We often tell young girls they are fated to “grow up faster” than their male peers, and to enforce this lesson a disproportionate amount of household responsibility is put on girls. From cooking to learning sacrifice, we deem that this enforced precocious behaviour is “maturity”. In this we discuss whether this “maturity” is inherent or just another enforced code of gendered behaviour?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
Many years ago I was at the home of a distant relative. Their son had just started his first job in a distant city and was visiting home for the first time since leaving. He was complaining about the hours, the fact that he had to provide his own food as well as having to do laundry while his mother fussed over him for being subject to this ordeal of self-reliance. Alongside, his sister, who is a decade younger than him, served tea and folded clothes that had just come out of the laundry before rushing off to finish her homework. When it was time for dinner, she came back and set the table, while the men sat and watched television, and as we sat down to eat, I noticed that she was going back-and-forth from the kitchen, bringing rotis and filling glasses as needed.
When it came time for her to eat, her brother was taking the last piece of meat in the bowl just as she was sitting down at the table.
“Don’t you want that piece of meat?” I asked her.
“It’s okay,” her aunt said from across the table, “Let your brother take it.”
“It’s okay, didi,” the young girl said to me, “Bhaiya doesn’t get to eat homemade food so often anymore, I’ll just have vegetables.”
Her mother beamed at her sacrifice.
“You know how nice it is to have daughters,” she said to me, “So mature even when they are so young. Girls grow up so much faster than boys!”
We say this often about girls. I learnt this too when I was a young girl. I was told, as were many of us, that girls are more mature than boys at younger ages. Girls “develop” faster than boys. I remember one time even being told that girls should always marry slightly older boys because their “mental age” would then be equal. I remember being told that “traditional Indian culture” was biologically driven to marry teenaged girls to men decades older than them because girls are already mature at that age, but for boys it takes a lot longer, and “scientifically” young girls made the best baby buckets for financially-secure older men. When I was younger I didn’t question this so much and that was largely because I grew up in a house of women. We didn’t have any brothers, and my father’s job had him away for large portions of time, so we were essentially a house of girls, and in a house of girls, you can’t tell if there is disparity because there is no other gender to compare yourself to. At least at home, I couldn’t tell if girls were growing up faster than boys.
However, I didn’t grow up in a vacuum, and in all other social environments I was often told I was “mature” and “sensible” and it was only when I started to take note of what incidents were causing people to say this, that I realised what the problem was. Maturity is defined as sacrifice in women. Girls who are willing to compromise on their needs, wants and desires are “mature”. Girls who are at peace with the idea that life comes with pain are sensible. Girls who are available to shoulder the emotional, mental and financial burdens of their family, by sacrificing themselves and their carefree childhoods are mature. Girls who take on domestic responsibility and the role of tending to the men in the house on themselves at a young age are sensible. If you are willing to understand what you should and should not do in the name of the “honour” of your family, you’re a mature girl then. If you’ve been taught exactly how to behave within acceptable boundaries and no one has to worry about you “rebelling”, you’re done “growing up faster” than your brother.
And I know, there is a biological argument to me made here, and many have made it. Females do hit puberty sooner than males. However, is puberty the definition of growing up? If we are defining female maturity by their endometrial lining and whether it sheds every month, what exactly do we use to define the maturity of males? Equivocation of sexual group to mental or emotional growth is dangerous. Children of all genders, whether they identify with the one assigned at birth or not, go through various stages of sexual development at various ages and while precocious sexual growth is more likely to me observed in girls than boys, it does not in any way indicate that young girls who have a better understanding of sexuality have an adequate understanding of it. After all, just because a girl is able to bear children as early as fourteen doesn’t mean that she should, and we all agree on that front (except certain MLAs in Madhya Pradesh but I suspect attacking the opposition is more important than weighing your words nowadays). Puberty is not an adequate measures of “growing up”, responsibility is and the reality is that we put responsibility on girls much sooner than we do on boys.
I don’t mean this terms of financial responsibility, not directly anyway, but young girls are certainly expected to be more mindful of the expenditure of the family. When it comes to cutting expenses, we start with the women first (whether that is more clothes for the girl in a household or more funding for HR in a corporate). We teach girls to say no to their wants and desires at a young age, and sacrifice them in the interest of other members of a household. We also teach girls that they are expected to be a large expenditure when they are older and to be married and thus must compromise while they are younger. That’s not the only way in which we teach girls “responsibility” in terms of marriage, from a very young age women are taught they must learn to cook, clean, pick up after themselves (and others), help out in the household (do laundry, wash dishes) instead of going out to play because these skills are vital to Indian “wifehood”.
Every single thing that is given to a girl, whether that is good schooling or a beautiful dress, is presented as a privilege extended in exchange for a form of compliance. Statements like — *we let you move out for college now you have to get married, we let you go out with your friends now you cannot have boyfriends, we let you get that dress now you must not ask for anything else — are commonly heard by most women in the country. The reinforcement of behaviours that are considered “mature and sensible” begins very young, girls are given more love (and less criticism) if thet display a form of martyrdom which involves being delicate, not voicing their opinions, cleaning up in the house, doing their own laundry. I remember, when I was only eight or ten, my grandmother telling me that I should wash my undergarments by hand and only hang them in the bathroom, while the underwear of men is thrown into the laundry by any man who visited your home. I also remember being told repeatedly that I would have to learn many things, like quiet endurance and diplomacy, to be able to be pleasing enough to my future in-laws.
So of course girls “grow up” faster than boys, when we start their lives off with stress, indebtedness, an inability to be childlike and responsibility much greater than a child should bear (especially when the responsibility borne is unequal). Of course girls grow up faster, but it’s not a natural occurence, it’s not inherent to womanhood to be “mature”, it’s socially engrained and taught. It’s a falsehood in many ways. After all, if girls grow up faster, then why do boys get all the rights? Surely, the more “mature” creature would be better equipped to handle them?