When I was growing up, all the secrets to adult life sat in VHS cassettes in my parents’ locker within a steel cupboard. Since I couldn’t get my hands on Basic Instinct, Disclosure or Pretty Woman (back then apparently that’s what made the sum total of all one needed to know about sex, love or dhokha), I would settle for Sidney Sheldon and occasionally, I would get a Jackie Collins or even Mills and Boon. This wasn’t a book reading session, this was a quest for knowledge. At 40, I am still figuring it all out—love and relationships with others, and love and relationship with myself (what’s that? they still ask).
Most millennial women are raised on a balanced diet of what not to do, what not to know, what’s not okay, what people will say. As a result we are conditioned to keep secrets with ourselves, not discover our own bodies or push boundaries with sexuality, be likeable and not present our opinions and so on. It was only until when the search bar replaced the chachi in the house and didn’t smirk at us for wanting to know, that we mustered guts to ‘ask’. Now, for those born in the wifi age, at least there is Google baba, Quora, Reddit to answer questions, however imperfectly.
But we women never had these conversations with each other unabashedly. And I always wondered why. This became my inspiration behind starting a new show called Sisterhood, to elevate ourselves from self-imposed shame, doubts about things, and have a platform for women to have these discussions fearlessly. On SheThePeople’s Youtube Channel, we talk about issues that not only remain a taboo, but spark a polar view in the society. For example, female pleasure was the subject we explored for the debut episode and asked why women only wanted to claim their space on the streets and not in the sheets. Part of the issue was what we grew up knowing about sex. As Swara Bhaskar says on the show, “I used to think if you stay in a room at night with a boy you become a bin beyahee maa.”
As we navigate very confusing and often conflicting messages about our bodies, misconceptions about sexuality, lack of information when it comes to queer experiences—we are actually having sex, and lots of it. In villages and in cities, off Tinder and in Whatspp sexts, with partners, husbands, friends and friendly strangers. Even with ourselves. But still the orgasm gap persists, so does shame and scandal around us having sex and actually enjoying it. And this has dangerous, lethal consequences. Rape culture thrives, sex continues to be used as a weapon against women and other genders, and their bodies continue to be policed. Pop culture has a big role to play here as well. Trinetra Haldar talks of where we have gone wrong in portraying transwomen as people who must claim pleasure like anyone else. “We have reduced the idea of a transperson to a joke.” Haldar adds, “The only place you will see transpeople spoken about is when we talk of HIV AIDS. So our pleasure, our sexuality becomes so limited to just that one aspect.”
And so Sisterhood discusses how to get away from this shame, and how to put ourselves first.
While recording this show, I realized our upbringing was a big reason for our problematic understanding. A 19 year old woman told me how when she got her first period, her mom didn’t explain to her what it was. A 21 year old mentioned she was taught vagina was always ‘shame shame’ until she discovered a group of friends in college who spoke about their bodies openly. A 41 year old’s motherhood guilt made her quit her career. A 38 year old woman was mocked in her family WhatsApp group for ‘being outspoken’ and ‘having too many political views.’ No one stood for her. And these women found it hard to stand up for themselves. And sometimes another woman was the reason for this.
“Women have always been the hunting dogs of patriarchy,” says Ratna Pathak Shah in an episode on how patriarchy starts a home. “When people say a woman is a woman’s worst enemy. It is said so often and it’s so unfair. A woman has been made to become a woman’s worst enemy. She is having to enforce laws that patriarchy has made. Women have been used for this.”
Another part of this patriarchal history has been forcing women to be the likeable gender. Starting when we’re very young, girls are taught that there’s a strict set of rules we have to follow if we want to be liked. As little girls, we have to be seen and not heard. Feminine but not too girly. Sexy but not slutty. We’re always walking a fine line. And the internet is probably perpetrating this even more? As queer artist Priyanka Paul points out, “the social currency is liking. Literally likes.”
In the corporate sphere, many studies say that women who are seen as competent and ambitious aren’t likable. Women who are likable are seen as incompetent. The two cannot go hand-in-hand. In the political arena, it was established that being a “nasty woman” was one of the key factors that cost Hillary Clinton the US presidency, in spite of being a seasoned politician running against an inexperienced candidate.
Many of our conversations try to unpack who a “likeable” woman is. Do the same behaviours and traits that make men likeable, make women unlikeable? And how does this definition of a well-liked woman change when our caste, class, sexual, racial and religious identities come into play?
When I started SheThePeople as a women’s channel 5 years ago, I spent a lot of time getting to know everyday women. In our journey to spotlight their success and struggles, I realized many women expressed that they had been played by society to believe in its prescriptive behaviour. It’s been a personal mission for me to drive conversations in a way women feel they are not alone in facing issues related to gender, sex, sexuality, bias, stereotyping and more. And therefore Sisterhood becomes the place where women confess their challenges and confront their insecurities, and explore together how to overcome them. In the weeks ahead expect shows on ‘Why women need to wear bras’, ‘Cancel Culture’, ‘Bad Brides’ and more.
Shaili Chopra is the founder of SheThePeople.TV