
If the in-laws or neighbors are giving unsolicited advice, it is easy to recognize that a boundary is being crossed.  It is much harder to recognize this when it happens between spouses or partners.  There is so much common territory and lots of room for error.
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A spouse can make positive, relevant suggestions regarding children, finances, or house work because those are all joint responsibilities.  It is best for a spouse to stay away from advice regarding choice of friends or activities (unless these are directly impacting his or her rights in some way).
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A good way to recognize right from wrong is to ask what the impact of the actions of one are on the other.  If there is no impact, then there should be no criticism/suggestions for improvement.  My husband’s tendency to while away his free time following a certain baseball team (incomprehensible to me) is really none of my business.  If he does that when it’s his turn to cook, then it impacts me, and I have the right to bring it up.  My tendency to be OCD about house cleaning is none of his business unless my extreme cleaning has a cost to the family’s well being.
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Recognize coercive speech
When you finally muster the courage to say ‘no’, it can be greeted with resistance.  You will be told things that are meant to change your mind. Coercive speech looks like this –
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“I thought you were better than this.”
“You always ……”
“You never ……”
“My mom would’ve done this for me.”
“I’m not sure I can love you the same way if you do this.”
“Where in the world did you get this crazy idea??”
“Is this your crazy side talking.”
“Did your friend give you this advice?”
“Do you want to end up like him?”
“You are beginning to turn into your dad.”
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Recognize coercive behavior
Your ‘no’ can be greeted with coercive behavior.  Coercive behavior is harder to recognize than words because it is less concrete and attacks our vulnerabilities (someone social is more easily weakened by being shut down, by being refused conversation).  Coercive behavior can look like this
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– not talking, sulking
– not eating
– giving disappointed looks or mean looks
– avoiding interaction
– appearing sad, depressed
– banging doors, put objects down with force
– long periods of silence with deep sighs
– making indirect negative/mocking remarks about you while talking to someone else
– doing things that annoy you, being petty, getting back at you, making simple things harder.
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Buy time
If you are struggling to say ‘no’, buy some time with responses like –
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“Let me think about that and get back to you.”
“I have to go now, let’s talk about this later.”
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Giving yourself space and time to understand what you might me getting yourself into can be helpful.  You can mull over things, understand the consequences of giving in to pressure, reaffirm your dislike or discomfort with the offer, and come back with a much more confident ‘no’. A confident ‘no’ is important because a weak ‘no’ is just an uncomfortable ‘yes’ waiting to happen.
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Turn it back on them
Some well meaning people give advice when they think that the whole world thinks like them – therefore what they like, others must like, what works for them must work for others.  In such cases you can turn the advice back to them –
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Consider this suggestion: “You should wake up early.  You can get a great, non-stressful start to the day that way.”
You could respond, “Are you an early riser?”
And if they respond yes and rave about this habit of theirs, you could say “Good for you!  I’m glad you’ve found a way to get in your exercise!”
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To: “You should dress up more, you look so pretty with jewelry!”
You could respond: “Do you like jewelry? What kind do you like to wear?”
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Of course, the straightforward way is to simply say things like –
“I will wake up when I want to.  What’s your problem?”
Or “I don’t like wearing jewelry”
Or “I feel pretty being myself”
Or “I don’t care if you think I’m pretty or not.”
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But it may not be so simple for some people.  Dismissing unassertive behavior as “getting what they deserve” is unhelpful.  Human behavior can’t be easily explained.  We don’t always do what’s logical – that is what’s good and healthy for us.
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Therefore the above suggestions (turning it back on the person giving advice, etc.) are for people who struggle with making such assertive statements – or for people who live in such a strong culture of hierarchy or conformity that a ‘no’ to advice invites a distinctly negative reaction.
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State the problem
If you stay away from the ‘no’ word for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, you can spotlight your own discomfort, thus taking the focus away from “criticizing” them
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“I don’t like being told what to wear. I prefer deciding for myself.”
“I feel uncomfortable being asked to go to this party.”
“I don’t enjoy being forced to make a decision on this.”
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No matter how you say it, learning to say ‘no’ is one of the most important things we can teach our kids.  And as for us adults, it can be extremely liberating.
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If you’ve always been assertive, good for you!  If you are working on it, what do you do and what has worked for you?  If you struggle with it more than the average person, what could be getting in the way?  Please share your thoughts and experiences.
Related Posts:

Imagine

Guest post by wordssetmefreee

 

Imagine a world where you are judged

Not by your skin color or what you’re wearing

But by your human strengths

For your wit, compassion, and caring

 

Imagine living on a street

Where your opinions can be bared

Without fear of being silenced

By casual denial or malicious stares

 

Imagine having friends

Who listen, validate, make you strong

With whom there are no feelings

That are shameful, taboo, or wrong

 

Imagine living in a community

Where other’s stories shed light

and learning happens unintentionally

Transforming you, in plain sight

 

Imagine a world where sharing

Is welcomed with knowing, accepting hearts

Where expression lends clarity

Piecing together your jagged, hurting parts

 

Does this sound too Utopian?

But such a world isn’t far away

It’s the world of blogging

Where you and I meet everyday

 

Let them not sideline or suppress

Your inner battles, your outer skirmishes

Speak, question, think, and express

Your unruly thoughts, your untamed wishes

 

Let not your voice and mine

Be drowned out in doubt and fear

And lay buried in an obscure shrine

Forgotten in a tomb of despair

 

Let them not lock your thoughts

Take the key and set yourself free

Keep reading, writing, thinking, speaking

For you are the queen of your destiny

Women and Friendship – Building a Support System

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

The last post brings home a striking point. Lack of a support system allows abuse to thrive. And even in non-abusive situations, lack of supports direly impacts women’s happiness quotient.

Recently I was talking to my mother on the phone. She mentioned that Kalyani, her long time friend had visited after many years. I was excited and happy for my mother and asked her if they had a good time together. I was reminded of the times when my mother would visit her when we were very young.

