“Think wrongly if you please, but in all cases, think for yourself.”—Doris Lessing.
As a young girl, I was never quite sure of myself. I lacked confidence, even though I was studious in class, and had a good many friends in school. As a child growing up in an urban environment, I led a protected, almost cocooned life. Today, while I’m still an introvert by nature, I like to think that I have evolved and developed as a woman and as a person.
At 24, after completing my masters degree in India, I left for a second masters at the University of London. This was the first time I was leaving the comfort and security of my home and taking off all alone to a different part of the world. I did not know what lay in store for me, and to be honest, I was both excited and apprehensive. Yet, something inside me knew that this was the right thing to do. And as the year unfolded, I realized that I had possibly taken the best decision of my life until then.
Studying abroad and the exposure that came with it, the freedom and the independence of living on my own and making my own decisions, gave a tremendous boost to my self-confidence. I wouldn’t hesitate to speak up in a class full of students from all over the world. The papers I wrote were appreciated, and with every good grade, I felt like I had been given wings.
But life has its twists and turns, and after completing my degree, I was back in India, serving as a state government employee. Soon though, I got married, and now came another major point in my life, a point when I had to stop listening to others, and take control. I had a stable job with fairly decent pay, but the man I had married lived in a different city. And herein, I was faced with that eternal question of whether or not I would prioritize my personal life over my career.
For my part, I knew that I wanted to live with my husband; I saw no great sacrifice in pursuing a career I was not very passionate about, just so I could see my husband once in a while. A decently paid job, as far as I was concerned, could be found again (yes, I had the audacity to think that!). But, well, it had taken me 25 years to finally let myself go, and find a guy who seemed just about as crazy as myself, if not more! Did I really want to give that up, so that I could tell people that I was a government servant?
I faced quite staunch resistance from my family. My parents thought that I was letting them down, that I was gambling away the opportunities that had come my way. And while I had many a battle with them at the time, I did, and still do, see their point. They had sacrificed a lot of their own happiness for their only daughter, and it was only natural that they would want her to build a secure future for herself.
Yet, I was miserable. I had frequent arguments with my husband, and making a long distance marriage work took its toll on both of us. But, the big question remained. Would I be able to build a career for myself in a different city? Let alone a career, would I even find employment again, given the current job market? Everyone told me I wouldn’t. Majority of the people I knew were sceptical of my decision to leave. I felt like I had single-handedly taken feminism back a few years by choosing family over a job. I was made to feel insecure, I questioned my own abilities. All the confidence I had gathered during my stint overseas seemed to evaporate, making way for anxiety, self-doubt and above all, misery.
But then I knew I could no longer let others determine my happiness; this was, after all, my life, and I had to take charge. After moving in with my husband, I continued to freelance for a while. Within three months though, I had found myself a respectable position in a rather niche company. And in another four months, I was a full-time employee in one of the most prestigious academic institutions of the country. Thus far at least, my belief in myself, which at the time had seemed misguided, served me well.
Every woman, irrespective of class, caste or religion, has her own story of struggle. For many women, this is a struggle with their own selves, and with the beliefs that society has ingrained in them, and their loved ones. But going forward, one must remember that they can only depend on themselves, and on the choices they make. One must not let others, sometimes even the people closest to them, decide what makes them happy.
Most women in our country are deprived of the opportunity of making choices, and the majority of them are not even aware of the existence of choices in the first place. The education system in India does little to encourage freedom of choice, focusing solely on syllabus oriented, bookish education. Yet, for young people growing up in India, especially adolescent girls, formal education is not enough. It is essential that they are trained in skills that would help them in their fight for their rights and survival.
Girls, especially those who have crossed into puberty, should be taught the importance of self-worth; through classroom activities and extra-curricular, they should be given the chance to express themselves, make important decisions, and establish self-agency. Through rewards built into their tasks, their morale and confidence in themselves can be given an impetus. Most importantly, they should be able to take control, thereby one day becoming leaders, at least in their own lives.
One can have very little role in the trajectory one’s life will follow. The best one can do is to try and make informed decisions. This power to decide, the confidence to choose and the right to self-agency can be identified as essential skills for capacity building, and be weaved into a flexible soft skills training curriculum. Not all our choices will turn out in our favour, in fact, most of them won’t. But we will, hopefully, learn from our mistakes. And at the end of the day, we will have the courage to take responsibility for our actions.