By Abhinandita Dev:
Being a feminist in India is something that leads you to discover the fact that a very small percentage of people around you understand the meaning of this supposedly heavy term. This discovery stems from the fact that feminism, as seen by the society at large, is not what one should perceive it to be. Being a nineteen-year-old girl who has grown up in a society which increasingly has been partial against the ‘less advantaged sex’, I had a very natural instinct of being insistent on being treated equally. But even before I came across this textbook definition of feminism, right from my childhood, I was always eager to be heard. The problematization of the female voice which I now study in the plays of Shakespeare as a student of English literature did have implications on my life right from infancy.
A story about one of my father’s colleague has been narrated to me many times since childhood. It served as a great source of humour for the whole family. The funny man removed some amount of money from the envelope he wanted to gift to the new born child as a blessing, on discovering that I was not a boy. We easily grew up believing it to be an incident which exposed the miserliness of that funny man and his outdated beliefs. Little did I know as a child that his outdated beliefs would not be outdated even 18 years later.
I grew up in a middle-class household with my parents and a younger brother. I cannot remember an instance when my parents consciously discriminated between the two of us because of my gender. Yet, why did I as a child always consider it so important to have the right to voice my beliefs? Was it because even when I was unaware of the complicated state of gender in a society as patriarchal as ours, I was aware of the fact that the lady who came to wash clothes at my house was beaten by her drunk husband? Was it because I often heard my elders talking about a girl being raped by ‘a man’ or ‘some men’? Was it because my mother was scared out of her wits when the rickshaw puller, who was supposed to fetch a gas cylinder for us, took me on a ride without informing her? Was it because a young neighbour told my mother about being assaulted on her way to work? Was it because I as a child was repeatedly warned of both known and unknown men and was told to tell everything to my parents so that no one could exploit me (Exploit how? I did not know). Or was it because a teenaged boy put his hand inside my underwear while I was returning from the bus stop in class three? (I shouted out of surprise and was ‘luckily’ not raped as this happened at the very entrance of the block, my house was situated in and the boy ran away)
As I grew up, I became aware of the state of women in our society. I came to know about how employment opportunities were opening up for women; how women were rising in every field; how the struggle for equal pay was actually showing positive results; how women were no longer confined to their homes and how real emancipation was taking place where many of them walked with men at an equal pace and with equal opportunities of education and employment.
I also came to know of cases like the Badaun gang rape and the Delhi gang rape. I learned about practices like honour killing and female foeticide and infanticide. I grew up in a society where eve teasing was not even recognised as a crime until a point of time, and where marital rape is still not recognised as a crime. I heard about horrific cases of acid attacks and human trafficking. I struggled to live with an optimistic outlook in this society and I did succeed to a point with the support and love of my family and friends. Apart from instances of eve teasing which were considered perfectly normal by one and all, I did not face any other potential sexual threat to my existence as a woman until I came to college.
I joined Delhi University to study literature. I did not like Delhi right from my childhood, not because of the many cases of assault against women reported in the capital of India (which did imprint a prejudiced image of the city in my mind later) but also because I disliked it for its pollution, overpopulation, and heat. I had grown up in places like Haridwar, Rishikesh, Sarsava and Hashimara which were so close to nature and peace that Delhi scared me whenever we visited our relatives during childhood. However, the fact that Delhi University had its own advantages and the fact that I got admission in the desired college helped me keep my insecurities about the city aside and look forward to completing my graduation here.
Once I started living in the city of Delhi, things turned out to be not as bad as I imagined (I believed so). Things were pretty much the same actually. People did tease me when I walked on the streets. I encountered this housemaid who had been married at a young age, was uneducated and was living a hollow existence away from her family working for other people. People did judge me from what I wore. I heard of crimes being committed against women quite regularly and, like earlier, felt disgusted and at the same time vulnerable and helpless to change the state of affairs.
College started. I was surprised when my course made me encounter the history and complexities of the construction of gender for ages at various places in the world. The problems which I grew up believing to be specific to India had been bothering women for centuries. The root of all the inequality and exploitation turned out to be nothing but patriarchy which had seeped into the bones of men and women alike and had lead to the mental enslavement of people towards believing and preaching this inequality as the only right thing.
