I can hardly believe it myself but Womaning in India just turned two years old!
I had no idea what to say in this issue, and I was planning to simply type a 200-word “thank you” to you, my kind reader, and leave it at that.
And then, someone suggested I do an AMA - an Ask Me Anything - issue.
I put out a tweet and… wow, so many questions!
And such thoughtful, empathetic, beautiful ones at that!
I strongly suspect that answering all your questions will make this one of the longest issues (even minus the GIFs), so without further word count, let’s dig in.
Womaning and my personal life
I think most questions I got were basically readers enquiring how I manage to remain sane, positive, and happy when dealing with the difficult stories I write in Womaning. Before I get to the questions, let me just say how touched I was by this outpour of genuine concern for my mental health.
I am a lucky writer to have such wonderful, empathetic, warm readers. So dil se thank you for that. ❤
Q. How has writing Womaning impacted your understanding of gender and gender roles? Has writing it impacted your own actions in daily life - your daily routines, interactions, and conversations?
About a decade ago, I first started seeing gender as an important factor that influences the way the world sees and treats us (and the way we see and experience the world too). Somewhere over the years, my eyes kept opening more and more to the unseen, unacknowledged, and almost all-pervasive effects of gender.
The idea for Womaning came to me about 5 years back, when I realized that most people were not seeing these impacts, even though they were living them everyday.
Two years back, I actually got down to starting Womaning. Since then, this view of mine has been cemented each week.
With every issue, I have had women readers thank me for finally giving words to something they had always experienced.
I have had men write to me, thanking me for “the education” (their kind words, not mine).
But my favourite reaction is when, every few weeks, a woman writes to me saying that she thought she was the only one experiencing something I wrote about. And reading something I wrote made her feel less alone.
It is a beautiful thing when women feel seen, when they stop blaming for themselves for things their entire gender is silently facing. When I hear that my words helped them feel that way, I know I did a good job.
For the first year, I basically kept writing from my own experience, off of a looong list of gender biases that I already saw by then. But over the last year, more than a few readers have sent me ideas for new posts that I had never thought of before.
Just last week, I wrote a post about the struggles of trailing wives living lives of apparent comfort but actually quiet desperation outside India. This was not an experience I personally had, so I knew next to nothing about it until a reader sent me her own story and suggested I write about it.
I have several more such pieces in the works now, which have been an education for me too - even among the experiences I personally had but never attributed to gender.
So, Womaning has successfully come full circle now and has started making its own author feel less alone.
Another unexpected experience has been the response from my male readership. I have been bowled over by the number of men willing to read my newsletter, willing to learn from it, and - hardest of all - willing to honestly introspect.
In the very first week of Womaning, I wrote about maternity discrimination at the workplace. Within the week, I had a CXO write to me that reading the post made him realize that he has been a silent part of maternity discrimination himself, and vowed to never let it happen on his watch again.
When I wrote about the lack of infrastructure for women at the workplace, another CXO wrote to me and promised to install sanitary pad vending machines in every ladies toilet in his company.
Several husbands have written to me - admitting to be Raja Betas, and promising to do better in the future - and many have spoken about having the Mental Load conversation with their wives, and trying to lighten their burden.
Long winded answer, but all of this makes me feel much more hopeful about gender biases and gender roles today than the day I started writing Womaning.
How has all of this impacted my daily life?
They say ‘Writing is Thinking’ because many of us don’t know what we think until we start writing about it. This is certainly true of me. I have vague ideas in my mind, but they don’t frustify until I write them down. Reading good work also has the same impact.
So the process of writing Womaning (and reading for it) is helping make my own thoughts about gender clearer and more articulate. This has made me a more clear-minded and confident person too.
At the same time, it has helped me become more cognizant of my own mistakes and biases.
For example, in writing this answer itself, I wrote and deleted the expression “I think” about 10 times already. Women preface everything with “I think” and “I’m sorry but” and “probably / perhaps / maybe”. This is because our imposter syndrome makes us believe that our opinion is worthless and therefore needs to be padded with these filler words before being sent out in the world.
I have become much more conscious of the many many ways in which I do this in my daily conversations and interactions - and I am working on unlearning them.
