The feminist movement in India has become the forte of well-to-do aristocratic women. The most powerful voices arguing for women’s rights are those who are quite well educated and are sufficiently well placed. But do they represent the quintessential Indian women? Are their voices capable of being understood by the entire women population of this country? Is the women’s rights advocate, a powerful college educated philosopher or the garment factory worker? Is she a proficient attorney fully sensitized about our constitution, or is she is she the 16 year old girl who eloped with a 17 year old boy, fearing reprisal from elders? Why is it that, women from the underprivileged economic classes raise their voices and scream in protest when abused, whereas the upper middle class housewife takes the beating silently, pretending all is well? Is ignorance the problem or is it the lack of fighting spirit?
The feminist movement in India has by and large been hogged by those who, upon whom these divergent realities are lost. So when Enfold Proactive Health Trust, Bangalore, organised an event on Women’s Day where women from diverse socio-economic backgrounds formed the panel of speakers, it naturally caught my attention. The panel of speakers comprised of a transgender, a software professional in a live-in-relationship, a woman of a minority religion who is in an inter-religious relationship, a home maker who fled her home in Uttar Pradesh as a teenager with a boy, who is now in Bangalore, among others. It was heartening to see these women asserting their rights, not within the framework of chivalry, but within the framework of entitlements.
In them I saw profoundly philosophical thinking without compromising on an understanding of practical realities. However strong and powerful their voices, they merely spoke their mind and remained non-judgmental of the sources of the challenges they encountered. This is the brand of feminism that doesn’t provoke enemies, but inspires allies. This is the brand of feminism that operates from a sense of security and its time we stopped ignoring their voices, because these are the voices of reason!
However, I confess that these women are a refreshing change compared to the young women I meet both within and outside of my work in women’s rights. Hearing them speak mitigated the cynicism I was infected with, having seen how successful we have been in indoctrinating our girls into the culture of patriarchy. I have seen how girls are increasingly okay with doing what they are told in terms of career, marriage, etc., without introspecting into whether or not the direction they are being given, aligns with their own interests, personalities and attitudes. As a lawyer, so often, I hear of my women classmate’s being told to not enter into litigation, because that is unbecoming of a woman. Whether or not these women wish to secure the charms of court practice, the father and the brother find it perfectly alright to tell these women that it is not an option. When faced with protests, the father cites all the comforts provided by him as leverage to rein the daughter in, as if it was magnanimous charity on his part, instead of a parental duty which is what it is.
It doesn’t end there. On one hand, arranged marriage is uncool, but on the other hand so many women (and even men) are not mentally equipped to handle a heartbreak because, as children, they have been conditioned to believe the anything more than one boyfriend will hurt their reputation and spoil their chances at marital bliss. This is a classic example of the cultural identity crisis India is dealing with, where the confluence of western ideas with our own, leads to chaos and confusion, instead of a better way of life. Is this why, I wonder, there is a desperate need to cling on to a relationship with the boyfriend and see it through, no matter how ignored or abused the girl feels?
The panel of speakers at the Enfold event had transcended the limitations of Indian culture and society which can very often curb their opportunities and demean their roles. In them we understand that women’s rights are not just about acid attacks, gang rapes, honor killings and eve teasing on the streets. It is about ensuring that a home, where a person is supposed to find solace and refuge from the tyranny of the world, doesn’t instead inspire fear and discomfort and inflict violence and abuse. It is about not making a big deal when a girl is seen wearing shorts, the same way no one cares if a man is wearing them. Women’s rights is about fighting for that little sense of happiness and peace we are all entitled to and to give women the privacy and sanctuary they need to be themselves, which is what all human beings deserve. Women’s rights doesn’t require us men to be gentlemen and be chivalrous, it requires us to take a step back and honor the sense of space of a woman, the same way we expect our space to be honored.
By Ashok G.V.
Image Source: Unpacking the “F” word@Facebook