By Aditi Thirani:
Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe.
They say that teenage years are the most confusing years in a person’s life. Being from a typical Marwadi family, I had double the dose of confusion. Although we have been living in Pune ever since I was born, my Dad’s side of the family were still orthodox. After Class 10, I randomly picked Commerce and for a short while, I had fun with accounts. Even scored 94 out of 100 in Class 12. To my dad this score meant, “My daughter is going to be a Chartered Accountant!”
Little did he know that I would soon realise I was not cut out for Commerce. Participating in events of the college, I figured my inclination was more towards Media and Communication, which baffled my dad. ‘This field is not a good field for girls, and certainly not girls from our community,’ was his take. But the counsellor told my parents that media is an excellent career option. My mum seemed to get it but my dad said the counsellor was out of her mind.
Going forward, my first gig was at a national daily as a freelance writer and photographer. It was a brave new world and I was enjoying every bit of it. My dad, not so much. I still remember, once at 2 a.m. in the morning, while I was trying to complete an article, he angrily barged into my room and threatened to throw my laptop out of the window. I was terrified and shocked. There were fights at home every single day because of my career choices and lifestyle. Coming back home always felt like I was falling into a dark pit. My curfew time was 10 p.m. and if I missed it even by two minutes, there would be a dozen calls on my phone, and a scene waiting for me. My freedom was a scary thought for my dad.
Initially, I would argue with dad about why he put me in a school or even college if he never wanted me to have a career. He would say – a girl’s main priority is the house, and you can only have a career within the confines of that. Coming from an upper middle class household, this was totally mind-boggling for me. I see now that my brother never gets that kind of treatment. He can come home late and stay up till 2 a.m. and sleep over at a friend’s place. Even him having female friends over is not frowned upon.
While I was struggling to understand what I wanted to do with my life, there was a constant agenda to push me into marriage. Mum used to be worried about me since the burden of the blame lay on her if I took even one wrong step, or I fell under a ‘bad influence’. A gentle nudge came from her every now and then, that if I keep “wasting time”, there’s no point in delaying marriage. In her defence, she also tried her best to support me and be a shield against my dad. Yet, sometimes she was gullible. My dad would fill her head with doubts about me and my intentions, and I would need to explain myself all over again that I needed to become something in life, build a career of my choice, even if it was challenging and seemed risky for them. Being the mother; the blame was going to fall on her, because it’s always the mother’s fault, right?
To add to this, I also had body image issues because my dad would make me feel so uncomfortable about myself that we couldn’t even be in the same room. His biggest issue was my weight, which needed to be within a certain limit, or else no one was going to want to marry me. There came a time I wanted to hurt my dad so much – do something that would make him disappear. He wanted to control my life and I was fighting hard to not let him do that. People would reassure me that he loved me and meant well. And I would think to myself, if he did really love me, he was doing a damn good job of hiding it!
Meanwhile, I had to turn down a journalist’s position at a newspaper in Mumbai. The salary was not enough to survive in Mumbai and I couldn’t expect any support from home. I had a ticking clock at home and I couldn’t decide what to do with my life. That was the toughest year for me.
Around this time, a friend needed a voice for a documentary film, and I volunteered. And that’s how a new journey began for me. I began doing more and more voice-overs, but my dad kept ridiculing me, saying that it’s not a real job. He said I wasn’t doing anything meaningful with my life. But I was excited about my new career as a voice-over artist, and wanted to get away from all the negativity at home. So I left for Mumbai, and that turned out to be the best decision I made.
The first time I rented a place in Mumbai, I felt at peace, something I hadn’t experienced in ages. I sat by the window of my room and stared at the traffic for hours. The noise of the traffic was music to my ears compared to the yelling matches back home.
I would never be able to share my work stress at home because within minutes my dad would shatter my confidence, and depress me. He would treat a temporary setback as a failure. So I stopped sharing my work stresses with them.
I became calmer, and my anger started fading away. I started understanding that the way dad was, wasn’t entirely his fault. Society and his upbringing, were obvious suspects. Dad had seen all the women around him take on the role of a homemaker which he believed was ideal. I in turn, used to despise women who chose to be homemakers because that just increased the pressure on me, and even though, my career had picked up, the pressure to get married was still there. I got told things like, “You’ve done all your work stuff, now it’s time to get real,” or “You will end up alone”. People have such a terrible way of looking at unmarried women beyond a certain age and God forbid when we age, we just aren’t allowed to enjoy ourselves.
Mumbai, however, was extremely good for me. I met some really great people and my confidence started coming back slowly. My career grew phenomenally and I got so engrossed in building it up that I didn’t go home much. Surprisingly there was a slight change in my dad’s attitude. He only occasionally took a jab at me and the more independent I became, the more the conversations started changing. I was pleasantly surprised on a family trip to Jaipur when my Dad asked me to play my latest work for him. He also praised me in front of our relatives and listed the brands I worked with. He seemed quite impressed.
This is when mum told me that dad was moved by my hard work and focus. He understood what I was trying to do and wanted to be supportive. By that time, there were also incidents of bad marriages and divorces in the community, so he understood that there is no point in pushing me to marry some random guy.
A lot of guys in my community are brought up in a way that they see women as people who exist just to serve them. Last month, when I was home to see my folks, my cousin brother who was visiting, asked me to make chapatis because he was hungry and my mum was asleep. My instant reply was, “Why don’t you make them?” And to this my Dad said to him, “This generation of women is not going to cook for you; you better learn to cook!” I could not stop grinning. I had given up on my Dad ever accepting me and my choices. So this was a big step!
Now my dad calls me occasionally and we don’t talk about marriage or cooking but we talk about his work and my work and he advises me on investments and taxes. My mum keeps telling how proud he is of me, although he worries about me too – but not so much about marriage as my carelessness with managing money. A step up indeed.
If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse, do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.