Q. How do you navigate the feminist perspective in close relationships (parents, close family, partner, etc.)? The casual and not necessarily malicious misogyny/patriarchy from our own ilk needs empathy but also conversations. Those conversations to me seem more difficult than most.
Another similar question: How does your work impact your personal life and your relationships?
This is a tough one, and my answer is probably no different than most my readers’:
I am a work in progress, who is still learning to navigate this minefield in my own messy way.
We are all learning more about the impact of gender biases and gender roles in personal relationships everyday. Unfortunately, not everyone we love is learning at the same pace as we are.
(When you write a weekly newsletter on this subject, you might find that literally no one around you is learning at the same pace as you. And that can be terribly lonely.)
So yes, I feel lonely quite often.
And being a woman, as always, makes this situation far more complex. If I were a man learning the fastest in the family about gender, I would be a hero, a knight in shining armour for the women in my family.
In contract, talking about gender as a woman is basically fighting for your own rights. And that can get irritating for people really fast.
Shrill, whiny, thankless - are the primary sentiments most people feel towards knightesses in shining aprons.
So that is the short and harsh truth.
That said, I am also quite privileged in many ways and deeply conscious of it. I married my partner because he is a feminist. So that means our inequality problems start at a baseline which is above the endline for most Indian marriages.
For example, I still shoulder most of the mental load in our family. As frustrated as I am about this, I am also aware that to have their partner be an equal shoulder-er of the physical load itself is a level of privilege most Indian women don’t have. It is something I have to keep reminding myself as we try to navigate the uncharted territory above this baseline.
My husband reads every issue of Womaning. He has never argued against anything I have written - so we are at least in agreement on the theory.
Practice, like I said, is still work in progress. And a messy one at that.
The relationship with the partner is the most important one for gender equality at home.
And then there are other loved ones and family members, near and far.
Some are evolving, just at their own slower pace. With them, one needs to practice patience and tolerance and forgiveness. (I fail at these everyday. And vow to try harder the next day.)
Finally, there are those who have not changed, are not trying to change, and therefore will never change. These are relationships to either be accepted as such, or kept a safe distance from for personal sanity.
Q. How do you keep your mental health, stay positive while writing this stuff. Some of it is so dark and painful. How do you compartmentalize?
This question was asked by at least three people separately. So again, my readers are amazing, and I am so proud of having earned the privilege of your time!
Yes, the material I deal with is tough, and often dark and disturbing. At least once, it has seriously affected my mental health.
It was the month I wrote back to back pieces about abuse, divorce, domestic violence, abortions, and miscarriages.
The night I published the last of those pieces, I felt like there was no joy left in life. I felt hopelessness, despair, and an uncontrollable urge to start bawling and never stop.
That night, I had to put a self-moratorium from writing about these topics, at least for a while.
That was the worst, but there comes a story every now and then that hits me like a punch in the gut. I am sure you feel it too, when you read it.
Writing these stories, in itself, is a healthy way to process them - and also, the deed of putting them out there helps.
The knowledge that I could not help a woman, but at least I helped her uncover her story from under the shroud of a stifling silence - that helps.
And then, I have to learn to do what this reader said - compartmentalize.
I don’t do it with this intention, but it helps that I take at least a day of digital detox immediately after putting a piece out. In the run up to Monday, I am on my peak screen time. But after I hit that ‘publish’ button and do some customary sharing on social media, I throw away my devices. (I try to do this on a mattress because I sometimes tend to physically thrown them away, because I am sick of them by this point.)
Sidenote: So if I did not respond to a message you sent me for a day or two - I am sorry, that was very rude of me, but this is why it happened.
Last, but most important, being the mother of a toddler is a HUGE help.
I am certain that I would be clinically depressed by this point if I were writing Womaning before my kid came into my life.
As every mother knows, having a kid turns your life into a hurricane of laughs, and songs about bus wheels, and sleepless nights, and funny dances, and mealtimes, and naptimes, and sicknesses, and playdates, and school projects that wait for no one.
I don’t know if it is the healthiest coping mechanism, but simply not having the time to dwell - that helps.
On my views about gender
Q. I have seen, sans exception, that men have little interest in reading feminist writing, leave alone subscribing to it. Do you, in your two-year journey, find this to be true?
