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.