A Brief Guide to Gender in India - Granta Magazine

A Brief Guide to Gender in India

Minal Hajratwala

‘Please be creative. This is only the beginning.’

Instructions for being a man


It is very wise of you to choose to speak as a man. This will make you an expert on gender. When you speak as a man, be sure to praise the virtues of Indian culture, which is the greatest culture in the world precisely because there is no place for women in Indian culture. Offer cures for homosexuality through yoga or Ayurvedic medicine. Offer cures for female problems through obedience and staying in the home.

If you speak as a man, it is best you do not speak of Hindu women and sex. Please remember that good Hindu women do not have sex, or at least do not choose to have sex, or at least do not enjoy sex, except with you because you are the sexiest Hindude around since Rama trampled all of South India and burnt Lanka to get back his bride, who was so hot she walked through the fire twice to show him what-what.

When you speak as a god-man, be sure to mention how the whole thing was the woman’s fault since she stepped outside the circle you so lovingly drew around her.


Instructions for being a woman


If you do insist on being a woman, it is best that you be the head of a sexual harassment committee at a college. When asked about sexual assault, be sure to speak about morals, specifically the poor morals of today’s youth, specifically of today’s female youth. Recommend that girls be subject to curfews after dark. Remember that Chinese food and cell phones are signs of corruption. Do as your father says, marry early, have sex with your husband whether you want to or not, and stay married for many lifetimes. Bemoan the prevalence of blue jeans, kurtas, sleevelessness. Propose a dress code that requires long-sleeved, high-necked sari blouses, as you wore them during the glorious youth of your nation, when Indian culture was immune to westernization and there was none of this loose talk of dating-bating and rape-bape.

Another way to be a woman is to become the third-funniest female comedian in the country, or the chief minister of a southern state, or a superstar actress from the 1970s, or a famous folk singer from a western state. In any of these cases, do not come out as a lesbian. It is okay if you get arrested for fraud, spend some nights in jail, attempt to flee the city or the country or tarnish your reputation in other ways. You may be photographed with your female companion if you like, spend evenings in her company on your private island drinking imported whisky, and travel with her in your entourage. However, do not come out as a lesbian. Repeat: Do not come out as a lesbian.

Another way to be a woman is to be a Bollywood actress. In this case you can make advertisements about female empowerment, featuring yourself waxed and pressed, your shampoo-wind-tunnel hair cascading over bare shoulders as you proclaim your right, your choice, the privileges beauty buys a bought woman.

Another way to be a woman is to have acid thrown in your face by a spurned lover, an abusive husband or someone’s aunt in a randomized act of revenge. If you have acid thrown in your face, go to the hospital, then later to the police. The doctors will do something. The police will not. Consider suicide, although it is a crime to commit suicide. If you do not commit suicide, start an NGO for women who have had acid thrown in their faces. Teach them to make craft items such as wallets made of colorful recycled tetrapak. Speak internationally to audiences who will feel revulsion and pity. Have several dozen donated plastic surgeries. With your distorted face, smile at the people who come up to you afterward to tell you how much they admire your courage. Accept their donations so that you can buy surgeries for other women who have had acid thrown in their faces. Resist the urge to spit at their perfect, pity-filled smiles.

Consider who the subaltern is, and whether she can really speak.


Instructions for being a trans person


If you cannot be a man or a woman, perhaps you are a trans person. This gives you superpowers like the gods and godlings of yore who changed gender to fight their battles, and also makes you interesting to people with new global exposure who are eager to ask you questions, theorize your Other-ness, write splashy headlines or dessicated dissertations on your glorious post-gender subjectivity which subverts the dominant binary of heteropatriarchy.

So if you are trans, first survive. Survive misgendering, self-loathing, bullying, abuse, assault, rape to fuck you back to the wrong gender or just because they can. Survive surgery or lack of access to surgery or shoddy care before, during and after surgery. Survive psychiatry, yoga, witch doctors, academics and government bureaucracies (male, female, other, check, other, other, check?). Survive passing or being unable to pass or the fear of being discovered, uncovered, undressed, killed for passing. Survive your family, the family of your beloved, schools, police, penury, neighbors, homelessness, hunger, scorn. Survive the fact that almost no one will hire you despite your qualifications or hard hustle. Survive being kicked out of private clubs even if your straight, rich friends invite you. Defend yourself against feminists who think you have betrayed the sisterhood, and chauvinists who think you are (A) the outcome of your parents’ bad karma, (B) criminal by birth or (C) a sin against nature. Survive by laughing, weeping, hugging, writing, fucking, studying, making new family, fleeing, dancing, organizing, fighting your family or the Supreme Court, flying to Amsterdam or New York, taking a bus to the city, rowing your coracle upstream. Survive becoming yourself.


