Are We Making Cultural Progress As Women?

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By Arathi Devandran @miffalicious

youth; aloneA few weeks ago, I went to a concert alone. Yes, you read that right. I went to a concert. Alone. By myself. When I purchased my ticket, the thought of asking someone else did not even cross my mind. All I knew was that my all-time favourite musician was coming to Singapore (I’d missed his performances for the past 3 years because I’d been away) and I wanted to see him.

It didn’t strike me that I was going to attend this by myself until I was sharing this with a colleague who looked at me with the most incredulous expression on his face and went  “You’ve sunk to a whole new low, haven’t you?”

 

I laughed it off then, as I laugh at it now, but something about the way he said it made me think of several other conversations that I’ve had recently about this wariness and fear that aloneness seems to bring about in people.

 

I do many things by myself, mostly out of choice, sometimes, due to circumstance. I’ve had lunches alone, watched movies alone, gone shopping alone, travelled alone, and recently, gone to a concert alone. I’ve never thought too much about it, but more often than not, especially in Asian communities, I’ve noticed the looks and stares I get when I’m out and about myself.

 

It usually follows some sort of pattern – first, the curious glances, then the prolonged stares, the quick glances away when I lift my head from whatever I am doing and catch a stranger’s eye, then the awkward side glances again. When I was first experienced this, I used to feel self conscious, almost awkward in the too-big-for-my-own-skin way, in a I-shouldn’t-be-doing-this-way, in a oh-god-what-are-they-thinking-of-me way.

 

And then, it just stopped being awkward, and just a little amusing. That’s the magic of time. Do something often enough, subject yourself to something long enough, and you become desensitized. (Not always a good thing, this, but it does have its moments of merit)

 

Then, I found out I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. When I was in Bangalore earlier this year, I met a writer/traveler friend of mine. We were having dinner together and somehow, the dinner conversation turned to this very topic of doing things by oneself, alone. I was surprised to find that he too, had had similar run-ins with the masses where he found himself under the intense and awkward scrutiny for having dinner by himself.

 

I remember thinking to myself this as I left that evening – that our Asian society, so focused on continuing its traditions of family-hood, communalism and community, has completely sidelined, and even turned accusatory towards the idea of solitude. arathi2

 

I’m an only child. An only girl-child, at that. By default, this meant that I spent a lot of time by myself when I was young. I was blessed with a family that never made me feel like it was a bad thing to do things on your own; in any case, being by myself for long periods of time probably forced me to be a more independent, and self-serving person.

It was not a decision I made by choice, and now, many years later, I am very thankful for it. It taught me the most important lesson that I am reminded of every single day, to deal with myself, by myself, for myself.

As a special person once told me, “Honey, if you’re not okay with yourself, how do you expect anyone else to be okay with you?” A piece of advice that I find myself going back to over, and over, especially on days when it isn’t so easy.

There were the rules, the questions, the softly pitying remarks that went on, and on, and on.

“You’re going off to live by yourself in another country? Do you know anyone there? The world is not safe for young girls.”

“Make sure you come home by 9pm. I don’t want you out too late.”

“Spending all this time by yourself – how are you ever going to meet a man?”

All well-meaning, all completely contradicting what we’ve been taught as “modern women” of the 21st century.  We live in an ironic age right now, don’t we.

We educate our girls, give them a voice, teach them how to be independent, but “please, don’t stand out too much, all right?”

We talk about how it’s “okay to be different”, how we should “defy the norms”, how we should “follow our dreams”, but…but…only if your father’s aunt’s niece’s husband’s friend finds it acceptable.

Youth Talk Columnist

Youth Talk Columnist

We are taught to ask questions, and then find ourselves in situations where have to swallow them over, and over, until they become dead foetuses in our wombs.

We are encouraged to be women with ambition, but “don’t become too ambitious, we still need to marry you off.”

We are advised that we need to be worldly, to explore beyond the horizon that we see, “but make sure you travel with at least a male companion, please?”

The more space we are given as women, the more claustrophobic life seems to become. It’s hard enough trying to claw your way out of your own insecurities to pursue something, let alone fighting against the social and cultural constraints that are thrown in for free.

Every time it gets a little harder dealing with this social stifling, every time I find myself wondering if I’m living my life the “right way” or if there’s really “something wrong with me”, a treasured entry in my travel journal from Rome comes to mind.

“In a cafe, a beautiful Italian lady sits by herself. An opened packet of cigarettes lies carelessly on the table in front of her, together with a pair of dark sunglasses and a plate of a lunch that had been thoroughly enjoyed.

She’s staring into space, perfectly still, chin resting on the slight dip of her palm. Her bob cut hair shines auburn in the bright Roman sunshine.IMG_4066

She’s quiet.

She’s alone.

She’s satisfied in her quiet aloneness.

She catches my eye and we share a smile, an understanding of the beauty of solitude.

I turn away, leaving her to silence.”

There’s no right or wrong way to how you decide to live your life. The only certainty is that you have one life to live, and you’ve been blessed with many things that provide you with the facilities to live it to the fullest. The least you could do is be thankful for this, and do your best at it. Not in the way your grandpa’s late aunt’s daughter-in-law wants you to live, but the way YOU want to live. Be it alone, or with someone else, do your best at living. It’ll be terribly rewarding.

Oh, and about that concert that I attended alone? One of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Says a lot, doesn’t it?

 

 


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  1. Roma Khetarpal

    How spot on you are, Arathi! Great article! I have young adult children, probably around your age but definitely from your generation and since my daughter has brought this exact point up in debate at home, I have become a lot more mindful about my pre-programmed and sometimes intentional, responses to her and my son. If we can listen to what our children are asking for, it makes parenting a whole lot easier as well! Each one of our children should have the gift and privilege of being who they are and living their life as they envision it. I love what you said: Be it alone, or with someone else, do your best at living. It’ll be terribly rewarding.

    Thanks for sharing your point of view, out loud, and bringing attention to this very important discussion.

    In Joy,
    Roma


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