Growing up in an ordinary, middle-class family (albeit a military one), I didn’t expect myself to become a feminist. When I was a teenager, the prevailing view about feminism was that it was predominantly anti-men. Feminists were women who had been divorced, widowed, or victims of abuse and hated everything to do with men. They lobbied for women’s freedoms only so that they could take away from the freedoms granted to men. At least, that’s what educated society always said.
With exposure to subjects like economics, politics and law however, I realized how wrong we’d all been about women’s rights. After all, how could basic human rights like the right to be born, right to nutrition, education, employment opportunities, right against discrimination, dowry, rape and forced marriage be feminist? or radical ?
That was probably the first time I encountered opposition from men. At first, it wasn’t anything openly insulting or chauvinistic. It was just a slight twitch. Guys would say something sarcastic, share a glance with other guys, insinuate something I could barely catch- things that spoke volumes about their own upbringing. In college, these remarks became more frequent and bolder and I was forced to conclude that if boys were continued to be brought up in this way, girls would only be relevant for a few things- sex, marriage or begetting sons.
I made a mental note every time I heard a guy say something that unintentionally gave away their views on women :
1. Why haven’t you learnt to cook or sew yet? How will you make your husband happy? (When I said I was terrible at domestic chores)
2. If I can’t get a job after my engineering degree, I’ll get married to a rich girl, her dowry will cover the expenses. (A guy on his life plan)
3. How will a man ever marry you if you’re having fertility problems? (A friend of mine was told this at the gynecologist’s).
4. Girls say no but they don’t mean no. You have to keep after them till they give in. That’s how you get a girl. (On pursuing women)
5. Girls aren’t blameless you know. If they wear clothes like that, of course guys will try stunts like that. ( On outraging the modesty of a woman)
6. A live-in relationship? Are you nuts? Doesn’t matter if it’s legal women have to be married. (On live-in relationships)
7. Marital rape sounds more like an oxymoron. If your husband’s doing it, how is it illegal? (On violence in a marriage)
8. What do you mean adopt, if women don’t produce kids, what else are they going to do? (On reproductive rights)
9. In India, family-planning is very simple. They have girl, girl, girl, boy and then they stop. (Ummi from the comedy show Kumars at No.42)
10. I don’t think raising my voice for women’s rights makes any sense. I’m not going to rape a girl, am I? (On activism)
Most of these statements invoked a mixed reaction from me ; partly amusement and partly fury. How could I blame these silly boys when the fault lay with their parents?
I often wondered after such bizarre conversations, did parents casually make disparaging comments about women over dinner?
Son, don’t worry about that girl coming first in class. By 21 she’ll be married and you’ll be focussing on your career. And pass me the Chapatis please.
Did these very boys who were my friends, grow up to believe that women’s rights were limited to secondary education, early marriage, production of children, being faithful wives, participating in bhajans and organising kitty parties?
I presume girls like me must be very flummoxed. After growing up with the impression that they are as good as, or even better than boys, they must have a hard time encountering opposition from so many frontiers in the country. The majority view in a male-dominated society must be so overwhelming sometimes, that girls must start doubting their own convictions. And therein lies society’s cleverest ploy to discourage feminism. By being loud, belligerent and recalcitrant, society embeds the first seeds of doubt in young girls’ minds, marking the beginning of a life-long struggle for them to assert themselves.
Many people, when discussing feminism, tend to blame religion. There may be something to this theory. Islam is often referred to as an intolerant religion which oppresses women. Roman Catholicism prohibits abortion or divorce. Hinduism encouraged the abhorrent practice of sati, until it was outlawed during the British Rule.
I could tell you that the problems lies with lack of education, awareness and a morally-deficient parenting system in our country. But I’m sure you’re smarter than I am, and have already arrived on that conclusion.
It’s a strange world I live in. I think I might be the problem, not people. I thought my rights included a career of my choice, a good partner, choosing to adopt or abort, educating myself endlessly, voting for a pro-women’s party, learning self-defense , living-in, breaking up, getting married only if I’m in the mood and buying my parents a house with my savings one day.
But hey, I’m a woman and a feminist, so I guess my view doesn’t count.