The “Extreme” Label
“Chhat par kaala kaunwa baitha, kayen kayen karta rehta, sab se bole, jhoot bole kauva kate” (A black crow is sitting on the roof, it caws all day, and it says to all, speak lies and you will be pecked).
These were the opening lyrics of a popular Bollywood song in the 90s. Around that time, I remember leading a girls’ scout program in a conservative school, where girls and boys were educated separately. The scout program was, at the time, one of the few marginally co-ed activities. One day, the boys decided to rephrase the crow song for me. The translation of their version was – “Samy the bandit is sitting on the roof, she crows all day, and says to all, speak lies and she will peck you”. Apparently, I had become the bogeywoman. The song trended in the group for some time, with boys humming it whenever I passed by. I shrugged it off. My reasoning: I would rather they fear me than disrespect me.
Looking back, I’ve wondered, why were those the only two options? Why did assertiveness and holding a position of authority automatically make me bhayankar. For those new to the word, the literal translation of the word is awful, frightful or terrible. But in conversation, it might be used to describe women who are considered “extreme”. Words hold powerful meaning beyond their literal translation, and while my male counterpart in the scout program was a leader, I was bhayankar. Run, hide, and take cover, a 12-year old with an opinion was out to get you.
Does an Opinion Make You Uncomfortable?
Fast forward many years,I’m having a casual chat with a friend about our school experiences, and she points out the bhayankar label has followed us into our professional lives too. She didn’t have to dig too far into her memory; she had an experience from that morning. At work, they convened a special meeting to tell her she was aggressive. The reality – she provided her professional feedback on a project that didn’t align with everyone else’s’. As she speaks, another friend pipes in with her example from the day, and then another.
Turns out our assertiveness and opinions made people uncomfortable. It’s like an itchy new sweater – some need to wear an undershirt to bear it and others burn it before it gives them a rash. And in this process, there are “extreme” labels for every occasion. Show leadership, and you are bossy; make a firm decision, and you are brusque; disagree in a meeting, and you are rude; and hold someone to account for a discriminatory action, you are crazy.
People label you like a file and put you away in a dusty cabinet. Some workplaces recognize the conscious and unconscious gender biases and have rolled out communication campaigns and anti-bias training, with commendable intent. Others opt for the ‘burn the sweater’ approach – discourage, shame and eliminate any signs of a powerful female voice.
Amplifying Young Voices
Biases don’t simply flick on in adulthood, they take hold early and that’s where the change must begin. I consider myself exceptionally fortunate. My friends and family, since childhood, encouraged my opinions, even when these didn’t align with their own. On days when a teacher shut me down with “because that’s the way it is” to my question “why?”, I had people in my corner who said, “good question, let’s talk more about it”.
But what happens when a girl, bullied as a violent crow, is coaxed to conform if she wants to join the squad of elegant parrots? It is quite possible that her teenage insecurities and desire to be liked will muzzle her into conforming. Without anyone to recognize the value of her opinion, her voice might be diluted, or worse, lost, forever. That’s one less voice to speak up for truth, one less voice to speak out against injustice and one less voice trying to make the world a better place. If you are a parent, educator, or any adult with an influence in a young girl’s childhood, if she expresses an opinion, consider yourself special. You have the opportunity to show her how powerful her voice can be, for herself, her future and her community.
For all the young girls and women out there, your opinion is your strength – labels do not define you. Remember, you are an individual, not a category. Unlock your infinite potential and unleash wonders with the power of your unique voice. And the next time you see a bhayankar crow cawing on a roof, know that it is rooting for you.
About The Author
Samyuktha Shenoy is a security advisor, who specializes in educating her clients on how to prepare for and respond to crises. The views expressed in this article are her own, and do not reflect those of her employer.
Edited by: Shruti Kapoor
Blog posts by this author:
Owning Your Safety: A Tale of Collected Wisdom