Marilyn French, the feminist writer says that half the women are a contented lot not because they are happy but because they don’t know that better things exist. I am not quoting verbatim, but this is more or less the gist of what she has said. Well, what about the other half of the women then? By inference they should be aware of what they can have in life and so can make the right choices, shouldn’t they?
Let’s first take the young women who come from educated and well-to-do backgrounds, who have the freedom to shape their future, in terms of a profession, or pursuit of their interests. And they form a sizeable number today. And yet, how many of these girls actually exercise their choice in these matters? More pertinently, how many of them are serious and committed about achieving something in life?
The media depiction of a glamorous married life, with the latest cars, foreign holidays and a handsome hunk in tow no doubt puts stars into the eyes of a lot of girls, often influencing their decisions. Here I am reminded of one of Purba’s early posts where she talks about real and reel women. They enter marriage – whether arranged or selected by themselves – only to find that reality is not what they thought it would be. Sometimes dreams do come true too and the women settle down to a life of comfort and luxury with little motivation for personal advancement.
If that is the case with girls who have nothing stopping them from reaching for the sky except their own limited ambitions, what can one say about the average girls from lower economic strata who are so often denied any kind of choice, strapped as they are by traditions and financial constraints?
This is the typical scenario for a young, average Indian woman: she has her life and role cut out for her. She gets a mandatory school/college education as the case may be before getting married to the boy chosen by her elders, or in some cases to someone she has herself chosen. The latter option often doesn’t change anything for her; if anything it only makes her life more difficult since the couple has broken the rules and gone against the family, probably on both sides. And after marriage, she conforms to the stereotypes of a daughter-in-law, wife, mother and grandmother over her lifetime.
Come to think of it, acceptance is easy; by toeing the line, you don’t have to be responsible for your actions; it doesn’t involve struggle; it gets you the approval of family and society for being so compliant. It is only when you break the mould that the struggle starts. Why go to all that trouble when you can lie back and take what destiny (or family and society) has in store for you? Then at least you have someone else to blame for your misfortunes and get sympathy in the bargain! This acceptance also gives them the stoicism to take everything that they are dealt by the society as karma.
I have nothing against girls making marriage their life’s goal. But is it the only choice available for a woman in today’s world? Why can’t they aspire for something more? Many of these girls are talented and academically brilliant, but the urge to do something is simply missing. Standing up for themselves is either something that has not crossed their minds or if it has, is too much of an effort and too intimidating a prospect.
Interestingly, more and more parents, especially the mothers, are encouraging their daughters to break free of the shackles of tradition and are willing to support them in their efforts. Their numbers might be small, but is growing. These are the ones who never had a chance to do what they had dreamt of doing and therefore want to give their daughters that chance. All they want is for the girls to take the initiative to stand up for themselves. But do these girls do that?
Many of them don’t even want to think! Their stock reply to any question about what they want in life is, “I will complete my ‘education’ (degree) and get married. I would like to have a career, but my parents want me to get married.”
My ears perk up at the word ‘career’ and I say, “Great! What career would you like to have?”
It doesn’t take long for me to realise that they have not given it any thought at all! For them the word ‘career’, is synonymous with a job and so it is just another routine as cooking and cleaning. But I wouldn’t knock even a mundane job as it at least gives their personalities another dimension than just the one they have within the four walls of their home.
I am not saying that it is easy in repressive societies and even in normal traditional ones like the ones most girls and women live in; nor am I suggesting that they take any radical route to break free. All I am saying is that they learn to think for themselves; get out of the complacency that gives them a false sense of security and begin believing in themselves. This is not the preserve of women who have had a liberal upbringing or those who only come from well-to-do and educated backgrounds.
Let us for a moment talk of women from the lower economic strata of society – mostly the unlettered ones. While we lived in Jabalpur, I had this young maid whose husband and his family wanted them to relocate to the village and help in their farm. Not only she, but her sisters, who were also married to men from the same village refused to go. I asked her why, when farming was an equally important and lucrative profession. ‘There are no schools for Krishna, Di!’ she remonstrated immediately.
The girls told their husbands in no uncertain terms that the latter could go back to the village and farming if they wanted to, but they themselves would stay on in the city and educated their children! The men had to stay back. They could get their way not just because they were firm, but also because they were earning members! Incidentally, they belong to a community that doesn’t ‘allow’ them to work in others’ homes and except my maid who has passed her 10th Boards, the others are illiterate.
Economic independence makes all the difference to a woman’s life. Even when they are forced to part with all their earning, they still know their own worth in monetary terms. It is as simple as that!
Now, if these girls can put forth their demands and get their way, it makes it doubly depressing when I hear girls from better financial and social backgrounds dither about their future or wail that they are confused about what they want to do in life. Freedom is not going to be offered on a platter. The woman has to chart her own course and take the freedoms she needs for her personal growth. It might sometimes come at a price, but don’t all valuable things in the world come at a price? As long as it contributes to positive growth and doesn’t descend to settling scores, it is perfectly fine.
Let us look at an unlikely example of a state that purportedly is one with the worst gender ratios and discrimination in the country. The state harvested more than one third of the medals the country won in the CWG held in 2010, many of them by women in such unconventional sports like wrestling. Think for a moment: If these girls had not got the encouragement of their families, how could they have done it?
More recently, there was this story about a Rajasthan athlete Sneha Jain, who was encouraged and supported to return to the tracks and garner laurels by her – hold your breath – her mother-in-law! Read her story here. Rajasthan incidentally is another state with a poor record in gender equality.
To add my own story here: A generation ago, my mother-in-law, bless her soul, had supported me financially to study journalism, which had been my dream and which I couldn’t realise before I had got married.
And if girls from the villages of Haryana can achieve so much, why can’t their urban counterparts in the towns and metros do the same, given the support they are getting from their families?
What I would like the young women to do is think for themselves. A thinking person has a choice in life. She doesn’t necessarily have to become a professional or a career woman. Or as Roshni has pointed out in her comment, need to even hold a job. It actually puts all homemakers on the same level, which is unfair to so many of them who have taken conscious decisions not to work. It is just that she does what she wants and on her terms. This requires a sense of self worth, more than anything else It is just that she does what she wants and on her terms. This requires a sense of self worth, not cockiness born of an unfair sense of entitlement as Dagny has pointed out in her comment.
Come to think of it, how many of our professional women today are willingly taking breaks from their lucrative and satisfying career to raise their children? Working flexi-hours, working from home, doing something on one’s own – they are making choices. Others opt out of the rat-race altogether.
What is important is that they have control over their own lives because they are willing to think and take decisions affecting their lives themselves. Blanket blame on patriarchy for all ills besetting women doesn’t wash anymore.
I exhort all young women on the threshold of life to remember this:
When there is a spark inside you, it will burst forth into a flame one day, no matter your social standing or circumstances. The idea is to light that spark, stoke it and not let it get extinguished.
Conversely, there is also this story about the bird swamped by shit?
It goes like this: A bird on its migratory trail became so weak with cold that it fell on a field unable to fly any further. A cow ambling along dropped its dung on the hapless bird. Too weak to move, the bird lay under the heap, finding it surprisingly warm and cozy. Yes, it was a pile of shit, but what the hell! It was a warm pile of shit, wasn’t it?
Need I say anymore?