Some time early last year at a work meeting, I was sitting with a room full of people discussing how best to deal with certain client-related issues that had recently come up. I remember that it started out as a very tense meeting; everyone was squirming uncomfortably in their seats and hoping to come to a resolution as quickly as possible. Just as the meeting started, I realized that most of the senior members in the room did not know who I was, so I initiated a round of introductions. I remember that everyone was very keen on hearing what I had to say, mainly because I was leading the 40-plus client-facing team, and had a deep knowledge of the client processes. I was also interacting with each and every member of the team on a daily basis, and was in tune with the overall group dynamics. As the meeting progressed, I remember questioning some of the core beliefs that we had based our work on, and instead coming up with a whole slew of ideas, most of which were well received. I remember that the meeting ended well; we came out armed with ideas to make our work better, and hopefully, exceed the expectations of our client. What I didn't realize then, until it was pointed out to me much later, was that I was the only female in that room. Not that it mattered.
Having grown up in a middle-class Indian family, I always believed that I shared values similar to most of my friends. As a family we spent a significant portion of our lives in the Middle East, and were fortunate of the exposure it provided to the world outside India. However, I never realized that the ideas and concepts my parents had imbibed in my little mind were so out of the ordinary. Never let anyone tell you that you cannot participate in anything -- be it sports, debates, or karate competitions; never consider yourself to be less than any boy because you are not; always speak out your ideas if you believe them to be of merit because your opinion matters; always question your beliefs if they seem to be contradictory -- maybe your discussions might lead to a different understanding of age old customs; always be honest even if it means suffering for some period of time; never hide any part of your life from your parents even if your friends do so; always follow your passion no matter what facet of life it might be in; and always dream big! It was only after I got married that I realized that even though many families talked the talk, they very rarely walked the walk.
I remember the day when I reached puberty; my dad was overjoyed that his daughter had "come of age" and gave out mithai (Indian sweets) to our neighbors. I remember the first time I "dated" a guy (it involved several long phone conversations, I don't even remember meeting him) at the age of 14; my dad was upset that his daughter actually liked another guy, but got over it after several rounds of heated arguments. My mother, on the other hand, took a completely different approach. She had a long conversation with me about love, boys and life in general, and promised to always be my best friend from that moment on, no matter how difficult the conversation. And she has kept her promise to this date. I did my part of being a good kid; always introducing my family to all my friends, especially the boys since I rarely got along with girls; always keeping my mom informed when I was hanging out late at night: where, with whom and for how long; always being open about issues that bothered me in school and college knowing well that I would get their support if I was doing the right thing. And my parents always did their part -- providing all the moral support I needed, but allowing me to face the consequences of all my decisions.
When I finally realized that I have been the only female in several professional settings throughout my life, it dawned on me that I have led a life of privilege. This is not because my parents brought me up in a life of luxury -- in fact, a significant part of my life was that of severe economic, social and emotional hardships -- but because, growing up, I never once believed that I was of a different gender than the 600-plus million males in India. I never once believed that having a different body made me any more or less of a person, and that I was expected to do anything differently for that reason. I never once believed that my gender forced me to behave in a specific way, wear specific clothes, eat specific food, say specific things or make specific changes to my lifestyle that would befit an Indian girl. I believe that everything I have been able to accomplish in life can be singularly attributed to this feeling of equality -- while almost all parents encourage their children to strive for better grades or jobs or salaries, my parents had me convinced that there was potential to greatness in every human being and it only took courage to dream the impossible.
Today, when I am back in my country after living in the United States for over 11 years, in the midst of several horrifying incidents of sexual harassment that have changed the way people think about India, I fully understand the impact of my unique upbringing. Growing up, my friends and I always felt a combination of rage and shame whenever men stared at us as we walked the streets of my country -- disrobing us with their eyes, molesting us with their gaze and humiliating us with their intentions. To say that we were disgusted by this behavior would be an understatement, and I always hoped that things would change someday. This time, however, things felt different; I did not experience the same feelings of misery I did when I was younger, and for a few days was overjoyed that my country was finally turning a new leaf. However, it wasn't until my husband mentioned that he was uncomfortable with the way some men were looking at me, that I realized what was happening.
As a young girl, even though I was aware of some of the cruelties of the world, and had several open conversations with my parents on the subject, I do not think I had enough confidence in my self to dismiss the unnerving stares with a blind eye. I was still naive in my understanding of the human mind; that the wants, the desires and the feelings of frustration men felt were not personal, and had nothing to do with how I carried myself. That my clothes or the way I walked would be immaterial to their lewd comments. That I could be fully covered and stay home all day, but that didn't make me immune to their foul intentions. But today, I realized what had changed; and it definitely wasn't the men. It was I, who had grown stronger and more confident. I had so much respect and pride, for my mind and my body, that I had refused to allow the actions of any man evoke feelings rage and shame in me anymore. And I have to say that this change did not come easily; it took years of wisdom imparted by my parents, years of experience living independently and being responsible for my own decisions; it took a lot of mistakes and a lot of learning. But, I was finally able to completely ignore every man on the street, just as one would ignore a swarm of mosquitoes, and continue on without letting their desires rule my actions. In their inconspicuousness lies my freedom; in my confidence lies my strength.
I want to end this article urging all parents to remember that your words are the guiding pillars of your children's world; every word of encouragement increases their self-confidence and makes them feel secure about themselves. We want our girls to be aware of the world around them, not shelter them, and encourage them to genuinely confide in their parents. We want our boys to be aware of the cruelties that their mothers, sisters, wives and friends have to face, and teach them to step out of the mob and speak up. And it can start today -- invite your children, their friends and their friends' parents to have an open discussion about the issues women face in the Indian society; remind your children that you are always there to support them no matter how hard the circumstance; ask your child to question age old beliefs and provide genuine answers to aid their critical thinking processes -- just small steps that I promise will go a long way. And remember, every daughter that walks with her head held high and her heart filled with unconditional love, will be the wife and mother of the future of our country.