One afternoon in a hot sweaty dorm room at Delhi Public School, I glanced at crayon scrawlings of “I love Rahul” and “Payal has a hot ass” on the walls while I had a sufficiently awkward conversation with my mother over the phone. I was 16 and on a week-long German meet and greet representing Tamil Nadu. Visibly terrified when I made it to the list, I was quickly relieved to find that the rooms were segregated.
My mother laughed as I narrated what seemed like an ordeal at the time. “Something is wrong with me. Something is off. I…can’t look at boys in the eye. I can’t talk to them.” I hadn’t been in a mixed group in a long time. I was in an all-girls school. Sex segregation was everywhere – math tuition, coaching classes, inter-school culturals. I thought something was terribly wrong with me, because other girls could do it, and another section said they had male cousins who had helped them get over anxiety.
I was no charmer. I couldn’t bat my lashes, or flip my hair or even look a boy in the eye without thinking he was a scaly, reptilian species from an alien planet. So, as a coping mechanism, I began timing the number of minutes I spent talking to a boy and give myself a little treat at the end of it. I knew I had to talk to one by the time I was 24. (heh)
If I crossed 5 minutes, I would allow myself one Archie comic strip. (this series also traces back to my problematic understanding of gender dynamics, I later realized) If I crossed 10 minutes, I would reward myself with a toffee. Yeah. If it went beyond that, I dashed to the near bathroom to remember breathing.
Truth be told, all my understanding of boys and men came from Tamil movies where a man clings on to a duppata until she agrees to marry him. It also came from movies where the man strangles the woman with the same dupatta if she said no.
My girls-only school was akin to a convent, where we were constantly reminded of our biggest gift to God and our future husbands – virginity. In adulation, we crowded around the girl who had managed to snag herself a boyfriend from the opposite school. We also, from the bottom of our hearts, hoped she failed her biology class so the teacher could blame it on “the bad influence of the boys in the bus stop”. We were in awe of the girl who flirted with the canteen lady’s son for a free samosa. Rumors were and are still rife of a particular school - "Of course you can send her to that school, if you want her back pregnant, that is."
As a result, our attitudes toward men were geared towards either fright, disgust, lust or reverence. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the same with boys too. So what’s the harm? Our girls and boys are staying away from each other, no one is having funny ideas, and certainly no one is getting pregnant.
In increasing cases, moving from a sex segregated or a single sex classroom to a college to work spaces, the tacit idea is to see men and women not as multidimensional people with thought and hopes and aspirations, but as penis bearers and vagina bearers with only, and only sexual aspirations.
Somewhere, thanks to this invention - in a workspace, men are threatened by a woman’s autonomy today, her ability to consume and earn just as much, and her will to mingle with men in a non-sexual context. Consent is an alien word to many men. The power dynamic and the inequality is only worsened by sex segregation.
Male individuals — rather those people our culture defines as “male” — have historically dominated society physically and hierarchically. One response to male domination is to separate female-identified individuals and create female-exclusive spaces, like female-only classrooms.
Some might mistake this as a brand of feminism. But feminism without intersectionality isn’t feminism, and separating children with vaginas from children with penises (and completely ignoring intersex children) isn’t empowering.
I emerged unscathed from the anxiety of it all. I can look a man in the eye and I'm not even 24 yet. That's some progress.