When I talk about being a feminist in India I talk of an experience which comprises of my interactions with society, and my understanding of it. What is feminism to the people of India? It is equality between men and women for the educated. It is a strange word for the uneducated that sometimes don’t even recognise the division of gender as unfair at all. I say this optimistically hoping that all the educated people, at least, recognise it as unfair. When I tried examining the state of women and how the perceptions of the ‘aware’ and ‘unaware’ classes affected it I realised there lay a great irony in the way this mechanism functions. I will use a real life example to elucidate on it. It is derived from my own experience when I was 16 years old and had gone to attend a national cultural convention of a reputed cultural society.
The head of the society, a well-educated man who had received his education in institutions as prestigious as the Indian Institute of Technology announced at the conference hall that no girls should be seen outside the hostels assigned to them after eleven p.m. I was puzzled. I asked the teacher who was accompanying us why this announcement would only apply to girls and not boys?
She replied in a confident and sarcastic tone, “Girls get raped, not boys.”
I was even more confused. I gathered courage and spoke again, “But ma’am is it not true that boys rape girls? So should not the boys be asked to shut themselves up after eleven instead of girls? After all is rape a crime or wandering after eleven is?”
She looked at me in silence for a few seconds and then told me that I was a rebel. This example sums up the problem of gender inequality. It is so deeply rooted in the mind and heart of our society at large that even education has failed to remove it completely. The education system too for a long time has been dominated by men and thus, it has been unable to include the essential change of mindset required to be inculcated in the fertile minds of children. In ancient India, the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ barred women from even being given an opportunity to be educated and the disparity, though diminished, continues to exist till today. In Victorian England, governesses were appointed to not educate women but make them accomplished in the lady-like qualities of knitting, singing and drawing and were supposed to act as protectors of the gender hierarchy.
If we consider the urban middle-class households today, yes, women are stepping out of the four walls but does that imply that they are allowed to detach themselves from their assigned gendered roles? How many women can change tires when a car gets punctured and how many men can cook after a day of work for the whole family? And the implications of such gender oppression are two sided. It victimises both men and women. While women have to fight their way into leading an independent life, men are forced to work the way society wants them to, even when they don’t wish to. While women are objectified as mere sexual entities, men are objectified through the price tags placed on them to make them eligible in the ‘marriage market’. A change in mindset is evolving, but slowly. The percentage of people who are actually ready to accept it wholeheartedly is very less and people who are resistant to such change use the widespread ignorance to mould the thinking of those who are impartially aware.
I don’t believe feminism is about ‘hating men’. I don’t believe that all men are the same. There have been instances when I was travelling alone and was helped alike by both men and women. I have had auto rides where the driver talked to me about issues ranging from the elections of the student union in the Delhi University to the serenity of Rishikesh and did not make me feel uncomfortable for a moment. I have been dropped home safe at one in the night by an auto driver. In a country where women are fighting for breaking menstrual taboos I was treated by a bus driver like his own daughter when I told him I needed to use the washroom in the middle of a long journey.
I believe chivalry needs to be displaced by equal humanitarian concern in both genders. I think women don’t need and should not ask for reservations – be it in a competitive entrance or for educational and employment opportunities (I feel differently about those metro rides). I say that because I believe that when I talk of equality, I also talk of equal capability of both the sexes. I also recognise the fact that laws which are made for protecting women against exploitation can potentially be misused to file false cases and strongly insist on the need for a legal procedure to punish false complainants too. I realise that generalising and considering each man a potential rapist in not correct and strongly condemn it. I am sad about the fact that I have to clarify all this in order to not be misunderstood by the reader.
If feminism was a concept well understood by all, doing this would not have been necessary. All said and done, the fact remains that none of it negates the fact that women have suffered and continue to suffer more. We need feminism but before that, we need to accept the fact that we need it. We need to stop considering feminists rebels. As a society, we need to break through our comfort zones and look at this paradoxical institution called patriarchy in a more serious light. A change of mindset must evolve, and it needs to be incorporated both in the education system and the value system of Indian families. We have to rise together, and if we pledge to do so, real useful change can be brought about.