Unravelling Womanhood: Insights from Personal Reflection

On International Women’s Day, Sonika Parashar, through a chance conversation and collaborative reflection, underlines the important role schooling, teachers and peer groups play in shaping a child’s gender identity and sense of self.


Art: Amplifying Voices by Avinash Karn and Thara M Thomas

A chance conversation one morning with one of my female colleagues at Azim Premji University led us to talk about how both of us had very different parenting and schooling experiences while growing up. Yet, as we turned into adolescents and then young adults, we seemed to have developed similar ideas about what it meant to be a woman. 

Now when we look back, as girls and women in the age group of 11 – 23 years, we had very low self-esteem. We did not consider ourselves worthy enough to be in a relationship that valued us for who we were, for what we brought to the table, and for what we could be. We seemed to be adjusting for the most part to the expectations others put on us, not understanding in the process how certain relationships had turned toxic for us.

Before this conversation, I believed that I had a negative view of myself as a woman because of my childhood experiences. This included growing up in a highly patriarchal household, and a schooling environment no different from other mainstream schools of the time, which taught us to conform.

I knew my colleague and her background well enough to be aware that her parents and the alternative’ school environment had always encouraged her to voice her opinion and hold her individuality strongly. 

On the other hand, when I was growing up, I was asked to behave in certain stereotypical ways expected of a woman — being submissive to others and keeping family first (also read as cooking, cleaning, nurturing in preparation for a suitable’ husband and in-laws) over career and personal ideologies. 

It surprised me that despite the differences in our general upbringing at home, and the different kinds of schools we went to in terms of vision, curriculum and pedagogy, both of us grew up to unconsciously have similar beliefs about what it meant to be a woman. We felt that the best we, as women deserved in a relationship, was someone who said they loved or cared for us, even if their actions were more attuned to loving themselves instead of us.

How did this happen, I wondered. 

In terms of the school being an important pillar of socialisation in a child’s life, even when we came from two entirely different school backgrounds — one being mainstream’ and the other being alternative’, we felt it had a similar impact on us. My colleague feels her peer group was a stronger influence than her home environment in making her see herself in a certain way, leading to her feeling disempowered over the years.

I too had had a similar experience where, as an adolescent, I had started looking at myself through my peers’ eyes — not always kind. The home environment only worsened the situation for me. So, our peer groups in our respective schools were identified as one similar factor influencing our sense of self as girls/​women.

We then concurred that both of us had teachers who made us and who swayed us, the ones who made us believe in ourselves and the ones who taught us to oblige no matter what. With an already depleting sense of self-worth, it seemed we were listening more to the ones who were asking us to submit and conform without appreciating what we truly wanted as girls/​women.

The third factor that we also discussed briefly was the media we were exposed to. It romanticised and glorified, even if toxic, the notion of what it meant to be a woman. She was sacrificing, empathetic, kind, submissive, loving, selfless — qualities stereotypically associated with good’ women. 

We felt it was our duty’ to save the people’ in our lives. It didn’t matter if a male friend or partner acted like a toxic Kabir Singh (character in a Hindi film). We believed it was us who were destined to transform their lives and save them from themselves by steadily loving and nurturing them even if it meant putting up with their adult tantrums, at the cost of our well-being. 

Today as a grown-up woman, and a new mother to a girl, I know better. I know that how I look at myself is all that matters. Also, it is important to have clarity in thought and follow someone only if you are convinced by their ideas. Otherwise, one should build the courage and confidence to tread one’s path. 

I know now that it should not be anybody’s duty’ to save’ the other. As adults, we should build ourselves and sort out our mess ourselves. We should take help and support but should not make others responsible for who we are — we should be held accountable for ourselves. I know all of this today; however, I wish I knew it when I needed it the most — during my adolescence and young adult years.

The chance conversation and collaborative reflection with my colleague pushed me to once again underline the important role schooling, teachers and peer groups play in a child’s life. 

On this Women’s Day, I raise some questions for myself and anybody interested:

  • How do we create school spaces that encourage a positive sense of self in children of all genders?

  • What can support adolescents and young adults in navigating issues related to their gender identity? 

  • As teachers and teacher-educators, what systems can we create, and which practices can we employ to frame a space that allows children to express themselves and empathise with others — especially in relation to issues of gender identity?

  • How can we empower children and young adults in a way that that helps them navigate the labyrinth created by peer groups and the media?

Will I be able to teach my daughter all that I know today as a woman? Will I be able to counter the negativity from some peers, teachers and the media? 

Though I do not know the answers yet, I will try my best. Perhaps working on the questions that I have raised here will help.

Art: The Balance by Subhash Vyam, Durgabai Vyam and Amitabh Kumar

Note: The images used in the piece are a part of the murals created at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru campus. Read more about the murals here.

About the Author

Sonika Parashar is a faculty member at Azim Premji University. She has experience in pre-service teacher education, curriculum development, language in education, pedagogy of different curricular areas and their integration, building classroom culture, teaching children with specific educational needs, and guidance and counselling.