Saturday, January 12, 2008

Raising the bar

I don’t think of myself as a ‘feminist’ in the traditional political sense. I’m just a person who doesn’t accept certain kinds of limitations in my life, or certain sorts of treatment from other people; my femaleness is incidental. But feminist or not, I’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to not see the patriarchy everywhere around us. It’s like The Matrix; if I close my eyes and breathe deeply, I see the world in little green falling numbers. And like Neo I can, with the sheer power of my mind, make all the little green falling numbers flex and bend to my will…

Well okay, not quite, but much like the bumblebee, which flies against all the principles of physics purely because nobody told it that it couldn’t, I’ve always refused to believe that the patriarchy will get me. As a 20-something woman living alone in Delhi I did some things that gave my parents, in faraway Malaysia and Switzerland, sleepless nights, and some other things that would have given them coronaries if I’d mentioned them.

Partly, I got away with many things because I had the element of surprise on my side. People assumed that no Indian woman would do something so outrageously immodest as smoke in the vestibule of a third class train compartment while travelling alone, so they assumed I was from abroad, and left me alone, though more than one middle-aged person on a train sternly advised me to “get married”. Mechanics at the garage assumed that only a foreigner would be so weird as to hop into the pit with them to see what they were talking about. Malodorous men in the government liquor store assumed that only a foreigner would walk in by herself and queue up along with them.

It just never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do any of these things, and so I did them, and nobody ever bothered me, and that’s still how I choose to run my life. Like Keanu Reeves, I just close my eyes and f-l-e-x the world.

No, not really. Still, the Matrix analogy is not all that far-fetched. From official forms that ask only for ‘Father’s name’ to neighbours who want to know ‘What relation is he of yours?’ to friends and family addressing you when it comes to food and your male companion when it comes to work, the patriarchy is so entrenched that women themselves, even the most liberated and educated of them, promote it enthusiastically—lately through the ‘superwoman’ avatar.

The superwoman is the one who’s been told, and believes, that it is great and glorious to earn the bread and have a career, bear the children, supervise the household, and be a sex bomb all at the same time, and if that leaves no quiet time for herself, or brings on a psychotic episode, well, that’s all right because the glory should compensate, shouldn’t it? For some reason, it’s still not a question that supervising the household will continue to be her responsibility.

There are a number of things that women, not just in India but around the world, rarely question: they must bear children and care for them; they are responsible for the kitchen and meals, if not all household functioning and chores; they must take care of family elders; they must do their best not to hurt anyone’s feelings. (Those, right there, are most of the world’s dullest chores and the most enduring forms of self-abnegation; and women are taught that refusing these assignments is ‘selfish’.) Oh, and, they’d better not “ask for trouble” by wearing anything fetching.

It’s a mystery to me why women are told to hide in their homes while the lunatics don’t seem to have a curfew.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I feel sure that I *could* be a superwoman given the chance... only my household is visibly unsupervised, my children are cats, and my career comes without bread. Hmm. My superhero self is apparently a secret alterego.

:) kiri

ArSENik said...

Salute...I wonder if it is normal that I find the image of a woman in a government liquor store queue unnervingly sexy. Hmmmm...does that mean I am a chauvinist or something?

Of course, threatened men with grave inferior complex issues are at fault but good point about women lying down and accepting the crap.

Sangeetha said...

Superb post! I agree with you on every letter that you have written. I wonder why there are lots of Do's and Don'ts for women alone. And especially after all the crap that I get to see in news nowadays about how women should be careful to avoid unnecessary trouble like roadside lunatics rubbing against you etc. after the Jan 1st incident, yours is one article that indeed speaks the truth and addresses the right issue. Hats off for that!

Rohini said...

My gosh, that REALLY hit the spot. All the things I have always felt but you write them so eloquently. I do enjoy having the kids and luckily my husband does the major part of the boring care-and-feeding and I do the fun answering random questions. But the 'supermom' thing is SO real...

Anindita said...

Linking from UV (http://youngfeminists.wordpress.com)

Radhika said...

I wish I could join the others and applaud you..but all i find myself doing is warning you not to take chances..the surprise element is alright, but as far as possibl, I try not to push the envelope..rape is too scary a reality. I would not drive around alone at the dead of night. Period.

SP said...

A(wo)men. But as one who also lived alone in Delhi as a young woman, I wonder how many chances one gets to live on one's own terms without the protection of money. I found the most restrictive thing was not having a car, and hearing people's warnings about Not Going Out Alone at Night in Public Transport turn into self-fulfilling prophesies - walk alone on a Delhi road at night and so few women are out there that you are Asking for Trouble/signalling your wantonness by going out there. It was just an everyday battle to have a life, period.

As for the superwoman/good Indian woman ideal, you didn't mention the most evil-genius part of it, i.e. contemporary liberal well-educated people talking about how it's just a division of labour and something that they agreed on mutually, knowing very well that only one person in the marriage was ever going to take on domestic tasks.