There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. – Madeleine K. Albright
You keep hearing it all the time. In words that go something like, “women are women’s worst enemy” or “how could she do this to me? She’s a woman too….” I’ve lately come to believe, why not? When women have always been pitted against each other from the birth of mankind, why should competitiveness, bullying, active sabotage or subtle mean-spiritedness come as a surprise? When, for most of our lives our worth depends on who we are compared to (which, in the age of supposed equal opportunity, also includes men), why should such feelings be alien to us?
But, I do not believe there are extra entries in our individual ‘hell’ registers for such behaviour. Why? Because you either get your dues here on your living planet earth, or you don’t get them at all. The only thing you can do about it, like most things that can possibly be categorised as ‘sin’ is, uh, not do it.
In my last post, I recounted two recent experiences of sexually inappropriate behaviour that I’d been at the receiving end of. I wondered if people would take the incident of me being on the receiving end of inappropriate touching from a respectable-looking woman over fifty in public transport seriously. Because, I don’t often hear women talk about it. Sexual or not, I just don’t hear women talking about being bullied by women who hold power over them. Or even if we do, we just dismiss it as jealousy, that they are pitiable because they’re of a certain age – that they’ve lost their youth – and one of the ways they try to remain relevant is by letting those who’re subordinate to them know that they can control their destiny.
But, I don’t want to believe that. At least, I don’t want to believe that on a universal scale. Let me explain. I am at an age where I get to instruct young people as part of my job and also socially, but I hold little power, and have to be governed by those who are older than me. I can see it. I can already feel myself getting envious of young girls wearing skirts I no longer have the context to wear. This is a particularly difficult generation to handle as an adult. I’ll give you an example.
Indians, or those who are acquainted with Bollywood, would know it is pretty sacrilegious to not know who musician/actor Kishore Kumar is. As I was chatting with a couple of sixteen-year-olds, I dropped a well-known Kishore Kumar reference. When they didn’t get it, I simply said, “It’s Kishore Kumar!” When they told me they didn’t know who he was, in that typically bratty way teenagers have been parodied too many times for, I told them. To which they replied, “Oh, we don’t know stuff of your generation.” Now, mind you that Kishore Kumar’s career precedes my coming-into-existence by several decades. And I am twenty-nine, twenty-six at the time of this conversation. As I talked to these girls more, I realised the only thing they knew that I didn’t know (even if we compare to when I was a sixteen-year-old with no internet access) was how to use Instagram filters.
So you see, I understand where older people are coming from. But, I feel ancient most of the time with my orthopaedic shoes, matronly sense of style and not wearing makeup a lot of the time because I prefer to sleep instead in the morning. Thus, it came as a surprise to me that after working in my office for a considerable time, I was asked to change my attire. It was suggested a few months ago but, without even thinking about it, I said, “But, women everywhere wear this.” And yes, they do. All over the country. In my line of work itself. Not in my workplace specifically, because there are few women my age, and for whatever reason, older women do not wear it.
I still accepted the idea, because I don’t fancy unpleasantness most of the time. But, I was so busy over the weekend, I didn’t get to buy new clothes. And then, when I did go to work, dreading what might be said to me and whether my genuine excuse will be accepted or not, all I got was some Paddington Bear-style ‘hard stares’. Immediately after work, I rushed to shops near my home and though I couldn’t get outfits in this style in my size, I spent hours hunting down one that might work and then got it tailored, where the male tailor ‘accidentally’ brushed my breasts as he measured me. When I got home I was drained, and unable to work on a project that would actually help my career, unlike this outfit.
There is no specific dress-code apart from looking professional. And as I mentioned, I’m covered neck to toe, without my back, my waist, my legs or my decolletage peeking out. But, the worst was yet to come, and it didn’t even involve me. Now that I was wearing a new outfit, my old style was discussed with reference to someone else (let’s call this person ‘client’). Somehow, the client’s character was reflected on their outfit, and I was told directly by one person who isn’t officially as powerful as the rest of the women (but, you know, the kind who likes to suck up to those in power) that that style of clothing is morally wrong.
It would be too easy and obvious for me to put these women down. In the security of a blog that they’re probably not going to read. I don’t even judge them personally. Until they made me think about it, I didn’t even care what they thought of other women, or other people. This specific person had once laughed off somebody’s leave of absence letter, because their medical certificate was signed by a psychiatrist. As someone who has suffered from mental illness all their life, undiagnosed and untreated for most of it, I found it personally offensive. At the same time, just the fact that this young person had even dared to reveal his illness honestly in this letter, made me envy his courage, since I’ve never had the guts to do so myself.
To be honest, there is nothing pitiable about these women. They have power. They’re successful. They have large disposable incomes, well-educated kids, outfits that are much more expensive than mine. They have a lifestyle they’re able to afford that I can’t. They’re the kind of women who’ll be invited to speak at Women Empowerment seminars. Yes, they’re not young in the way beauty brands would like them to be young, but the biggest bluff out there is that youth is power. No, it isn’t. Not unless you’ve come from a privileged place and your life has been sorted out for you. Youth is being lost. Is being vulnerable. Is dreaming, and feeding on your dreams, your hopes for the future that give you enough motivation to tolerate the present. Wrinkles, grey hair and decreased metabolism can hardly compete with it.
There are people who say, “I wish I could be young again.” I don’t. Pretty early in life, I knew this was as good as it gets. For this time and age. I don’t envy the social media-driven lives of young people one bit. I can’t imagine my teenage self having to take hundreds of pictures of herself, and then worrying about how many likes and comments they receive. Having to worry about how to be like Britney Spears was problem enough.
What do you do then? This time last year, I was being bullied for my hair. I have shoulder-length curly hair, and there’s been a trend in India for quite some time to only have chemically-straightened poker-straight hair. I faced unpleasant remarks a few times, and then I started putting my hair up in a bun. I snapped one day when I got a comment after a few days of not receiving any. I told this person, quite rudely, “There are other things in life to discuss besides my hair.” This caused a mini-furore. It spread, and then someone said to me, “But, this other person gets it more than you….” There are so many things wrong with that statement. Just the fact that you’re in a position to casually admit that you “tease” those who are not in a position to retaliate, and are more surprised than anything when someone like me does say something that isn’t even directed at you, shows how you go about such bullying behaviour without even realising it.
And that, is where the problem lies. Not that these are women against women, or women of a certain age, or that they have power and others don’t. They don’t even have to be women, or grown-ups. A bully will never think of themselves as a bully. A bully will never realise what is bullying behaviour. What is ‘harmless teasing’, and what is ragging on somebody.
I would not have let this affect me as much as it has, had it not been for something else that happened concurrently. This is not my dream job, and everyone who’s there is aware that it is only en route to something more, let’s say, weighty. I enjoy what I do, but when I got to know that an important piece of information was not shared with me, amidst other trivial things like questions about my attire, information that would not affect their career in anyway but greatly help my own, I finally realised something.
No matter how well you behave with people, no matter how much you believe the best in them, there are very few people in life who actually want good things to happen to you. You may not even realise it. But, you may not be in a position to do anything about it when you do. You can’t even wish them hell like the Albright quote above, because you know that is wrong and not in keeping with your breeding, with your character that they reduce to what they think about what you wear. What you can do is not give a damn. I like to not think about my work at all when I’m home. Unless I have tasks to do, I keep all of it out of my mind (to the point of doing laundry last minute, because I even keep my laundry bag out of sight). And focus on what is important to me, what will help me get where I want to in life. My life is too important, too precious, to waste on what other people do to impair it. It’s en route after all, not a dead end.
How do you deal with workplace bullies/people trying to get you down?