When we were kids, a mother having a friend was a rarity. The fact that they were college buddies was even more amazing. Whenever my mother would visit her friend, we were so awed by this simple fact – that my mother is going out, and it is not to work and it is not to buy groceries, nor is it a visit to relatives’ houses for pujas and other obligations. She was going out to see her friend! How cool is that!

Even though she worked outside the home (which was rare for her generation), my mother’s role at home was pretty traditional. There were meals to be cooked, maids to be managed, unannounced guests, unreasonable in-laws and relatives to be attended to. There were many frustrating and stressful interactions with in-laws and the extended family. So, whom did she talk to, to find some relief? Who did she go to for support and answers?

Most of the time, support, once again, came in the form of relatives. HER side of the family – her sister, her cousins, her aunts provided some support. Because the visits to her only friend were a rare and special treat.

And when she did get together with her side of the family, I noticed a strange vibe. My grandmother, who had little patience for relatives, usually left the room. The women shared their problems and concerns. There were hugs and wiping of tears. But no solutions were ever offered. There was relief in knowing one was not alone. There was certainly a sense of belonging. But it came more from a sense of “we are all women, therefore we are meant to suffer”. My mother usually went home feeling as confused and hurt as she did before the visit.

Another thing I noticed is the one aunt who tended to be more assertive and less obedient was considered a “shrew” and “lucky to have a meek husband who would put up with her”. So much for support and inspiration. This is why relatives (in the Indian setting) cannot really be one’s support system. They are subject to the same conditioning that the rest of us are. They have nothing new to offer.

My grandmother, a free thinker, was the only one who gave my mother sensible advice, still, she was older, of another generation. My mother did not really have anyone her own age to see her point of view. An occasional visit to her only friend’s house doesn’t really count. In many ways, my mother was friendless.

This is probably the story of many women of that generation.

The Current Generation

So, what about us, those in our 30s, 40s, and 50s? I’ve noticed that in our generation, a lot of us tend to have had great friends and friendships in college. But once we got married or moved away, those friendships seldom lasted. Or even if they did, they did not offer daily and genuine support and involvement. To some extent, this is understandable. Many of us outgrow our college friends. We grow up, acquire different ideas, we change to some extent. We crave friends on the same intellectual level, rather than settling for people who happen to be in the same place at the same time.

But how many of us, after we got married, made a serious attempt to develop strong friendships? How many of us are truly committed to friendship – because friendship takes time and effort and interest. Here I’m not referring to “family friends”. Family friends are just that – they are usually friends because our kids are friends at school. Or because some of us work at the same company.   These are simply another version of our college friends – people in the same place at the same time. They are fine for sharing a meal or having tea together or discussing school/college options or the job/commute/elections situation.

But these are not the kind of friends I’m referring to, although they do have their place in our lives.

I’m talking about the kind of friends who share a passion with you. Who remind you of who you are as an individual. Who challenge you to explore your fears, open you to novel experiences, who help you grow. Friends who truly KNOW who you are. So they can remind you of what you are capable of, when you doubt yourself.

(I’m referring to married women here because that is the norm in India and they are the ones who tend to neglect their friendships. Single women are perhaps more likely to take their friendships seriously. They are better at building a support network of friends because the negative attitudes of their families and society have made such a system imperative, even urgent. Perhaps, they even feel frustrated with married women for not being committed to their friendship.)

Factors that Deter Support Systems for Women

So, why do several married Indian women go without real, strong, long lasting friendships? A few factors come to mind (there could be more) –

Parenting – in conservative cultures, friendships for young girls are limited in terms of where they go and how long they stay out and what activities they engage in. They may not be allowed to travel, hike, swim, partake in sports, go for a bike ride – simple things that friends do. These friendship-inducing activities are allowed for sons but not daughters. Early on, they are trained to put family first, and their own needs must be worked around the family’s rules, schedules, and convenience, if at all. Thus, daughters never learn the meaning of strong friendships. They never learn the methods. They haven’t experienced the highs of going camping with friends and gazing at the stars in the night sky. They haven’t experienced being lost in an unfamiliar town and helping each other navigate. They haven’t gone for a long drive with no destination in mind. They do not know what they’re missing, thus they do not seek it in later life either.

The unwritten rules of friendship after marriage – Friendships for married women are discouraged, seen as frivolous and selfish. Indian married men, on the other hand, continue to keep in touch with their buddies, even invite them over and have their wives cook for them. Many Indian women need permission to visit their friends, or need to ensure that they’ve cooked, cleaned, bathed their children, and anticipated every possible need in the next 48 hours before stepping out for an hour. Thus having a family strengthens men’s friendships while the very same weakens women’s friendships.

Complacence and the Illusion of Support – We are surrounded by family in India. We have our parents and extended family constantly in our faces. When we get married, we have even more relatives. Surrounded by all these people gives us the illusion that we are not alone. However, the truth is you can be lonely with a hundred people around you if none of them empathize with you, make you stronger, or help you find yourself.

Too late, we find out that when we really need help and support, we don’t have it. Women spend a good part of their lives helping strengthen their husband’s families. While their own supports are continually discouraged, ridiculed, and eroded.

Our Stories – Mythology, legends, and literature are replete with admirable friendships between men. While Lakshmana walked by Rama’s side until the very end, Sita stood alone. The Mahabharata brims with male bonding. There is the interesting friendship between Karna and Duryodhana. Even the friendship between Lord Krishna and Arjuna the warrior is telling. God bestows his friendship on certain worthy men, but not women.

In English literature, we are all familiar with Horatio and Hamlet, Tom and Huck, Frodo and Samwise, Gandalph and Bilbo. While we admire the friendships between these beloved characters, they do make us wish the world instead revolved around female bonding. This is why books like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women are so precious.