Very happy to report that I do not. I wrote - in the answer to the first question above - how I have been pleasantly surprised at the amazing response I have got from my male readers (and there are plenty of them!)
The reader who sent me this question asked how many of my subscribers are male.
Humblebrag, but there are so many at this point that I can’t possibly sit and count each one. Also, I don’t know the gender of every subscriber - only their email IDs - and not all email IDs are indicative of the gender (looking at you firstname.lastname@example.org)
But I was curious too, so I did analyze my last 50 subscribers after being asked this question: 30 sound like women’s names, 10 sound like men’s names, and 10 sound like abcxyz.
Not a bad ratio, eh?
Men listen, read, and reflect too. So that statement is definitely not sans exception!
Q. Where should we should draw a line on looking at everything from a gender perspective? I have a friend who does tremendous work in creating awareness of gender bias with women and sometimes - while talking to her - I get this sense that everything is about this only. And people can’t do what they do without being labeled as ignorant and oppressed women.
I am definitely one of the people who do genuinely believe that gender is everywhere. In fact, as regular readers know, this is precisely what Womaning is an effort to highlight. Over the past two years alone, we have seen how:
Your gender influences whether you get to stay single, to find love, to get married, to get divorced.
Your gender decides if you have the freedom to become a housewife, to take up a paid job, to choose your own name, or to call your partner by their name.
Your gender decides whether you are allowed to go outside, to laugh, to cry, to go to a doctor, to go to the toilet, to be heard, to manage your own money, to fight for justice, or to take a nap.
Your gender affects the way you talk, the clothes you wear, the way you celebrate festivals, even the way you think about yourself.
Your gender affects your interactions with your boss. It affects your interactions with your colleagues. It affects your interactions in the virtual world. It even affects your interactions with your electrician, plumber, carpenter, gardener, waiter, and driver.
So, yeah. I do think gender is pretty much everywhere, in almost every second of our day, and in every social interaction we have. That much, in my opinion, is a fact.
Having said that, I also recognize that facing the fact of these all-pervasive gender-based advantages and disadvantages can take a toll on one’s mental health.
The injustice is so deep and so rampant that thinking about it can make one very angry, for most of the time, with most of the people in one’s life.
Knowing this, some people - specifically some women and non-binary folks - make the personal choice to not think too much about these issues. It is a defense mechanism to protect their own sanity, and I respect that wish to not be forced to stare an uncomfortable reality in the eyes.
Those of us who pick this battle need to not judge those of us who don’t too harshly.
And those of us who don’t pick it need to respect those of us who do and - as long as we don’t pass personal judgments - remember that we come from a place of love, even if we may sound like a broken record to you sometimes.
That is, according to me, the only path to moving the needle on this place where we seem to have been stuck for centuries.
The future of Womaning
Q. As Womaning turns two, any plans to translate it in other Indian languages (as the reach has to be more than English-speaking women across India)? Also, why not start this as a series in magazines which people still go to in rural semi-urban areas?
Another related question: Where do you see the future of Womaning going?
That first question is like a wishlist of mine, so thank you for that. I have been thinking about translating Womaning pieces (at least in Hindi, which is the other language I am proficient in) and publishing them in print media almost since the time I started writing and saw the first signs of readership. But it has somehow not worked out so far.
Hoping your question puts it out in the Universe and makes it happen now!
On other plans, there are many ideas:
A startup specializing in helping workplaces and other institutions become more gender-neutral.
A (more active) podcast…
Some of these are just in my mind, and others are at various stages of implementation.
I hope that many more of them see the light of the day in the next year!
I see you - my reader - as a co-conspirator in this exercise. So if you have any ideas which could help us take this message to more people and have bigger impact, please send them to me!
(You know you can reply to any email from this newsletter and it will reach me, right?)
Q. You have the unique privilege of being deep into personal stories, and reflecting them for a wider audience. I constantly see the needle move every time I share one of your articles or talk about it with someone. There is a tangible impact you’re creating. As the author and creator of Womaning, what do you hope for in 10 years?
First of all, that statement about how you see the needle move everytime you share one of my pieces has made my day, month, and year! Much love!