Instructions for none of the above

If you are still determining your gender, memorize the several dozen words for gender in all of the regional languages, plus English. Now memorize the several hundred expletives referring to gender, sex and sex acts in all of the regional languages, plus English. Memorize which ones are homophobic or misogynist, and which are merely colorful. Use those which suit your own universe.


Instructions for ending gender violence in our lifetimes


If you are the principal of an expensive school where a six-year-old is raped in a closet by a janitor and a gym teacher, tell the journalists it was not your fault and flee the province. If you are the teacher who locked the six-year-old in the closet as punishment, tell the journalists it was not your fault although you did wipe up the blood and tears afterward. If you are the driver for a band of gang-rapists, tell the journalists it was not your fault since only 20% of women are decent. If you are the mother of a rapist, tell the journalists it was not his fault because what was that girl doing at that hour in that place anyway, right there where he could rape her?

Men and manly people: When you walk down the street, try not to rape every woman you see with your eyes, ‘dhoor se‘ – from afar. Imagine a universe in which you have another way to assert your masculinity, which is to say, your personhood. Imagine the you that you could become so that a woman – a good woman – would let you touch her breasts with her full, uninhibited, pleasureful consent.

Women and womanly people: When you walk down the street, cover your cleavage and your curls and your ankles and your flashing, sultry eyes. This is meant to ensure your safety. This is the only way you have to protect your virtue. Know that if it fails, your virtue will still be maligned. Despite this precaution, if a man brushes your breasts on the street in passing, lower your eyes. Keep walking. You cannot count on the mob turning in your favor.

Within the four walls of your family, be yourself. Say anything you want. The family is the bulwark of society. Only your family can keep you safe.

Or: Within the four walls of your family, say nothing. Your father is your enemy. Your brother is your enemy. Your mother is nothing, a pure spice-scented void of power.

Or: Leave your family as quickly as you can. If you cannot leave, disappear as fully as you can. Do not speak of your true passion. Extinguish it, if you can. If you cannot extinguish it, leave in the dead of night with a passel of stale chapatis wrapped in a fragment of old sari, and your identity papers tucked into your waist. Run away to the city where you have heard there are women who help people like you. Find them.

If you do not find such women, find a pimp who will place you in a brothel and arrange for your virginity to be sold in a mock-wedding ceremony.  Wear a red sari. Weep your way to an early grave.

If you do not weep, use a condom every time. Become a madam. Become a mafia wife. Become a film star. In your dreams.

If you live in a village and are domestically abused, it is best if you wear a bright pink sari and fight back. If you and your friends wear bright pink saris and fight back, you will become famous on YouTube. Not one but two films will be made about you and they will release within the same month. One will be a Bollywood drama featuring a beautiful woman who will speak passionately to reporters about your inspiring bravery. Millions of people will see it. It will bear little or no resemblance to your actual life. The other will be a documentary. Hardly anyone will see it. Both films will be made by people who speak a shuddh (clean) version of the language, which you will not understand. At the end you will get a few thousand rupees and a new pink sari to wear on your next mission.

If you are a high-caste urban woman, do not consider the systematic rape of Dalit women in a village by your brothers and uncles to be the same as the rape you experience with a guy who roofies you at a party. Believe the police when they say she committed suicide because her stomach ached.

Read the UNICEF study that says 53% of Indian children experience sexual abuse, and 70% of these victims never tell anyone.

Read the international study that says 24% of Indian men have forced someone to have sex.

Consider rape.


Instructions for government officials (an easy checklist)


A fun thing to do if you are a government official in India is to go on a banning spree. The table below shows some ways to solve all of the above problems through bans, next to some things you should not ban.



Films about rape

Cow slaughter


Tinted windows

Bad-bad words

Forced conversion to Christianity

Phoren taxi service

Phoren funding for NGOs

Valentine’s Day

Old British name for your city



Rape/rape culture

Slaughter of religious minorities

Killing people for eating beef

Tainted food for schoolchildren


Forced conversion to Hinduism

Phoren mining companies

Phoren nuclear investment

Forced marriage

Old British law against sodomy


Please be creative. This is only the beginning.


Photograph courtesy of Arko Sen

Minal Hajratwala

Minal Hajratwala’s latest book is Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective. She is a writing coach, author of the award-winning Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, and editor of Out! Stories from the New Queer India.

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