The Fight against Bullies
SAAD ADNAN KHAN
I used to be bullied ruthlessly when I was in high school. The reason was quite simple - according to people I was effeminate or not “manly”. I was at the peak of puberty and I still didn't have a manly voice. Instead I had a croaky high pitched voice. I moved my hands a lot while speaking, and I was not very athletic. In short I wasn't a “real” man. Boys in my class shot words like “homo”, “fag”, “hijra”, “half-lady” to differentiate themselves from me, since I was a disgrace to manhood. They pointed and jeered at me to juxtapose me as “abnormal” with them being “normal”. For too long, even I thought that there was something severely wrong with me. I was constantly under the male gaze in and outside my class. Every time I did something “un-manly”, I was laughed at. I became very self-conscious of my behaviour and attitude. My behaviour and gestures came under my own surveillance, because I wanted to “fix” myself.
My father took me to a homeopath doctor, to get some kind of medicine for my voice. It wasn't a masculine voice and it had to be made so. Eventually my voice became deep and more “masculine”. Now whether it was the medicine or natural biological process that brought the change – I don't know. I asked a friend of mine to help me become “manly”. My friend was a she, since I didn't have a lot of male friends. I was usually ostracized from the social circle of boys, or at times I was only used to quench their thirst for bullying. This friend of mine was very excited and took the task very seriously, because she was about to “change my life” – make me normal. She taught me a couple of masculine poses and asked me to wear metal chains because that would definitely make me appear more masculine. She approved of my behaviour and rebuked me every time I did something out of order. However, I looked for approval from the boys, or the “real” men, in class to feel like a man. I rarely spoke in class and was always shy and embarrassed to interact with boys, because I wasn't getting any compassion from them. I felt proud when my male (and sometimes female) classmates or cousins announced that I seemed much “manlier” or that I was no longer a “half-lady”.
High school years are the prime suffering years for anyone who is a little bit different from the mainstream, or in the language of the youth, who are “weird” or “peculiar”. This is the time when we start exploring only a fraction of our identity, and also come face to face with several kinds of politics in society microscopically – one of them being sexual and gender politics. We live in a society where not only gender roles and conventions are constructed, but also sex and sexuality. We are not only made to believe that men are stronger than women, but also that hermaphrodites (or hijra), transgender and homosexual people are abnormal and deviant.
As a boy, I was oppressed because I didn't necessarily fit into the normal category of the masculine gender. For which I was labelled with different names because it helped reinforce the gender and sexual binaries and dynamics in society. By labelling me as “abnormal”, the boys in class were merely keeping the role and “legacy” of masculinity intact, monolithic and absolute, as it's supposed to be. By bullying kids like me, the bullies in class felt manlier and stronger. As I recount the sexual harassment I went through in my high school years, I can't help but find the ignorant and insensitive behaviour of my classmates quite comical. However, I also feel sad for the ones who continue to suffer silently. The repercussions could be severe and long lasting. Such sexual abuse could lead to lack of confidence, insecurity and self-loathing in the victim of bullying. He will continuously look for dark and secluded corners to ask himself, “Why couldn't you be normal?” He will be embarrassed and scared to take his parents to school on parent-teachers' day, in case a class bully makes a nasty comment right in front of his parents and crush whatever self-esteem he is left with.
A couple of months back, Ellen DeGeneres on her show mentioned four teenagers, who committed suicide because of sexual harassment and bullying. The victims would go through their teenage years, a prime age of growth, feeling shame, fear and self- hatred. The boy would constantly try and subscribe to the “hegemonic masculinity” as I did. Michael S Kimmel, an American sociologist describes hegemonic masculinity as “the image of masculinity of those men who hold power, which has become the standard in psychological evaluations, socio-logical research and self-help and advice literature for teaching young men to become “real men”. The hegemonic definition of manhood is a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power”. Boys from an early age are chastised and oppressed by other male peers until they become “true” men – someone who should be chivalrous, physically buff, athletic, who shows interest in alcohol, drugs, violence and stunts, who shows instant sexual interest in women, and who should cringe at the slightest hint of sensitivity because that would be considered gay or not manly. To conform to hegemonic masculinity, a boy suppresses the” feminine” traits he picks from his mother or else he will be seen as a wimp, a Mama's boy, a sissy. We live in a society where not only women are eve teased and raped, but also men are oppressed and brought up to become hyper masculine.
Boys and girls in high school of course should not be blamed for such inconsiderate and exclusionary behaviour, because they are mere subjects of the dominant cultural and social norms. They have only picked up such traits to be abusive towards someone who is not like them from their own parents, media and society. At such times, the bullied child shrugs away even from his parents. My father wanted me to have a “normal” man's voice because he didn't want me to stand out in the public as the “other”, and thus he was trying to protect me. But by doing so, he only subscribed to the normal and acknowledged conventions in society that marginalise the other. One time he even asked me if I was being bullied. My prompt answer was a firm “NO!” His response was that I should not sit with the bullies or should stay away from them. I didn't say anything. Now I know that that couldn't have been a solution to anything. Parents should make the child feel loved at such times, because the bullying doesn't start in high school, but way before that (around second grade) and lasts a long time.
Parents should somehow let their child know that they are there for him and that it's nothing wrong to be different, because they are perceived as different only from the mainstream and dominant ideological perspective. The last thing parents should do is send off the child to fight the bully to become stronger. Sending the boy off to prove and pass such “tests” might not be the best option, because the boy might already be doing that – trying to prove his masculinity in front of his male peers. Sadly people are so blinded by hegemonic representations of everything that they have simply lost the faith in imagination, free thinking and acknowledging diversity and difference among human beings. Class bully and eve teasing could appear irrelevant areas to explore sexism in society, when we have rape cases and domestic violence to think about, but nonetheless these are the small everyday incidents one can go back to, to trace the roots and building blocks of such an epidemic like sexism.
Arundhati Roy in her beautiful book “The God of Small things” writes “There were metal folding chairs arranged in a ring and on the chairs there were people, with slanting rhinestone sunglasses, watching.” I get the feeling that society is watching us in the same way – boxing us to our senses and fixing us whenever we transcend our border and limit set by the same society – a society where sexism not only exists for women, but for everyone.