Second, this is the kind of change that takes generations to happen. So my hope is mostly pinned on the youngest among us.
I know there are many young men and women - including some teenagers - who read Womaning. I hope that in 10 years, when they are adults and people in power, they will help create a world where we are all valued or viled for who we are as persons, and not the genitals we happened to be born with.
For the rest of us, I hope reading Womaning helps us all become more aware, conscious, and responsible parents and leaders. I hope it makes us mindful and vigilant about not letting the biases, stereotypes, and cruelty we grew up with become the legacy we leave for the next generations.
On my writing process
Q. How do you maintain your consistency, delivering one stellar work of writing after another? I remember you taking a break for a while. And you came back with a bang! What did you do in that break?
Similar Question: I want to know how you extend your small idea to a full story. It would be very helpful.
Stellar-ness lies in the eyes of the reader, so thank you for that kind assessment. Here is my open-source code because flattery will get you everywhere:
Step 1: I start with choosing and clearly articulating the bias/stereotype I want to highlight in a piece.
Step 2: I reach out to women who might have been at the receiving end of this bias/stereotype.
Sometimes this is easy because the issue I have picked is a universal experience among women (like body shaming).
At other times, I am looking for a more select group of women, in which case this has to be a more targeted approach (for example, women living with disabilities).
Step 3: I interview the women who consent to share their stories. It could be over a call, a meeting, an email, Twitter DMs, WhatsApp texts, or even voice notes.
Women are the busiest gender, and so I try to pick whatever mode works best for my interviewee’s schedule.
Step 4: I write the story based on what I heard during the interview. I ask if my interviewee would like to see the final transcript before I publish. Usually, I find women to be quite trusting. Many are just glad that someone finally asked them about an issue that no one wants to talk to them about. So most of the women I interview end up telling me that they trust me completely to go ahead and write their stories.
I am lucky that way.
I use a pseudonym for every woman I interview (unless she insists on using her real name) because the issues I write about are often quite personal. The assurance of their privacy being protected also helps put my interviewees at ease to share the complete truth - often for the first time in their lives.
Step 5: I put together all the stories. Sometimes, I add a study or survey done by a reputed agency to show the pervasiveness of the issue I am writing about, but mostly the stories are the centerpiece.
Step 6: I string everything together in a narrative. It usually comes organically from within by this point - after having had so many conversations and having read up so much about the issue.
Step 7, 8, 9: I edit, re-edit, and then re-re-edit one more time.
Step 10: The gifs come at the end, or sometimes while I am writing - depending on how enthusiastic my inner filmi freak is feeling that week.
And then I publish.
I hope this helps!
Oh, and over my break earlier this year:
I attended a family wedding.
Then took a vacation with my kid and husband. Vacation with a kid is what tired people do to feel exhausted.
Then battled two family health emergencies back to back. (Our family has struggled on the health front this year. Please send us your happy thoughts and wishes for a healthier 2023.)
And then I procrastinated for a month, imagining that I will magically turn into a writer who has a dozen ready-to-publish pieces in the pipeline before I hit ‘publish’ on the next one.
When I noticed no power of nature turning me into a completely different person, I just started writing one week.
To this day, I have never known one Monday what I will write about next Monday. It is just the kind of last-minute-deadline-meeter I am, and I am working on it.
So yeah, nothing too extraordinary happened. I just got busy in life, and forced myself to restart writing as a pupa when I noticed myself undergoing no transformation into a butterfly.
Q. How do you manage to work, be there for your family and kid, and pursue a passion like Womaning at the same time?
With great difficulty. And with great anxiety.
I have no good answer here because I really feel like I could be doing a lot better on all three fronts - Womaning, work, and motherhood.
I know this is probably some degree of imposter syndrome talking, but it is a chaotic life and I do not recommend you try this at home.
Q. Where does the motivation to work on a project come from, when there is no boss/team/deadline breathing down your neck?
Have you heard of Ikigai?
It is the intersection of ‘What you love’, ‘What you are good at’, ‘What the world needs’, and ‘What you can get paid for’.
(I have not read the book, but I have seen the Venn diagram.)
Womaning is my Ikigai.
It doesn’t pay as well as my dayjob does so far, but 3 out of 4 is a bigger score than I have managed to find in life so far.
