Ladies, Thoda Adjust Karlo!

The other day I was waiting to take the office lift in the lobby. As soon as the door opened, I found a broad-framed guy in the lift almost blocking the entrance. When I requested him to give way for me to enter, he gave me a disinterested look and shifted a wee bit for me to literally squeeze myself to enter. Though I didn’t want to create a scene I was peeved and expressed my displeasure.

This was certainly not a new experience. I have often felt similarly in an aircraft as well, especially when the person seating next to me is a male. The men literally usurp the armrest in the middle, even extending beyond that towards the next person, with little concern for the co-passenger.

This kind of experience plays repeatedly for women. While travelling in public transport, waiting in queues, walking on the streets and other public places and all other shared public spaces. Men claim their space as if it’s theirs alone, and women squeeze themselves and adjust to fit in the available space. While travelling in a metro in Delhi once, I requested a man sitting to move, and he replied nonchalantly, “Madam, jyada jagah nehi hai, aap adjust karke baith jao (there’s not much space, you adjust and sit down!) He continued to sit sprawled over the seat with little effort to move. Some women might have squeezed themselves to barely hang on the seat. I preferred to stand.

How often are women asked, demanded and expected to ‘adjust’ throughout their lives? This adjustment is not limited to physical space or negotiating with strangers alone, it extends to all stages and aspects of a woman’s life within the family, society, and workplace.

Life is a series of adjustments that continues for a lifetime for girls and women. “Ladki/aurat ho, adjust to karna padega” (you are a girl/woman, and have to adjust) is statement girls and women keep hearing countless times. So, they learn to squeeze themselves, creep, and shrink into the smallest physical, psychological and social spaces. Besides the other obvious forms of discrimination women continue to be suppressed when they are asked to ‘adjust’ in their families, marriage, and work, in the name of peace, honour, tradition and customs. This is a practice that families pass on to women and consider it quite normal and natural.

Girls are asked to adjust right from their childhood, in terms of their behaviour, demeanour, choice, freedom, rights, aspirations and feelings. From clothes and food to domestic chores and expressing their opinion – they are often asked to ‘adjust’ and compromise, especially when it’s for the comfort and ease of a male family member or to retain the family’s honour and tradition.

The word ‘adjust’ is so common in Indian homes and so often used that the English word is well understood and accepted by everyone, frequently used in almost all regional languages. Adjustment takes the form of restrictions, domination and a compulsion to adhere to gender norms and practices. Girls are conditioned not to answer back, express their opinion or retaliate. And to compromise in case of a conflict disagreement or challenge for the sake of family peace and the larger good.

An adolescent girl is made to realise that growing up as a girl means to ‘adjust’ her clothes, physical stance and demeanour, the way she walks, talks, expresses, feels… It’s a kind of mantra passed on by parents to daughters wrapped in patriarchy and perfectly normalised and accepted by all.

Whenever girls share their problems or challenges, the solution offered is thoda adjust kar lo (please adjust). So much so that the so-called normal and innocent phrase is gradually ingrained as a habit and a condition for girls and women, eroding their self-confidence, agency and independence. And very soon, these well-adjusted girls learn to automatically modify their thinking, physical and mental expression and behaviour to please, pacify and deal with others.

They learn to obligingly adapt, alter and adjust to fit in and make others happy. They learn it while sitting in a vehicle, navigating public spaces, choosing their clothes, and expressing themselves, even at the cost of tolerating violence, violations, harassment and discrimination

In many families even today, girl children are compelled or cajoled to ‘adjust’ when it comes to food, clothes, domestic chores, education, and comfort within a family, especially for the sake of their male counterparts. They endure the drudgery of chores, cooking, fetching water, looking after younger siblings and even tolerating violence – all in the name of adjustment.

Those dreaming of a good education are either deprived of suitable opportunities or are forced to abandon them to be married off. Others are persuaded to ‘adjust’ their expectations and aspirations to opt for institutes close to home and courses suitable for girls. It is so easy to tell women to ‘adjust’ and women to internalise and practice it.

The biggest adjustment comes when a woman is married. Adjustment with one’s husband, in-laws, their culture and lifestyle. We know the kind of transformations expected from newly-married women in all aspects of their lives, starting from their clothes, sense of dressing and food preferences to their behaviour, social and professional lives. They learn to cook, clean, wash, entertain and please. Some even change their food habits just because it’s not allowed/liked in their in-laws’ house, stop or start doing new/different things both willingly and unwillingly – all in the name of adjustment to become the ideal and well-liked wife and daughter-in-law. Women who opine, argue and rebuff are chided and those who are docile, demure and adjust are appreciated.

After a daughter is married, she is expected to behave and conduct herself in a certain way. When women share their problems, especially related to their marriage and in-laws with their parents and family members, the common refrain is again not to overreact but adjust. “You need to adjust, this is how marriage and family works!” is what they are told repeatedly.

Even victims of violence or dowry torture are asked to ‘adjust’ to retain family peace, save their marriage and prevent the stigma of a separation. In fact, such adjustments have cost several bright young women their lives when they are either murdered or forced to commit suicide, unable to bear the mental and physical violence and ‘adjustments’ any longer.

A common retort that a married girl’s parents and families face is, “Aap ki beti ko adjust karna hi nahin aata (your daughter doesn’t even know how to adjust),” which is also meant as an insult, a failure in their upbringing of their daughter. Adjusting behaviour is tied to family honour and prestige and sanskar. Why would you want to dishonour the family? Better to adjust.

It doesn’t end here. A woman also has to adjust her work-life after marriage so that she can smoothly make her marriage, family and work together. It’s quite common for women to leave their previous jobs and shift to a new place where their husbands are settled with a steady professional life. They try and take a transfer, start looking for new jobs, or quit.

Professional working women, both married and unmarried, adjust in their own ways. Women adjust their work schedules, deliverables, prospects and ambitions umpteen times across their career for the sake of their families, marriage and children. Nobody tells a man to adjust in his career, but for women, it’s a common refrain.

Everyone likes a woman who adjusts and who makes life easy and comfortable for others. In fact, women are made to feel proud that they have adjusted for the sake of their families, marriage and tradition. When women refuse to adjust and place themselves above others, they are said to be selfish, difficult, demanding, aggressive, nasty, stubborn and opinionated.

As individuals, we all compromise, adjust and let go from time to time. But when adjusting always becomes the responsibility of girls and women, it comes at a great cost. Adjusting, pleasing others, putting the needs of others first while ignoring their own, surviving on the approval of others and living with the fear of being rejected and judged – not only devalues women but also severely limits their potential. It often causes guilt, frustration and resentment in them and continues the cycle of patriarchy.

Let’s begin by teaching our girls that glory, happiness and contentment don’t come from adjustment but from living one’s life authentically and fully and supporting them to say, sorry, “we will not adjust this time.” And we women should unlearn and let go of a few of our adjustments as well.


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