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, says, “Princesses may confide in a sympathetic mouse or teacup, but they do not have girlfriends. God forbid Snow White should give Sleeping Beauty a little support. Princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married, and be taken care of the rest of their lives.”

Let’s not be that lonely princess. We can make each other strong. Let’s not give up on each other.

Finding Real Friendship

Friendship and bonding among women offers so many positives that no woman should have to go without it. A good friend –

  • respects you for your strengths and talents
  • supports you during challenges
  • doesn’t ennoble silent suffering and sacrifice
  • inspires you to be strong, to grow, to become who you want to be
  • listens to you when she can’t do anything other than offer her heart
  • gives you a hug
  • loves you for who you are
  • is happy to see you engage in other positive relationships
  • wants you to succeed
  • is proud of your accomplishments
  • reminds you of who you are, when you are in doubt
  • opens you up to new ideas and different perspectives
  • doesn’t judge you for your career and relationship choices
  • is overall happy for you because she is happy with who she is
  • is committed to you, spends time with you, and is there for you
  • doesn’t take your friendship for granted, understands that friendship is a like a plant, it needs watering, otherwise it can’t sustain itself
  • communicates through differences with honesty
  • recognizes her own need for friends and friendship time
  • keeps her interests and passions alive and doesn’t lose her identity after marriage
  • makes it clear to her family that she will need and engage in her friendships
  • can be a lifeline in cases of emotional or physical abuse

I did not realize this until a few years ago, when I hit my late 30s. My kids’ friends’ mothers were my friends. My husband’s co-workers’ families were my friends. I realized something was missing in these friendships. I forgot who I was. Conversations with our friends were always about our families, about our children’s or husbands’ needs, interests, and phases. And what did I do when I did meet interesting, intelligent, warm, humorous,  and independent women now and then? I did not treasure them.

I realized I had missed some valuable opportunities.  And if I wanted something, I needed to work toward it. I began to look for and find women who shared my passions – walking/hiking/running/nature, reading/writing. Women who took their hobbies seriously, who believed in preserving their identities and not be defined by their relationships alone. Although these common interests acted as a catalyst to start and sustain the friendship, we did not limit our friendships to these interests. One of my friends crafts jewelry and it’s fascinating to watch her work. Another friend, an engineer by training, loves to bake. After years of debating, she finally turned her passion into her living. I like spending time in her kitchen while she makes breads, pastries, and pies. I realized I needed to laugh like a girl, get silly, do different things, surprise myself.

I realized I needed friendship time without my husband and kids. I learnt to ask for it, advocate for it, and maintain it as an essential part of my life. I gave it a name – ‘health goals’ (as in emotional health) to make it tangible. I put my friend time on the calendar and committed to it rigorously. My family slowly, reluctantly, began to accept and work around it. If my older son needed help with a project or my younger one wanted to go to the park, it would need to be scheduled AFTER my Sunday morning walk with my friends. Same thing with my husband. In the past, I had worked around everyone’s schedules. Now, my activities were up there on the family calendar, for everyone to see, and my needs were prioritized, like everyone else’s.

I hope every one of us has or works on finding strong friendships and can make the effort to be a rock solid friend to other women. It is not as difficult as we think. It doesn’t require some esoteric skills. It is simply about knowing what real friendship looks like. It’s knowing what to look for. And understanding that friendship is a basic human need, necessary for us to thrive. This blog is a small example of the power of women supporting one another. Imagine what is possible with people we can meet and talk to and confide in and bond with in our daily lives.

And friendship with other women and having a good support system is the best defense against patriarchy. For feminism to thrive, friendships between women must thrive.

Please do share some of your great friendships. Or please share your challenges in finding and sustaining meaningful friendships.

Recognizing Emotional Abuse

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

The last post and some recent emails brought up the subject of abuse within families.  I’m glad that the email writer moved out.  She is able to analyze her situation quite rationally, which indicates that she got out in time.  Although the majority of these emails tend to come from women, men can also be victims of abuse.  One recent email from an American woman detailed how her Indian boyfriend was being emotionally blackmailed by his parents.  Many commenters advised her to stop dating him because he needed to gain control of his own life before entering into a relationship.  In my own extended family, my cousin, who I grew up with chose to not get married.  After delaying his parents’ attempts to get him married for a few years, he finally came out in the open and declared he doesn’t ever want to get married.  He is an only child and  has been subjected to emotional blackmail (such as daily threats of illness and suicide, hysteria, self-starvation) from his parents.  Five years since he announced his decision, they are still around, but I do see that he is worn down, tired, and stressed most of the time.  He was a happy, fun loving child, always following me around (I’m eight years older to him) asking me to play hide and seek with him.  It bothers me when I see him become a hollow version of himself.

Emotional abuse is a potent method of damaging someone’s psyche, especially a person’s sense of self worth and dignity.  It is potent because it often goes unrecognized.  Its incognito status allows people to inflict substantial damage on victims – as much as that through visible forms of abuse such as aggression and violence.

Socially sanctioned forms of abuse are the hardest to recognize.  In many cultures, parents have unlimited authority over their children.  Any situation where authority goes unchecked is a fertile environment for abuse.  Another culturally sanctioned form of abuse occurs with other authority figures such as teachers, boarding school staff, clerics and law enforcement officers.  This is not to say that all parents, teachers, clerics and police are abusive; but if their authority is not subject to checks and balances, there is potential for abuse, and support when it does occur.

It is important to note that in the case of parents, spouses, and intimate partners, they may not always be aware that they are turning abusive.  Although it is difficult to empathize with the abuser, he/she could also be caught up in a destructive cycle that cannot be voluntarily broken, without professional help, and distancing from the victim.

In the Indian context, parental abuse often goes unrecognized because there is an entire network of constructs, rules and operations that have been built around it.  Recognizing parental abuse threatens so many existing power structures that cultural walls have been built around it to safeguard the unquestioned authority of parents.  Accusing one’s parents of the smallest wrongs is tantamount to treason.  There is so much fear and guilt surrounding this discussion that many sons and daughters don’t dare to broach their parent’s fallibility.  Any attempt at doing so is often accompanied with tremendous guilt and self-reproach on the victim’s part.

However, problems, especially when they are deep-rooted, cannot be pretended away.  It is important for us to recognize abuse.  People are often shocked at the word ‘abuse’ when it is used in the context of their loved ones.  Ironically, it is loved ones who are the most likely to inflict abuse – their increased proximity to the victim and their sense of entitlement, and in some cases, co-dependence make intimate relationships more prone to abuse than relationships that are one step removed.

Who can inflict emotional abuse?

– Spouses/partners

– Parents on their minor children

– Parents on their adult children

– Adult children on their aging parents

– Relatives on children in the family

– Siblings

– Bullies at schools, colleges, and in cyber space

– Police on people in their custody

– Teachers and school authorities on children

– Managers on their reports

What forms does emotional abuse take?

– humiliating, excessive judging/criticizing, shaming, slandering, ridiculing, being dismissive, labeling, condescending

– controlling, taking away choices (requiring permission for going out, controlling spending, controlling routine choices like dressing, showering, eating), infantalization

– accusing (being overly suspicious, reading into every move), blaming (holding victim responsible for abuser’s problems and happiness)

– unreasonable or impossible demands

– emotional distancing, silent treatment, alienating, emotional abandonment or neglect (withholding affection, love, support, withholding communication and expecting mind reading)

– excessive codependence (treating the other person as an extension of themselves, not respecting boundaries, knowing what is best for you, being constantly needy)

– threats and intimidation (loud voice and aggressive body language meant to induce fear, direct or indirect threats to the other person, her reputation, her children, her parents, her safety)

– emotional blackmail (threats of suicide, ill-health or becoming an alcoholic), hysteria (disproportionately intense reaction to mistakes), and self-injurious behavior or threats on self-harm (cutting oneself, burning oneself)

– baiting (deliberately provoking anger through false accusations, preying upon weaknesses)

– creating no-win scenarios (asking someone to choose between two bad options – “you either starve or you apologize for something you didn’t do”, “you either cut off with your brother or cut off with me”)

Some less common forms of expression

– Symbolic suffering (setting fire to a toy or favorite object) – inflicting suffering on an inanimate object or a small animal meant as a threat or intimidation

– Engulfment – showering excessive and suffocating amounts of attention, constantly checking whereabouts, inducing guilt (when victim enjoys something) and fear, exhibiting pathological jealousy

– Stalking – either physical or via phone/email

– Gas lighting/brainwashing – omitting or twisting information to favor the abuser and make the victim doubt their own memory or understanding of events

– Recruiting – making the other person an accomplice in questionable activities

What It Feels Like

The victim often feels confused, hurt, and frightened.  (I will begin to use the female pronoun but this applies to both men and women.)  She loses confidence and begins to doubt herself.  She may doubt her own opinions and beliefs.  She may even begin to doubt facts and her own memories.  There is a sense of one’s reality slipping away.  This makes the victim feel powerless.  Most of the victim’s energy is focused on “being careful” around the abuser’s moods, trying to “read” his signals, and working hard to earn his approval.  The victim is filled with a feeling of dread; there is always the feeling that something may explode (even when things are going well).  The victim begins to blame herself when things get ugly (“if only I had been more careful, if only I got home earlier, if only I cooked his favorite meal”).  The abuser and victim go through cycles of “good” and bad phases.  During the “good” phase, the abuser regrets his actions, tries to flatter or please the victim, and makes peace.  The peace is invariably temporary and is shattered for the smallest and most unpredictable “reasons”.   Initially, the “good” phases serve the purpose of locking the victim in the destructive relationship; however in later stages, the victim begins to understand the hollowness in the kind gestures, begins to recognize the pattern to the point of being able to predict what is coming next, but is unable to break out of it.

How To Cope

There is only one way to cope with abuse.  And that is by putting physical distance between oneself (victim) and the abuser.  At first, this might mean leaving the room and refusing to engage in abusive interactions.  Eventually, moving out of the abuser’s life is necessary for survival.  Leaving requires 2 things – planning and support.  A practical plan is necessary – where will I live temporarily, how will I earn my living, etc.  The victim also needs the support of another human being – a close friend or relative who will help the victim not give in to her fears and go back to the abuser.

Even after getting away from the abuser, many victims continue to suffer the effects of abuse – they will continue to suffer from a lack of self worth, make harmful or self-destructive choices, become close to people who are another version of their previous abuser, and continue to be unhappy.  Victims need to work with a counselor and take the support of strong, reliable friends/family and work on the process of self-healing.

The abuser can recover only through psychological counseling and doing the hard work of recognizing, understanding, and modifying his own destructive behavior patterns.

Victims of abuse cannot be told or expected to “snap out of it”.  Recognizing and dealing with abuse, and supporting the victim practically and emotionally are the only ways to authentic healing.

Ragging Culture

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

In the following case, do the people who ragged the student understand that what they did is inherently wrong (let alone understanding that it’s a crime)?

http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/bengaluru/Student-Attempts-Suicide-Family-Cries-Ragging/2015/02/04/article2651563.ece

And yet another case where the parents think their son was ragged and tormented and consider his death suspicious (not an accident):

http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/nujs-student-falls-to-death-parents-allege-foul-play/

In the above case, I wonder if the student shared with his parents that he was being tormented? If so, did they listen? Did they take it seriously? What specific actions were taken to curb the ragging/bullying?

Bullying is a universal problem. In the US, we deal with it in high school and the earlier part of undergraduate college. In India, we have the added problems of lack of recognition of bullying as a crime (both in homes and colleges) and improper (or lack of) law enforcement.

There is a third very important factor specific to our society – the hierarchical/power culture that pervades through many other abusive relationships (rich versus poor, elder vs younger members of family, groom’s parents vs bride’s parents in weddings and post-wedding life, upper caste vs lower caste, land owners vs farmers, upper class vs laborers, well connected vs man-on-the-street, politicians versus common man), and we can almost see this naturally extending to the campus arena – seniors versus juniors. Once again, respect is demanded for no logical reason. Respect is taken, not earned. Appeasement is seen as the only way to peace and being left alone. Fear is mistaken for respect and power drives the relationship.

I’ve known people who consider ragging as “part of life” or a “milestone in the journey to adulthood”. Some have referred to it as “character building” and a “rite of passage”; others consider it “harmless” and “fun” and for these, ragging seems to bring back nostalgic memories of their student years.

My cousin graduated from the Naval Engineering College at Lonavala about 15 years ago. The first summer he came home, he was unrecognizable. He was gaunt, bone thin, and developed a skin rash that could only be attributed to stress. During ragging he (along with others) was put through unbearable levels of physical pain and mental humiliation. He came close to quitting a few times but somehow pulled through.

But after he got married ( a few years later), when his wife asked him if the ragging at NEC was as bad as she had heard, he shrugged and replied, “It made a man out of me.”

Ragging, on the other hand, portrayed as amusing or hilarious in popular movies like 3 Idiots and Munna Bhai hasn’t helped either.

Ragging is a form of abuse, period. It can be emotional, verbal or physical. It involves repeated, possibly aggressive, humiliating, or manipulative behavior that is deliberately aimed at asserting power over another individual or group. It is harmful to the physical and emotional well being of students, something that any educational institution by its very definition, should be concerned about. In some cases, it can be violent and result in injury or death. Regardless of whether it is mild or severe, it should be treated as unacceptable.

Ragging, bullying, hazing – this destructive behavior goes by different names and takes on various forms around the world.

But it makes one wonder what goes on in these people’s minds? What are they thinking when they insult, humiliate, or harass someone? I’m on the PTA for my son’s high school and bullying is an ever-present concern at the meetings. We’ve had 2 incidents this year, one of them was milder (inappropriate language toward a gay student), but the other involved consistent, deliberate, and elaborately planned out harassment by a group of people toward one student (consistent because the victim remained silent for a longer period before complaining).

In general, education, awareness, strict law enforcement, and counseling definitely minimize/reduce the problem to some extent. There is no doubt in any student’s mind (at my son’s school) that bullying is wrong/unacceptable/illegal.

However there is another side to bullying, one that educational institutions have little control over – the student’s home environment. Despite the education and awareness that is routinely dispensed at the school in the form of talks, fliers, help lines, seminars, text alert systems, counseling, and assertiveness training, bullying still happens. Why? That’s because we don’t have complete control over the environment that creates bullies. How much of bullying happens because some children/youth grow up never learning that it is a serious crime? How many of them have heard it being referred to as something that is “part of life” or a “rite of passage”? Or things like “boys are by nature aggressive” or “boys don’t cry” or “conquer or be conquered”? How many of these children grow up being bullied by the adults who raise them?

We can only look at the behaviors of bullies and find some common underlying issues. Numerous studies indicate that most bullies tend to exhibit the following traits:

  • lacking a sense of control over their own lives
  • anger that is not dealt with constructively and often misdirected
  • low self-esteem
  • may have witnessed violence or aggression at home
  • may have seen power being used unfairly at home
  • may have been bullied by others
  • lacking in empathy
  • lacking in remorse
  • may have experienced harsh, physical punishments at home
  • possibly exposed to only win-lose situations and have seldom seen win-win relationships
  • insufficient or inappropriate socialization during childhood

And then, there are the passive bullies, the ones who don’t initiate the bullying but quickly join in when someone else gets it going. They seem to exhibit the following traits:

  • herd mentality and lack of strong opinions
  • hungry/deprived for attention
  • low self esteem
  • looking for someone ‘superior’ to latch on to
  • tendency to exhibit hero worship and unquestioning loyalty
  • lack of identity and the need to belong

There is a third group that is worth looking at – people who witness bullying. By silently watching a crime, they are knowingly or unknowingly encouraging it. A study titled “Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders” published on athealth.com concludes that “bystanders create the illusion that the bully has the support of the majority and this perception perpetuates a culture of bullying”. These people tend to –

  • not want to get involved and generally don’t take a stand on anything
  • may not connect the dots (if it’s him today, it could be me tomorrow)
  • may not see bullying as a crime and believe it is amusing
  • may be less empathetic
  • may not have been taught self-respect and individual rights in their home environment

What can colleges do to deal with ragging/bullying besides developing a strict code of law and enforcing it?

  • The first thing that comes to mind in terms of solutions is to have a zero tolerance policy or ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ against bullying behavior. But this does not necessarily solve the problem entirely. Bullies have a way of seeking out victims off campus or on social media, via smart phones or in cyber space.
  • It is therefore important for an educational institution to work on the bullying person (or persons) as an individual. Counseling may be needed for the person engaging in this behavior to see his actions as not only criminal but as genuinely wrong and hurtful to others. Counseling may also explore the underlying issues of the individual and find positive ways for him to relate to others and develop acceptable coping mechanisms for issues that cannot be easily resolved.
  • I don’t know if we have counselors at colleges and universities, or if they are trained to guide and support students in addressing their emotional health and development, but if we don’t, we should definitely work toward that goal.

A University of Albany study that examined the relationship between parental aggression toward children and the children’s behavior states that “Parents who may displace their anger, insecurity, or a persistent need to dominate and control upon their children in excessive ways have been proven to increase the likelihood that their own children will in turn become overly aggressive or controlling towards their peers.”

While we need laws against ragging/bullying and we need proper ways to enforce them, preventing bullying behavior primarily begins at home. We need to ask ourselves what we are teaching youngsters in our own homes.

On the communication front –

  • Are we using positive communication to resolve differences with our children and with each other (spouses)?
  • Is the communication style used by parents straightforward and assertive or is it manipulative/sarcastic? Words can often be used in punitive, damaging ways in the form of labeling, veiled threats, and ‘ harmless jokes’ that perpetuate stereotypes.
  • Are we listening to our children when they are angry with someone? Are we showing them ways to resolve their conflicts in acceptable, legal ways?
  • Are we able to handle our own anger at our own problems in a mature and responsible manner?
  • In conflict situations, are we addressing the problem or resorting to personal attacks?

On developing trust and self esteem –

  • Do we trust our children when they complain about abuse? Have we taught them how to stand up to any form of abuse – verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual? Do we take their reports of ragging seriously?
  • Are we helping build their self-esteem by recognizing their strengths and supporting them with their challenges?
  • Are we instilling confidence in them so that they don’t feel the need for approval and/or belonging from the wrong sources?
  • Are we allowing them to develop their own identity so that they don’t feel the need to put someone down to feel superior?

On power play –

  • Are our children engaging in arguments with the sole purpose of ‘winning’ or are they engaging in discussions with the intent of learning?
  • Are we creating a democratic environment at home, with room for different ideas and viewpoints? Are children able to express disagreement without fear? Are they able to express disagreement without shouting or getting abusive with parents?
  • Are we refraining from using intimidation and aggression in the form of a loud voice, physical punishments, and threats?
  • Are we using our power as adults and parents wisely and fairly?
  • Are we showing respect to our children and earning their respect rather than expecting unquestioning obedience?

On values –

  • Are we respecting people of all cultures, communities, and backgrounds both in our words and actions? Or do we make casual racist remarks or put down people based on their caste, color, gender, orientation, or economic status? Do we subtly convey our hatred or mistrust for the ‘other’? (Children pick up on their parents’ prejudices even when they’re not overtly stated.)
  • Are we teaching them what constitutes a crime? Do our children understand that taking away someone else’s right to be educated in a safe, non-threatening environment is a crime?

The above strategies are helpful not only in preventing children from growing up to become bullies, but also in preventing them from becoming victims of bullies.

Again, it would not be entirely wrong to claim that the emotional well being of children is a low priority in traditional hierarchical families and expecting our existing parenting philosophy to change drastically is wishful thinking. However, cynicism is not the answer. I think identifying and defining the problem is the first step and a prerequisite to awareness building and finding solutions.

Bullying gives people a sense of power. It’s up to us to create and promote democratic environments (both at home and educational institutions) that don’t function on the power principle, and instead operate on awareness of individual rights, mutual respect and boundaries.

Please share your experiences with ragging and ideas on how we can change the culture of ragging.

Edited to add: A Boy’s Courage in the Face of Cowardly Bullying:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/autistic-teenager-beaten-up-by-bullies-makes-them-watch-20minute-video-about-autism-10368201.html

 

“So why do we wear clothes again??”

‘I wish one had the liberty to slap these kids to senses and send them back to kindergarten to be taught…”Why do we wear clothes again??”’ (From J’s comment here)

So why do we wear clothes?

1. For protection from heat and cold? Most civilisations that did not need protection from cold did not have rigid rules for body being covered up.

Did traditional Indian clothing have blouses or shirts? Men and women wrapped a dhoti or sari, children generally wore nothing. Body was decorated with flowers, ‘alta’, turmeric, sandal wood paste, kohl and jewelry, wanting to look good was not considered inappropriate.

When invaders arrived from locations where clothing was necessary for protection from extreme heat or cold, they also brought along the concept of ‘shame’ and modesty. In ‘Chokher Bali‘ the newly wed refuses to wear a blouse with sari, because it was too British (modern).

Once the society starts covering women up, Margaret Atwood describes how the threshold for what is found sexually attractive changes, soon even a glimpse of an ankle becomes sexually provocative.

One example: Pakizah has the hero falling in love with Meena Kumari – after he sees her beautiful feet. Was that love?

2. Do we wear clothes to look better – to look sexually attractive?

Was there this fear that if women did not cover up, men might stop finding a mere glimpse of a part of a woman’s body attractive? (Margaret Atwood, Handmaiden’s Tale)

Mr Balvinder Singh’s experience in Nagaland shows making rules about covering up a woman’s body, is the beginning of objectification of women, to ensure ‘excitement’ does not ‘turn into monotony’.

“The men wore only a loincloth and the females wrapped just a shawl below their waists. The women folk of all ages were seen working in the fields, carrying fire wood or hay for the animals, pounding barley, washing clothes at village water points, knitting on hand looms (almost every house had a hand loom where the women would knit shawls etc) or attending to other such daily chores of life, wearing nothing on top.

While a small cleavage visible under the thin dupatta or through the pallu of a woman’s saree is certainly a pleasant sight for any man worth his salt, without harbouring any malafide thoughts in the mind, but there in the villages of Nagaland it was an anti climax to see the dangling pairs of bare boobs, available to look at in abundance in all shapes and sizes. Initially they were a cause of some excitement, which was natural , but gradually the excitement turned into monotony. I was reminded of the words of a famous poet that the ‘beauty that is veiled looks more beautiful’.” [Click here to read the entire article]

3. To prevent offending the sensibilities of those who think covering up is a religious/social/cultural/safety requirement?

This is extremely subjective.

Some people find even the glimpse of a woman’s eyes offends their religious sentiments, some find sleeveless blouses offensive, for many only traditional clothing no matter how much it convers or reveals is acceptable.

Some think it’s okay to wear anything so long as one can ‘carry  it off’.

Most people simply resist any change. So in most places,  there are rules regarding not just skin, but also how much of which clothing should not show.

So the sight of boxers and bra straps offends some people.

For many other people’s legs (shorts, bermudas), calves, arms (sleeveless) and knees (skirts), midriffs (saris, lehengas), shape, curves (fitted clothing) are offensive.

In  India showing one’s back and midriff is acceptable when one is wearing a sari, but not if the outfit is Western. Nigeria disagrees! Read Nita’s post – ‘Sari an immodest garment?’

So it seems what’s okay in some societies is not acceptable in some other societies and the rules change with times, all the time. Most societies seem to accept and rigidly follow their current – generally unwritten norms.

How do these norms get created? And how do they change?

How is it that more of these rules apply to women?

Could these rules be a means to control women’s sexuality?

Why do you think do humans wear clothes?

Related Posts: 

The way a woman dresses.

No Jeans for an Indian daughter in law.

Not just a pair of jeans.

All teachers except Indian women can do their job well enough in Western clothes?

Even if Poonam does not run naked, she should be punished?

Model Poonam Pandey’s plan to strip if India beat Sri Lanka Saturday has angered the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) women’s wing which has sought police action against her.

“Indian women are revered and respected since time immemorial…”

How exactly do we show this reverence to women? Please do compare this to how we show respect to everybody else.

Can threats be called ‘respect’?

I have so much respect for you; don’t ask to eat with the rest of the family. Your happiness lies in seeing us enjoy the food you cook.”  Is that respect?

So basically,

If you disagree we can’t respect you.

Don’t try to give your point of view, we won’t be able to respect you…

Little girls earn this respect by respecting the fact that they are always second to their brothers. “What’s wrong with that, don’t they love their brothers?

It’s more like a Terror of Respect.

Do as you are told or else we will not ‘respect’ you.

Dress only the way we permit or else…

Don’t choose your life partner or else…

Let your husband and his family abuse you, or else…

Give us a male heir or else…

Don’t enter the temple, you are impure…

And worst,

Don’t complain if you were sexually harassed, molested or abused or else no respect.

So, when it comes to women, it seems respect is more a means to control than a privilege.

I would say the only kind of respect that matters is the respect we have for ourselves. Or Respect that is given in return of respectequal and mutual. All other forms of reverence and respect are not too far from ‘honor’ and ‘honor killing’ or honor related abetted suicides.

Kelkar objected to Poonam ‘sullying the image of Indian women before the whole world.’ (Read Bhagwad’s objections to granting Poonam such powers)

Another man thinks her actions can sully the name of his caste. So obviously this lawyer believes there are no Brahmin rapists, child abusers  and murderers? Or these crimes don’t insult Indian culture?

“Even if Poonam does not run naked, she should be punished as she not only gave a wrong impression of the (Brahmin) community but insulted Indian culture,” The case will be heard April 5. (Today)

We live in an India where some people can legally express their arrogant, sexist and casteist opinions and offend my democratic and tolerant sentiments. I find it difficult to understand or ‘respect’ such frivolous objections. Are they doing this for free publicity? In a country where rape victims have to wait for years for justice, aren’t such cases a waste of time and resources?

Thankfully we are a civilized, democratic society. Poonam Pandey, Rakhi Sawant and Mallika Sherawat are generally free to ignore these opinions or react (if required) through a civilized, legal process.  No stoning. No anti-blasphemy laws.

And that is something I respect about my country. 🙂

Women who value the respect they have for themselves more than the respect of every wannbe politician, publicity seeker, neighour’s third cousin etc are able to fight back.

Sraboney shared this video where this Pakistani actor Veena Mallik is fighting back against similar allegations. Makes me wonder if hypocrites are the same everywhere.

Marriages are sold to Indian women in a glossy cover…?

I have blogged about “How important is it for a girl to get married?” and was following the comments in this very interesting discussion on, “Marriage : An over-rated institution?”

Desi Girl argues,

Marriages are sold to women in a glossy cover, remember once a woman got married she got to wear good clothes and jewelry that was forbidden for single women.

It gave her a free license to talk about sex and sleep with a man who everyone assumed would love her.

For all these benefits all she had to do was cook, clean, make babies and keep every one happy.

Yes in lieu of her services she is provided a roof over her head, food and protection from other predatory men.

We also know women could be killed if they tried having relationships or children without getting married (they can still be killed for this). If they had children they were not allowed to put them in schools or open bank accounts for them.

So basically the society made it difficult for women to stay unmarried.

Once there was no choice, there was desperation.

“From the careers they choose, the clothes they wear, the way they walk, talk, everything they do, is done keeping in mind the only future they have – Getting Married (and Staying Married).”

It was also decided that the bride must ‘relocate’ upon getting married. (She couldn’t disagree because nobody asked her).

…it is the daughter in law who agrees to enter into matrimony who has to establish herself and win hearts. Once mutual trust is established her in-laws are going to go out of the way to pamper her.”

Pamper her so much that remaining in touch with her family becomes ‘freedom’.

“…in-laws give the new bride time to adjust and allow her freedom to remain in touch …instead of treating her as an acquired property.”

When being treated as ‘acquired property’ is an option, freedom becomes immoral.

“…if we take Indian marriages in general, whose freedom is curtailed and whose isn’t? Will your (a man’s) in-laws ever tell you what clothes are appropriate or what your working hours should be?”

Marriage gives special privileges to women?

“Hindu married women are covered head to toe in “marriage symbols” (men don’t bother to show their status), … women fast, pray etc etc for this male figure who continues to stay in his own house, being mama’s little boy, doesn’t have to sacrifice career for kids.. …what do women get in return?
And lets not get started on the dowry angle…?”

Once ‘sacrifice’ became a ‘custom’, no more ‘pampering’ was required.

“…about a woman going to stay with in-laws. That very idea should change. Married couple should stay wherever they choose: by themselves, in HER house or HIS house with mutual understanding..
Since none of these things (and many more) are not even given a thought to as of now, marriage is indeed over-rated.”

My question:

If Indian society saw marriage as an option, and not as the only goal in a woman’s life, do you think some of our social problems (like female feticide, dowry, domestic violence or fear of social stigma in case of sexual crimes) might become easier to deal with?

