How I Learnt My Feminism From The Women In My Life

Posted by Akshay Shetty in Feminism, Sexism And Patriarchy, Society
August 16, 2017

I have often been asked where I get my feminism from. While introspecting on this question, I realised that I learnt my feminism not from the wonderful feminist texts I read in college but from my mother.

One of the most defining images from my childhood has been that of my mother sitting on a chair near the window, waiting for my alcoholic father to return home. She would sit there for hours, staring outside until he came; she would then serve him food and go to sleep.

Somehow I could never muster the courage to ask her why she did that. There were nights when he never came back, nights when amma would go searching for him in the local bars and nights when strangers would drop him home.

Yet, when my father passed away in 2004, amma cried for hours. I don’t know why. Life has been extremely unfair to my mother. I can only imagine the dreams she must have had when she first came to Bombay with my father in 1989. As she waded through her abusive and violent marriage, each and every one of those dreams were crushed.

After my father’s death, she courageously took charge of her life, and brought us up against all odds, even as our neighbours taunted her for not behaving like a ‘proper widow’. Over time, I realised how feminist my mother’s life has been; knowing fully well that she didn’t even know what that word meant. Feminism taught me that it doesn’t matter. Claiming the label isn’t as important as living it.

With my mother, and my professor Urvashi Butalia

Yet, I have always been very uncomfortable with people not wanting to call themselves feminists. I often failed to understand why people would not want to associate themselves with a movement that simply demanded that women should have equal access to political, economic, social and personal rights.

During one of our classes in the Young India Fellowship (YIF), I remember a fellow woman saying that she was not a feminist. I responded to her by saying, “As you sit in the classroom and disown feminism, please consider the fact that you are able to say these words sitting in a University with other men only because some incredible women fought on the streets for you to get the right to work, the right to vote, the right to get an education, the right to say that you’re not a feminist.”

Amidst the applause of the classroom, I got my ‘feminist moment’. But I didn’t realise that I had ended up alienating my friend a little more from the movement I wanted her to be a part of.

Last year, I interned with the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana for a research project. As I travelled across Uttar Pradesh, interacting with over a thousand young women, I encountered some truly incredible voices that have changed me irrevocably. It was while working with these women that I realised the importance of developing a vocabulary of engagement.

I’ve always felt that my academic knowledge would be redundant if I were not able to explain it to a person who was unaware of the discipline. My understanding of feminism can’t be limited to defending it in a YIF classroom comprising of students from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

My feminism was tested when I had to explain to rural girls that the dowry system wasn’t bad because the poor can’t afford to pay so much, but because it is a custom rooted in patriarchy. But patriarchy kya hoti hai?

In one of the focus group discussions we were conducting in Lakhimpur, we asked, “What issues do you need training in?” Sapna promptly raised her hand and said “Humein azaadi ki training chahiye.” Was that her feminist moment? Can I appropriate the voices of these girls and announce a feminist awakening in Uttar Pradesh? Feminism taught me that I didn’t have to. Sometimes, your instincts are enough to guide you.

Interacting with women in Uttar Pradesh

Feminism also helped me look inward and made me question my own fallacies. As I debated gender in class and mobilised young women through self-help groups in UP, I had refused to be drawn into a battle that was being fought in my own family.

My sister wishes to marry her office co-worker, who she has been dating for two years. My mother has been staunchly opposed to it, and this had led to a very tense atmosphere in my house.

My relatives have exerted all sorts of pressure on her. She has been taken to sadhus and tantriks to ‘cure’ her. She has been emotionally blackmailed to leave her boyfriend and to marry a boy from our community.

Living away from home since 2014, I have been rather comfortably insulated from all this. Even though I made it clear that I don’t want my sister to be forcibly married, I have really not been there for her when she valiantly fought for her love against my mother and other relatives.

It is a tricky situation for me too. Seeing her children discard her values and ideals is heartbreaking for my mother. After struggling an entire lifetime to make ends meet for us, she sees my sister’s marriage to a ‘good’ household as a testimony of her ‘motherhood’. I have struggled to explain to her that she can’t play with her daughter’s life, just to preserve her honour in our family.

Recently, this issue was brought up in a family gathering where all my aunties were extolling the virtues of arranged marriage. I ended up reminding them how miserable their lives were, how they had ended up sacrificing their dreams and aspirations at the altar of honour in their respective marriages. My mother shouted at me for being so rude and broke down, though no one understood the truth in my diatribe better than her.

Feminism helped me question my own hypocrisies and act on them. I can’t give thunderous speeches to girls in UP about azaadi and then refuse to fight alongside my own sister as she wages her lonely battle for her own freedom. The most difficult battles are often fought in one’s own backyard.

My feminism has emboldened me to pick this one and fight it, not just for my sister but also for my cousins. I hope this will give them the courage to choose their own life partners rather than surrendering to their families’ demands.

Political activist Sheetal Sathe often says that our society believes in, “Stree mukti asaavi, pan tyaat maazi baayko nasaavi.” (There should be women’s empowerment, but my wife shouldn’t be a part of it.) We all like feminism as long as it doesn’t expose our failings. What I have learnt is that being a feminist is to constantly look inwards and to always be on a journey towards becoming a better individual.

Here’s to a feminist future!