Challenging Society’s Closet

By Nikita Kakani

Stepping out of your comfort zone can be a challenge — especially when you’re under society’s scrutiny.

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"I heard a whistle — it came from a little street cart nearby where many men and boys were standing around to eat or smoke. I was not wearing anything that showed too much of my skin.. It was only 8 p.m., but I could not get out of my house without being judged or objectified."

Photo by Romy Weidner.

“That was just once.”

“It was just one guy.”

But it did happen again and only got worse. I felt safer on bright and sunny afternoons because things only got ‘darker’ with the night approaching.

Incredible India! India with its diverse cultures, concepts, and languages but yet, similar thoughts: “You are a girl. You are a boy. You cannot wear short dresses and your legs can’t show. You can stare at her legs and her body, because you’re the man nobody will ever question.”

When I heard whistles and comments, I couldn’t speak up for  myself and was never able to speak up for anybody else either. These incidences weren’t something that happened to me alone. There are thousands of girls and women in India who’ve been through this. There are some who are going through it as I write this. I’m not the only one and what is happening is not an issue anyone should stay silent about.

Five years after this incident, I headed out of Indore, India to explore a new place and a new world in Syracuse, New York. But I didn’t leave my fears of my past experiences behind. I put on clothes again that weren’t very comfortable — but they covered my legs, my arms and my breasts. I was sweating but I’d still rather have worn that because that was what I was used to. It was my reality.

I saw boys and men all around, but none of them stared at me. I was comfortable, and  it wasn’t because of what I was wearing — but my surroundings. I felt like I was living a hundred years ahead of India’s time. For the first time, I felt like I had the  power to be fearless and free. As I became more and more confident at Syracuse, I began shedding the idea of wearing those uncomfortable clothes, in which I had never felt like myself.

Being in a different country than my own did not immediately change my perspective, but it did have an impact. I could live the way I wanted and wear what I wanted without being sexualized or humiliated — at least on most days. But I also learned every place has its own virtues and vices, and being in America didn’t mean I was completely free.

One Monday, a little after noon, I was on my way to class. That warm sunny day, I wore a simple white shirt and blue shorts, accompanied by brown strappy sandals. As I walked, the lace untied itself and I sat down at the sidewalk to tie it back up. As I sat, a black car passed by me and the window rolled down; a boy’s head popped out. Besides his capped head, I could see some other guys in the car. He shouted from his car, “It’s too early, honey.” Shocked, I yelled back, “Fuck off.” It was the first time I spoke up at all. A single incident in a different world, in a different place and time, but it did not make much of a difference in how I felt.

Let me compare Syracuse and my hometown, Indore: both are small towns, with not too many people but different eyes, different perspectives and different mindsets. Some things were unchanging, but something was new: the freedom in the new city. Freedom is a feeling and an emotion for me and while I was put in similar situations here and back at home, I experienced some freedom here by talking back. My whole life, I’ve spent time living life the way my elders and my society wanted me to: wearing uncomfortable clothes that not only covered my body, but my inner self. I couldn’t have felt more oppressed and let down. Why did I need to cover my body because boys can’t look at me the right way?  

In Syracuse, I am starting to find my way. My choice of clothes, my way of thought and when someone did say something to me about my body or anything at all, I talked back, and I still felt free because it was my choice doing that rather than my parents’.

I know that when I go back home to India, I will once again face the shushing and eve teasing. But I will tell myself, India is changing and minds are opening. Although change is a slow, and gradual process, it will come. One day, people will take the time to learn, to teach their sons and to free their daughters.

Till then, I will enjoy the comfort and joy of temporarily being free here in Syracuse.


Nikita Kakani is a freshman studying marketing management at Syracuse University.