The Great Indian Sex-Ed Scam

Gender

The Great Indian Sex-Ed Scam

Illustration: Akshita Monga

W

hen I was nine years old, my mother decided it was time for me to learn about “girls growing up”. She commandeered the services of my cousin who had hit puberty three years ago to teach me about my “baby bag” and “eggs”. I couldn’t look at an omelette after that and turned vegetarian soon after. My nine-year-old brain couldn’t fathom the idea of eating someone’s baby.

As girls in my class began hitting puberty, I patiently awaited my turn to try out the exciting yet super-secret product endorsed by some highly confusing commercials (those were the wonderful days of “chupchup baithi ho zaroor koi baat hai”). I also never missed an opportunity to unravel the mystery of where babies come from and popped in every time more than three older girls got together and shared wide-eyed whispers about some mysterious knowledge. Neha didi (back then it was mandatory to call them “didi”) told us that after people get married they go to the temple where a “divya jyoti” that is invisible to everyone else comes out of the deity’s hand and touches the belly of the mommy to be. If the divya jyoti is pink, a girl is born, if it is blue, it’s a boy. But only the mommy can see this divine light.

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Pooja didi had another theory and this one involved “suhaag raat”. This was super exciting as I looked forward to sleeping in a bed with marigold and jasmine curtains. I also hoped that my husband would write our names with rose petals on the bed. Pooja didi said it was customary for the bride to please her husband by singing a song. If the husband liked it, they would have a son. If not, they would have a daughter. Now even though I was nine that sounded like complete bullshit. There’s no way anyone could dislike my mom’s voice. I thought she sounded like Usha Uthup. But then it was also customary to offer the groom milk with haldi and badam so I surmised daddy must have fallen asleep after having milk and therefore couldn’t appreciate mom’s singing. I made peace with the circumstances of my birth.

Finally puberty hit shortly after I turned 10 and while I had been given a sliver of an idea of what to expect, I learned most about my menstrual cycle from my own experience. Finally, my classmate Alpi told me EVERYTHING! She educated me about the correct names of my private parts, about what the male anatomy looked like and how sex actually took place… and it all sounded gross! I asked her how she knew so much about this big secret and she said her parents were gynaecologists and had told her everything. My father was a scientist and my mom, a historian, and I wondered how this essential knowledge had missed them.

Finally, I felt free and empowered. Armed with this new knowledge I went about educating the Nehas, Poojas, and sundry didis of my school, much to my class teacher’s shock. A year later, our school finally showed us the mandatory “feminine hygiene” video that was delightfully ambiguous. The only real take away from that entire exercise was, “Don’t pay attention to boys. Pay attention to your studies!” which was weird given that I went to a co-ed school and had more male friends than female friends.

This sexual segregation only intensified as I grew up. Earlier, I used to sit next to my best friends Hemant and Arihant, but I now found myself sandwiched between Neha and Pooja.

Little did I know that while we girls were being shown this video, the boys were also being given “life skills” lessons by male sports teachers. They were taught the importance of yoga and meditation because a real man never loses his temper on a woman. They were taught the importance of bathing every day and washing their hands every time they used the restroom (praise the Lord!). They were taught to immediately report any “improper books” or “blue film” cassettes on campus to their respective housemasters – while it was “natural to feel attracted” it was also “against our culture”. My male friends were also taught to “maintain distance” from girls because this wasn’t the age to “have affairs”.

And just like that the boys stopped playing cricket with me. They made it clear that they were grown-ups and would no longer “play with girls” and girls my age were anyway being actively discouraged by their parents from staying out in the sun, lest their brown skins get browner. This sexual segregation only intensified as I grew up. Earlier, I used to sit next to my best friends Hemant and Arihant, but I now found myself sandwiched between Neha and Pooja. We didn’t stand as per our heights in the morning assembly line anymore. The girls and boys had separate lines. Even their names were entered into the attendance register separately. I’d often imagine the names coming to life each night and playing cricket together when the register was locked inside the cupboard. As class monitor it would be my duty to take out the attendance register and give it to my teacher each morning, and I would always open the pages hoping that some of the girls’ names written in green ink had switched places with the boys’ names written in blue on two different pages. Perhaps they got tired after a long night of cricket and crashed on each other’s pages, but quickly made their way back to their respective pages before it was time for roll call.

I did grow up to have a healthy sex life. But that had more to do with my personal “shamelessness” and “initiative” as the neighbourhood aunties and female relatives referred to it. They never sent their daughters to me for sex education because they knew that I would tell them that their uterus and vagina were theirs, and that they alone had the right to decide what to do with them. I’d tell them that menstruation does feel gross and even a little scary at first, but ultimately it is a sign of good sexual health. That I’d tell them that nobody could force them to get married and have babies if they did not want it. That I would give them all tips on how to spot and stop inappropriate behaviour on a date.

I wish I’d gotten a chance to teach them though. To be their Didi. I wish I could normalise the idea of sexuality for them, instead of brushing it under a carpet of divya jyoti. I wish boys and girls were given dance lessons together. I wish we had classes on dating etiquettes. I wish boys were told about bringing flowers and girls were taught to insist on splitting the bill. I wish we were taught about consent instead of being taught that a “good girl” never wants these “rubbish things” and always marries and has babies with a man of her parent’s choice.

Despite the way our education was handled, I did manage to hold on to a few of my male friends even though they refused to play cricket with me. But even though we know each other for most of our lives, we are not buddies. They are busier declaring me as their “rakhi sister” in front of their wives, even as they slyly check out my hind quarters when they think I’m not looking.

For all of this and more, I blame divya jyoti.

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