On not having Bosses/Teams/Deadlines:
Bosses are pains (even the best ones).
Teams come in different forms and I think of my readers as my team.
And Womaning is all about that Monday 11:59:59pm Deadline for me, so I don’t know what you are talking about ‘no deadline’!
Q. How did you take the leap of faith, quit a Group A civil services salaried position (no matter whether we like the nature of the work, it still is this), risked no income source, questions from family, etc?
This is not strictly writing related, but the short answer is that leaving the civil services was more a question of push than pull. I was unhappy, dissatisfied, and actually depressed. I was sure that I was wasting my potential, and my life.
So it was really a situation where I would no longer be able to live with myself if I stayed in that role. Getting out was a matter of survival, not a long-term strategy.
Other career moves in my life have been less dramatic, but this has been a common thread in all of them - I have never had a lifelong strategy or even a five-year-plan in place. But the immediate next step has often been clear to me and I have had the privilege to be able to take that step.
Questions from family, judgments from society, doomsayers from hell - I was exempt from none of them. I still get to hear many of these from time to time about this decision that I made almost a decade ago.
But there comes a time - when your heart is tugging you down a path, and even your brain manages to come up with a way to walk this path, and your gut knows it is right.
At such a rare moment of heart-brain-gut alignment, you need to choose carefully who deserves your attention and answerability, and how much.
Q. I would love to know how do you decide which stories to keep and which to leave out for a given topic
The stories I keep are the ones that:
Are relevant to the topic I am writing about
Highlight an actual gender bias (not something that happened irrespective of gender)
Have the express consent of the interviewee to be shared
One of the questions above was about how people who work on gender, see gender everywhere. In that answer, I admitted there to being a person who truly does think that gender affects almost every part of our lives.
But I am also balanced enough (at least I think I am) to know when a story is about gender, and when it just something bad that happened to a person who happened to be a woman.
Every now and again, a woman I interview admits to me that she just wanted to talk to me to vent, or process something bad that happened to her, or because she literally does not have anyone else who will listen to her (sad, but quite true of the lonely lives women lead).
Such women have all my sympathies, but I make it clear to them that I would not be able to use the story in the newsletter. They are usually fine with it too. Only once have I had a woman unsubscribe to the newsletter because I did not use her story.
Sometimes I have a problem of not finding enough stories.
Other times, I have a problem of plenty.
Vagaries of nature.
What was my birthday gift to myself?
No one asked me this one, but I want to answer it anyway.
For the unintiated, Womaning and I share the same birthday. In fact, Womaning began as my birthday gift to myself two years ago.
This year, I gave myself a gift that most women - especially mothers - don’t: I prioritized my health.
Specifically, I got the HPV vaccine that has been found to protect women against cervical cancer later in life.
Most of us don’t know about this. And those of us who know might not be prioritizing it because, as women, we are programmed to only go to the doctor when we are dead or dying.
I have known about this vaccine for four years(!) myself and it has just been getting pushed further and further down my to-do list by the other 546 items on it.
I went and got my first shot (of three) on my birthday this year, and I am super proud of myself for it.
Here is more about this vaccine on the CDC website. Please get it for yourself and/or every non-menopausal woman you know and care about.
Issued in public interest.
Thank you for all the thoughtful questions! This was fun (and long!)
If you would like to hear more about the behind-the-scenes of Womaning in India…
I have spoken about my life trajectory, influences, and views on gender in the podcast The Seen and The Unseen with Amit Varma.
I have spoken about my writing process and storytelling in general on the Story Rules podcast with Ravishankar Iyer.
And I have spoken a bit about all of the above in हिन्दी on the Puliyabaazi podcast with Pranay Kotasthane and Saurabh Chandra.
You can also follow the Womaning in India podcast and Womaning pages on various social media platforms here.
All my gratitude ❤
Womaning in India is a reader-supported newsletter. If you appreciate my work, show me your love by becoming a paid subscriber or buying me a coffee.
You are amazing, Mahima!
Absolutely love your honesty and humour.
Happy birthday to you and Womaning.
Shine on! <3
More power to you 🙌🏽 And happy birthday to you and Womaning 💜