A random guy smiled at me and made me happy.

As a girl from a somewhat conservative, somewhat liberal country, as a follower of a largely liberal and slightly conservative religion and as the member of a family with predominantly liberal with specks of hard conservative values, navigating social relationships with the opposite gender was always tricky for me. I’m fortunate to have never faced blatant lecherous behavior from men so I really had no reason to have my guard up so much. But my guard has been up. And for the longest time I had trouble aligning my personality, which is a mix of a generally uncomfortable introvert and the life of the party when with my friends, with what’s considered socially acceptable.

I was always riddled with various questions of increasing intensity of unclear significance and relevance as I was growing up and spending most of my time with men of my age, almost all medical students and many my teachers.

Questions like,

“Should I have smiled at him when he smiled at me? Oh my gosh! I haven’t heard good things about that boy. I just hope my friends didn’t see me”. Or

“I shouldn’t sit so close to his chair. I have a crush on him. He’ll find out. I’m gonna inch away from here”. Or

“I just hope he doesn’t say hi to me when he sees me around the neighborhood. My parents are going to be so mad”. Or

” I can’t give him my phone number. Papa always picks up the phone”.

I grew up with women knowing men as either fathers, or brothers or sons or cousins or husbands or relatives in some capacity or friends. Every man in my mom’s and aunts’ lives was a man with a relational descriptor. It was a very straightforward and transparent system. There were no nondescript relationships. There was a perceived reason and situation of every relation.

So obviously I didn’t know what to do with men who fell under the general category of classmates, acquaintances, guy who takes the bus from my stop, guy who sits in the library opposite me, guy who found my book and returned to me, guy whose mom and I used to talk for many minutes when she would see me at the tailor’s, guy whose dad was my dad’s good friend.

I think that I saw connecting with any male member of the society as an immoral act. And I can tell why. Parents, in their own protectiveness and preemptive preventative strategies, try to infuse a fear of the unknown. They tell their kids to experience as little as possible and to take the parents’ word for most things. Unfortunately not all kids escape personal, life-altering and scarring experiences.

As I started to grow beyond adolescence with the mindset of a young woman who didn’t engage in friendships with the other gender on principle, I also started to become judgmental of premarital relationships and love marriages. I started seeing any sort of matrimony that came out of a prior understanding as questionable and built on immorality.

I had few friends. Some of them had brothers. They all had fathers. My parents trusted all my friends and their families. But my parents were also part of a South East Asian family dynamic where flippancy on others’ personal affairs is considered a right of sorts. My parents received regular words of wisdom and direction from fellow parents who had kids my age. My parents were told horror stories of girls eloping just to return home pregnant and without a marriage to legitimize the child , or a girl never coming back, or a boy taking advantage of a girl whom he was secretly dating. Invariably, my parents maintained that they talked to their kids and trusted their kids to use their discretion if the need came up.

But while my parents were being told these outrageous stories, I was listening. And I was mortified at what was out there. I slowly developed a social anxiety and fear of being in strange situations. I also became increasingly dependent on my friends and wouldn’t go to school if my friends weren’t coming a particular day.

My parents looked happy that I was a cautious girl who knew what was good for her. But no one, not even I, knew that I was gradually becoming distant from men and had started to eye most men, even the ones in my own life, with suspicion. I constantly appraised them.

Medical school brought more challenges. I was older and somewhat better in terms of my anxiety and distance from men but I was nowhere as prepared to be in a sudden situation with a man as a nineteen year old would be expected.

My implicit bias was better but not completely gone. I had a major lesson to learn in humanity and friendship. This lesson left me with a love for good men. It also imparted a sense to detect the good ones and not put my guard up unnecessarily. Just as not all women are good, not all men are bad either.

In my fourth year of medical school I got seriously ill. I had typhoid fever and I was given high dose ciprofloxacin. This caused a drug-induced hepatitis that was initially thought to be a super-infection with hepatitis A because of my compromised immunity from Typhoid but was later diagnosed correctly. I had to stay at home for almost a month to get better. When I was finally in some shape to go back to school my mom recommended that I request a neighborhood boy who was also a medical student at my school to accompany me to and from school. He was a few years older than me and generally considered a “bad guy” . Surprisingly, my parents found him very nice and my dad routinely chatted with his parents during their evening walks. They were sort of friends.

Me: Mama! No way! Do you know what people say about him? That he’s a womanizer and just a super bad person. No way am I walking to my stop with him.

Mama: I never got that feeling from him. He seems really nice.

Me: That’s because you trust everyone so easily. I’m okay on my own.

Mama: Okay! If you’re sure. But ask for help if you need it.

Needless to say that my “big brother” took my parents’ request for watching over me to heart. Even though my mom hadn’t asked him again he walked me to the stop and when we got off the bus. He didn’t maintain a distance anymore. He’d walk with me and chatted the whole time. I didn’t particularly like this new “friendship” but I agreed with my mom. He seemed really nice.

Slowly, we became really friends. Over many weeks. He told me about his struggles behind getting into medical school, that he gave tuition to elementary school kids after school, and how he routinely argued with his dad who was an orthodox man and didn’t think that the women of the family should go to school.

I became friends with his sister who was starting medical school that year and was completing orientation. She started to walk with us too. With her he wasn’t a “bad guy” as I had perceived him initially. He was an older brother who was almost fatherly in his concerns for her.

My proverbial big brother didn’t just walk me to and back from the stop. He also helped me work through some deficits that I had due to my prolonged absence from school. He also would hold the bus if I was getting late, gave me his notes to read from, counseled me on my house job choices two years later and was a huge support not just to me, but my entire family, when my dad passed away.

But the biggest thing that he did was to show me that not all young men are bad. That a person’s reputation definitely precedes them but isn’t always a good representation of that person. He showed me that good people belong to both genders and the fear of Allah is a universal thing that is just not limited to one gender, a certain age or a particular station in life.

This reawakening helped me have healthier relationships with men. It didn’t remove my default mistrust of men automatically but it taught me to use my discretion with all people, not just men of a certain age.

Cautioning our kids against the happenings of today’s world is important. It helps them know of the dangers before they get any adverse experiences of their own. But knowing when we are raising untrusting kids is also important. When kids don’t trust, they don’t know how to ask for help. It also makes women think that they don’t have to be careful with women. They develop, by default, a hugely trusting opinion of women and a hugely toxic opinion of men. They stop using their discretion. They don’t engage in critical thinking. They become comfortable with relatives just because mom and dad know them. They become uncomfortable with well-meaning and well-intentioned adults who may not be family. This, I think, can lead to problems in personal life and their own difficulty with coming to terms with abuse if they face it at the hands of family. This is why many women don’t identify sexual abuse and marital rape in a marriage. We don’t think that husband can be an abuser or violator of their body because we’ve been trained to think that that’s his right. We also don’t then ask for help from others because we think that our man is practicing his right. The long-term implications of creating a world of blind trust for some and nontrust for some isn’t a good situation. It also compromises our emotional maturity. I know that my experience with the big brother that my parents found for me , (who was a reputed “political party guy” with “six or seven alleged girlfriends” and a bad educational record) opened my eyes to a whole world of nice men who don’t belong to a box in my life. The men who look at women, exchange a quick human smile and go about their day. Who help when women ask for help. Who aren’t interested in a woman’s relationship status. Who aren’t sneaking looks at our hands to detect our ring. Who become our fathers, brothers, sons and confidantes in an emotional capacity. Those men are just humans like us. They have no ulterior motive. Those random men share a smile with me frequently now. My inner radar is now up for bad people, not just men.

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