The Other F-Word

The Other F-Word

Illustration: Saachi Mehta

“So, what you’re saying is that you’d rather be a boy?” She asked, in a tone that made it clear that nothing I said from that point on was going to change the course of the argument. Even 14-year-old me knew better than to try.

The previous week I’d been accused of being a misogynist – not for the first time in my life – for refusing to accept a girl as my bench partner. In my fragile defence, it wasn’t that she was a girl, it was that she was a “girly girl”, complete with the lingering cloud of shampoo fragrance everywhere she went, and the unbearable pinkness of everything she owned. Her seemingly effortless excellence at portraying the ideals of an adarsh balika drove me nuts. At some level though, it also made me envious.

And now I found myself sitting in the principal’s office, hoping to try and justify why I’d threatened to “kick the shit out of” my bench partner if she touched any of my stuff. To be honest, I don’t know why I had either. Looking back, it seems like a flippant extension of the cult of personality I’d worked so hard at building. High school was a popularity contest, and my very boyish self was winning on the back of not knowing how to girl, and sprinting away with the trump card.

I mean, OF COURSE I’d much rather be a boy. What idiot wouldn’t? (It would also have saved me a world of confusion when I had my first girlfriend, but that’s a whole different story.)

Over the last week, surrounded by conversations about clothes, context, and sexism, I’ve thought long and hard about how that initial impulse to become a boy defined my growing-up years. It seemed like simple math. Boys, I believed, could do whatever they wanted, and I wanted that kind of freedom. I liked pretty girls, sports, and comic books at a time when it went hand-in-hand with sneering down at the superfluity of all that was considered “girly”.

I cut my hip-length hair short and wore my dad’s jeans for a year, because that’s how hard I was trying to make a statement. I regularly made casual remarks about how long it took women to make up their mind about things, or how much importance they seemed to lay on their appearance, or even how terrible they were at parking their cars. While most of this was meant to be in the jest that speckles the inherent misogyny of “ladversations”, there was a much deeper ideology at play there.

I’d been raised, like most of us, in a world where the gender discourse most accessible to a high-schooler was inevitably weighted with a “Boys vs Girls” opposition (or as Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai summarised it edgewise, “Ladkiyaan basketball nahin khel sakti.”) In my defence, I didn’t believe women were unequal to men in any regard. My rhetoric was more absorbed in the myopic idea of socially implied gender roles. I was pissed off at being born a woman, instead of the things that made being a woman so much harder, and I channelled that anger at my own femininity because I did not know a way out. Feminism was just another word – too militant and far too tedious.

“Isn’t feminism just sexism against men? Don’t get me wrong, I believe that women are equal to men, but feminism as a word is a bit much for me.”

Feminists, to me – as to some Bollywood actors who periodically and proudly distance themselves from the term – were victim-complexed man-haters. On more than a couple of occasions, I have started my sentences with, “I’m not a feminist, but…” Inevitably, these were occasions when I was defending an idea that required me to be treated with the same respect I saw my male friends receive.

What I was really doing in my ignorance (and what the aforementioned Bollywood actors failed to process before shooting their mouths off) was insulting every woman who had come before me. Women who had spent their lives fighting for my right to vote, my right to my body, or even my right to own property. I was undermining every woman who devoted herself to the causes that have made this time in history, although far from ideal, the best time to be born a woman – at least in my class and country. I was mocking the legacy of a struggle against structural bias that has been dishing out raw deals to one half of the world’s human population.

And then, I grew up.


Of course this newfound wisdom didn’t come out of nowhere. In September of 2011, I was travelling to Jaipur to spend a fortnight with a friend – only to discover that she’d been delayed by a day. The area around the airport was riddled with budget hotels in varying degrees of shadiness, so I ran a quick search on my phone, and took an auto to one that looked like my safest bet.

As is the case with most dates you set up on the internet, the hotel – with a facade adorned with peeling paint and paan-stained walls – looked nothing like its photos. The auto guy sensed my apprehension: “Yeh hotel achha rahega aapke jaisi ladki liye,” he reassured me through a toothless smile – this hotel is perfect for a girl like you. I shrugged, and walked into a large waiting area right out of a Rajasthan Tourism flyer. The cordial receptionist slipped me a form: This inspired some confidence, as paperwork often does. As I reached into my wallet for a photo ID, the receptionist cleared his throat at me, pointing to a field I’d left empty where it asked for the name of my father or husband. I informed him that I wasn’t married, and that my dad had passed away the previous year. He looked at me, blankly at first, then softening a little. “Ek personal question poochhoon?” he asked. “Bura mat maan’na… Maine dekha hai ki aap ke line ki ladkiyon ke aksar baap nahi hote. Is hi liye yeh kaam karti ho kya? Lagti toh achhe ghar ki ho.”

My throat closed up and knees locked. He had just insinuated that I was a prostitute. For him, the penny seemed to have dropped when I told him about the absence of a father figure. While I should’ve been overcome by rage, all I felt was a crippling sadness. The me I knew would’ve thrown a punch, but instead I stood there silently clutching at my shawl, planning my next move. Then I bent to pick up my bag, and left.

I stood on the street outside, too overwhelmed to think, staring at my reflection in a nearby car window wondering what had led him to think that about me and coming up blank. I reached into my bag for my pack of Marlboros, then realised that as a girl smoking out in the open, I’d only attract more attention. I stood there feeling weak, helpless, and changed.

I’d been physically and sexually assaulted before on more than one occasion, but somehow it was this incident that managed to shame me in a way my mind couldn’t fathom. What hurt the most was that the man seemed genuinely sympathetic, while making those allusions. Yet, all he did was reduce my entire individuality to a field left blank on a registration form.

I was done making excuses; this wouldn’t have happened if I were a boy. But for the first time in my life, I didn’t wish I were a boy. Instead, I realised what it meant to be a woman.


A few days ago, I sat listening to an acquaintance hold forth on feminism. “But if it’s equal rights you’re after, shouldn’t it be called equalism?” she said. “Isn’t feminism just sexism against men? Don’t get me wrong, I believe that women are equal to men, but feminism as a word is a bit much for me.”

I stared at her, partly amazed at the superficial coherence of her rhetoric, and partly very, very exhausted of the conversation we were going to have to have following its verbalisation. It’s like I knew the trajectory of the conversation: It begins with equalism, moves to “all human rights matter”, and ends at “feminazism” (femin coming from “females” and Nazi from the Vogon word for “are alright as long as they don’t ask for equal rights at a volume that disturbs my carefully curated apathy”).

Then I thought back to my own journey from the time I wanted to be a boy. “Don’t get me wrong” was yet another manifestation of being ill-informed about systemic oppression (it’s a different matter that I was 14 when I held those views and this person was at least a decade older than that).

So I decided to engage with her, instead. And tell her, gently, that many a reductive argument equates a strong, vocal support for feminism with some sort of bizarre, postmodern, and wholly misandrist conspiracy theory. That assumptions are often made based on the very scientific sample size of, “that girl I know whose Twitter bio is just ALL MEN ARE DOGS…” That by throwing around such offhand comments, she’s undermining the legacy of every man and woman who has ever questioned the socio-cultural status quo.

I’m not sure I’ve made a dent in her worldview. Maybe what she needs to come full circle, is a supposedly sympathetic hotel receptionist in a small city insinuating that she is a certain kind of a woman. Although, I sincerely hope not.