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Is Empowerment About Choice?

Posted: November 15, 2011

choicesI sometimes come across people who talk about women’s empowerment in terms of choices. But empowerment is not about choice. Or at least, it is not about choice alone.

Once, I came across a blogpost where the author felt that it was alright for her to practice the 3-day ritual isolation during menstruation, so long as it was her choice. I can’t remember where I came across this, so I can’t check back whether the author applied it only to herself or to others, but hypothetically, let’s assume that such a person has a daughter, to whom she applies this ritual isolation as well. Let’s assume this daughter finds the practice uncomfortable, or even unacceptable. Would we still be ok with this choice?

It was my choice to adopt my husband’s name after marriage – never mind that he never had to consider such a ‘choice’. Could I be making this choice because I know that this is the way the world works, and working out an alternative is too much work? Or I could be making this choice because I hate my original surname and always wanted a change?

It was my choice to celebrate karva-chauth – never mind that the very concept of a wife fasting for her husband’s life says something about whose life is valuable. Could I be making this choice because not making it would hurt or annoy too many people around me? Or simply because it’s fun to dress up?

It is my choice to do more housework, because it is me who is particular about the house being clean – never mind that many men’s lack of ‘house pride’ gets them away from routine, boring work. Could I be making this choice because having the long discussions about who should be doing how much at home is not worth the trouble?

It was my choice to abort the foetus once I learnt its gender – never mind that I know all too well my husband’s antipathy to having a second girl.

What is choice? Do only overt pressures count or does subtle conditioning that leads us to make certain choices matter too?

Not every choice is necessarily empowered. That is not to say that such choices are always ‘bad’. As Preethi explains beautifully in this post, “Being a feminist is never an easy choice. You have dilemmas at every point of your life.” So, yes, all of us do at times make choices that go against what we believe or want to believe. We may do this for many reasons – family, relationships, because we’ve been brought up to do certain things, because taking a stand can be too much trouble at times. In my own experience, I changed my surname post marriage – because, of all things, I thought it would be a romantic thing to do! I am sure I do other non-progressive things pretty much every other day.

Why I am talking about empowerment in the context of choices is that too often, I’m seeing choice trotted out as an “end-of-discussion” catchphrase, implying that once “it’s her choice”, there can be no more discussion on the subject.

But here’s the thing. Celebrating karva-chauth may be your choice, but there is still a background to it, of one partner praying for the other’s life. