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The Great Indian Divide

The Great Indian Divide

November 18, 2012

There is a secret code of conduct known to Indians: ‘stay away from the opposite gender’ wherever expected.

There is a secret code of conduct known to Indians.

If you have ever visited an Indian temple, or been a guest at an Indian wedding then you probably know the secret code of conduct- ‘secret’ because no one might even tell you to follow it, but if you do not want to raise eyebrows you probably follow the cardinal rule of ‘stay away from the opposite gender’ wherever expected. In most places of worship, on a busy day, which is like every day, there are separate queues for men and women, separate sitting areas too. If you are at a place of worship, your entire focus should be on the deity or the god-men in front of you, you do not need unnecessary distractions in the form of ‘male gaze’ or ‘female gaze’ (I don’t think the latter even exists, but please enlighten me if it does), or you don’t want to be jostled by miscreants for whom no place is sacred enough- I totally get that. But at a wedding or a social gahthering!! Come on!! I don’t find any (foul word not used here) logic to fevi-sticking yourself to those of the same gender!! Marriages are supposed to be fun, socializing too. It beats me hollow how such occasions can have such unwritten codes of conduct.

Segregation of the genders is an accepted thing in the Indian society. I am saying Indian society, not just in India, because I have witnessed the Indian diaspora carrying the same set of ‘norms’ to other countries where they settle; clinging for dear life to the so-called Indian values and Indian culture that they carried years ago in their mind-space.

This segregation of genders begins as early as junior school. In this day and age, believe it or not, we still have ‘school for girls’ and ‘school for boys’. Even in ‘co-educational’ (a term many non-Indians might not even get) schools, one of the prime focuses of teachers is to keep boys separated from girls during games, assemblies, school trips, etc. Of course teenage boys and girls flout these norms all the time even at the expense of getting pulled up for so doing. In my own younger days, I was myself given a long lecture on ‘Indian values and Indian culture’ that apparently I did not have a clue about because I had been caught flagrant deli spending the night inside a “boys’” hostel (I stood there, head down in pretended deference to Madam the Warden-a spectacle to whoever was awake at 3 am!).

In later years, as a newlywed young woman I was still living in denial of this well-known “secret” and refused to hob-nob with only women while socializing. No offense meant to these ladies, but most of them were home-makers whose worlds rotated and revolved around their homes and husbands and households…I was at a loss, what do I say to them? What might they ever have to offer in a conversation as to get me to be interested? On the other side, the men were in deep debates about the economy, about trends in technology, about history and culture, and so and so forth but the moment I approached the group to be a part of their interesting conversation, a lull automatically came upon them. They had puzzled looks on their faces at this alien invasion of their space.

This of course fades away as inconsequential when I hear stories from my mother in law as to how it was considered “shameless” if you spoke to your spouse during the daytime, in front of ‘others’. All I can think of is no wonder we have a burgeoning population! If oral communication was taboo, couples communicated via other modes and we are left agonizing under the results.

One of my non-Indian friends from Sweden, one of the most advanced countries in Europe I am told, tells me that in her village chapel, when they walk in for Sunday mass, the men and women automatically head toward separate aisles. She chooses every time to defy the norm and sit adjacent to her husband, who is squeamish all through the service and has even tried to talk her out of this act of ‘non-conformism’ of ‘defiance’. The point is what happens in India, happens in other places too. But in India and amongst Indians, the scale is that of an epidemic.

I get the whole point of people not in favor of PDA: we do not kiss or touch each other in public places in India and do not like it if foreigners do. But total segregation of spaces is beyond my comprehension and totally unacceptable. Why do we hesitate to even sit beside a person of the opposite sex during office meetings happening in spaces inside organizations where diversity is an accepted core value? Why, if two people of opposite genders are seen often together do people jump to conclusions about something sexual brewing between them? Why, if a girl and a guy claim to be close friends and nothing more, do we never give them our full credence? Why is there always an element of doubt? Because we are living in fear of the value-judgment that we will have to face if we flout norms. But what the hell! You can’t get society to change overnight and you live but once.

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  • Jiminez
    20.11.14 11:36 AM
    Can you imagine how it is to be an American man who is incredibly fascinated with and attracted to all of the Indian women in his (American) workplace? I feel invisible! Even more invisible than Indian men. To the point that it seems that these immigrants are disrespectful of the natives. Maybe it is just because I'm a man. I don't know. But the large group of Indian women that I work with seem almost aggressive about giving American men the cold shoulder. Don't you like us?? We like you.

    The whole arrangement seems so incredibly awkward and dysfunctional. How do you ever have babies? Oh, right... I forget that spontaneously falling in love is not a thing in Indian culture. That's so sad because these are so many beautiful Indian women and none of them give us American men the time of day. Who knows what kind of love we are missing out on??
  • 21.06.14 12:15 AM
    Susmita, this article spoke to me at so many levels. Just yesterday I had the exact same discussion with my husband about how I feel at a loss at "ladies only" conversations, and how I yearn to join the "men's" discussions on the economy, politics and the like. Oh my God, my blood boils when I have to attend such "social" events, and I make every excuse to skip them when I can. Do you think one should simply accept their societal fate and play by by the rules for the sake of having "community support" in case something bad happens and we need them, and for the sake of our children being exposed at least a little to the "good parts of the Indian culture", or break the rules, and be shunned forever? I live in the US, btw.
  • Matt
    20.04.13 12:26 PM
    You know, its a normal I broke, living in India, in 1990. You English speaking, westernised kids are still discussing this? Sheesh.

    Here is what you should do. Break the code. Breach the divide. You are adults and no one can do anything to you.
  • Supratik SEN
    Supratik SEN
    12.12.12 08:34 PM
    It's so surprising that even in 21st century, we read articles like this! I really don't have an answer as to why this happens. We can at least leave places of worship, but what about offices, and social gatherings? I see that happening in my office too, so I know how true this is!
    Anyway, it was a nice read.

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