__________________________________

Edited to add:

I would love to read what you feel, please consider yourself tagged! Do let me know if you write a post in response to this question.

Here is what some other bloggers feel,

1. Phoenixritu – Marriage: The great Indian scam.

2. Ruchira – Yes I am single. So?

3. Pixie – My answer to IHM’s question

4. Shilpa Deshpande – Marriage

5. Sandhya – Marriage: Obligatory or Voluntary?

6. Shail – Is marriage an overrated institution?

7. Alankrita – Greener Pastures.

8. Richa – On marriage and such.

9. Siddhesh ‘Ravan’ Kabe – Oh for the love of marriages!

What would you have done…?

Around 10 30 pm my sister in law and I finished our walk and sat on a bench outside my building, to relax for sometime before each went home. A car stopped, a woman, around 55, in a yellow sari, a younger woman and a young man stepped out. R was saying ‘makhane‘ as snacks are a great source of calcium.

Suddenly we heard the woman shouting at the watchman. “Insaniyat bhi hoti hai…” (something about human values). She said he had better not dare to refuse to carry their luggage to the lift, because he had no idea who she was and who she knew. (This reminded me of ‘Nobody Killed Jessica‘.) The watchman said he was not allowed to do this. She yelled, it was not as if she was asking him to pick ‘potty’ (she used this word) and yet he was being rude. The watchman repeated he was not permitted to carry residents’ luggage. She asked him how long had he been employed here, and what kind of ‘inhuman behaviour’ was his, refusing to provide free porter service to residents while on duty as watchman. She assured him she was going to watch him now onwards, he had no idea who he had offended (again), dare he move from his duty for a moment, and she was going to get him fired. In the next sentence she promised him she was going to get him fired anyway and make sure he was never seen inside this complex, because (once again) he had no idea who she was and who she knew.

My sister in law wondered if we should intervene. They had not said anything about being in anyway physically incapable of moving their own luggage. And no matter what, we agreed, that the watchman did have the right to refuse to do something which was not a part of his job.

Between the three of them they started moving their luggage to the lift. Then they called out to the watchman in the next building, and asked (more like commanded) him to pick their things, and told the first watchman, “In front of your eyes he is picking our luggage this is insaniyat (human values), now I want to see you seated inside the foyer, instead of loitering outside.

They all went inside. The young man looked so angry, we feared he might hit the watchman, so I walked closer to the lifts and lingered there, checking our mail-box, found something and asked the watchman if he knew who the mail was for, since it wasn’t for us. He looked like he was about to burst into tears.

They went up after making some phone calls to complain against him.

Had we not been sitting there, he would have had no way to prove to the Supervisor who reached there, that he did not use abusive language, or that he was not asleep on duty. They could have got away with being violent too.

I know many of us in India take respectful treatment and running errands, from watchmen, domestic helpers, plumbers, drivers, gardeners and anybody else, who we think owes us obedience, respect, servility etc, as our right – but isn’t everybody in a Democracy supposed to be equal?

And what about dignity of labour?

Guardian’s attempt to stop woman from marrying genuine suitor a crime …soon.

A news article says that one in every 16 women above 32 in Saudi Arabia is  forced to stay unmarried.

“There are a variety of reasons behind this phenomenon including unemployment, a housing shortage and obsolete social traditions.

Al-Fouzan urged men to find wives closer to their age. “This would help reduce the number of unmarried women,” he said. [Link, “Four Million single women in Saudi Arabia by 2015“]

A group of young Saudi men have launched a campaign to convince Saudi men of the unappreciated virtues of polygamy.

Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi blogger who often writes about women’s issues, said…

“… they want to convince the men to marry older women… The men want virgins, not older women or divorcees. The problem is that we have a lot of women in their late 20s or 30s who are not married and which men are not interested in, while the young ladies don’t want to be the second wife as their first marriage.”

Saudi men see polygamy as their right and prefer to marry young girls. Dowry – given by the husband to the bride’s father, makes it easier for richer, often older men to marry young women. Girls are often forced into such marriages.

Some academics are suggesting that suicide, especially among the young, is increasing. “…80 percent of these cases involved girls or young women. Causes included domestic abuse, favoritism expressed by parents toward male siblings, forced marriage and preventing marriage…”

The HRC is also seeking to include forced marriage as a human trafficking crime. A common motive for forced marriage is a father’s attempt to strengthen bonds between families or friends, often in exchange for a dowry that the father steals from his daughter.

*
In some cases women, especially employed women, are prevented from getting married by their fathers, who deny them permission, out of concern of losing the household income. From the comments that follow this article it seems girls supporting their families is appreciated although Saudi girls are not allowed to drive and they can’t buy a car with their hard earned money, without a male guardian’s permission.
Once married whatever they earn, they might have to hand over to their husband who might otherwise ‘boot’ them out of their home. [link]
*
*

“…the rising number of Saudi men marrying non-Saudi women is also contributing to the rise of single Saudi women.” Under current Saudi rules, Saudi women are not allowed to marry foreign men unless under exceptional circumstances. (This too is likely to change).

“…more and more young Saudi women are well educated, financially independent and exposed to different ways of thinking about themselves, relationships and their roles in society… this leads many young Saudi women to refuse the advances of men seeking to take a second, third or fourth wife.

Some women seek out foreign men, in the hopes that they will not end up in a polygamous marriage.

*

All Saudi women are not unaware of injustice in the situation, they do object, question, and even write about it. Are young men finding ways to rebel too?

Last month, the HRC announced its effort to include the crime of adhl in the Kingdom’s official definition of human trafficking, which would codify a punishment of up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to SR1 million to any guardian found guilty of preventing a woman’s right to marry a man otherwise deemed acceptable by Shariah.

Along with these changes, would it not be simpler if everybody had control over their own income? And some day, also over their own lives?