When I was eleven years old, I rode my bike to school. The school was about 3 kilometres away, and for mum, I was still too young to venture the ride on my own. My mum’s lone travels had been, and still are limited to going from the house to the letterbox and back and 3 kilometres for her little child in her eyes was too dangerous. My sister however, who was only a year older than me was allowed to ride, My mum’s ‘no’ did not make sense to me because it wasn’t rational.
So there I was riding along with other kids, feeling ‘old’ and ‘responsible’ and ‘free’ and my scrawny 13-year-old self felt a strange sense of achievement. Irrespective of what mum and others thought, I could actually ride! And from that day onwards I did actually ride pretty much every day to school.
This rebellious streak against something that seemed irrational to me continued as I grew older. As a teenager I would play for hours creating sculptures out of mud and waste, hence when it came to career pathways, I found myself being attracted to Engineering sciences. Most of the girls in my class were choosing Medicine over Engineering as a career. The medical establishment had once been predominantly male but by the time I was studying there were plenty of women in the field of general medicine. Engineering on the other hand was 99 per cent male. This made sense—after all—medicine was seen as a far safer career. Doctors worked inside while engineers worked outdoors. Doctors interacted with strangers in a familiar environment while site visits and supervisions for engineers involved interaction with unknown people in unknown outdoor settings.
But for me, the outdoors weren’t threatening—they were fun. And rather than feeling intimidated by men, I knew I could handle them—being in a co-education school environment, my class mates and playmates had always been boys. So, I didn’t even think twice about enrolling into an Engineering college 700 kilometres away from home.
My mum broke her rules and her 7 metres from house to letterbox were extended to 700,000 meters for me. By the time I had done that distance a couple of times, I learnt the art of survival on Indian trains for girls:
1. Book the top bunk in order to avoid undue male attention, especially while you are asleep.
2. Be ready with an action plan if there is eve teasing or bum pinching and,
3. Make sure you make friends with fellow travellers to support you in such situations
I still remember the day when I first arrived at the college campus. I saw men everywhere—men, men and more men—male students and male teachers and male admin staff members. I was not expecting that there would be so many men. There were around 100 male students to one female student.
But somehow, men did not bother me. After all, I was the girl who stole bikes and played in the mud and chose a different path. But, within a few days I realised there were unwritten rules written by male students for female students.
—-Rule Number 1. Who we could talk to,
—-Rule Number 2. What we could wear,
—-and Rule Number 3. Where we could go and at what time.
I remember that we were required under these unwritten rules to return back to the hostel by a ‘civilized’ hour—by early evening. Architecture entailed after hours group work, and so this rule was quite often broken by me. I also did not pay much heed to the restriction on speaking to boys, as it did not make sense to me at all. However, there were consequences of not following the rules. One of the consequences was the splashing of my name on the college wall as a ‘loose’ girl. I remembered the day and I also remember the feelings that I had, but, the men and their rules did not phase me out. As, I not only graduated successfully from that University but returned back as Assistant Professor in the same University—a female contributing to changing the male dominated dynamics of the university.
This journey of defiance, survival and return helped me in understanding the power that I gave to myself by rebelling against irrational rules. My problem as a little kid hadn’t been that I was defiant, it had been that the rules did not make sense and hence I challenged them. I did however understand the unwritten rules by the boys for us in the University. However, they were totally irrational. Or perhaps they were rational? They served a purpose, which was to keep women like me in their place—out of building sites, out of the public domain and out of sight.
The punishing graffiti on the college wall with my name had made this clear to me. As a middle-aged woman, I still can’t make sense of the rules that my mum has written for herself. Obviously, she broke these for me, and I am proud of her that she did so, and I am proud of that young girl, who kept fighting against those rules, challenging them every time. That has been my reward for continuing to push boundaries whenever someone’s ‘no’ has not made sense to me.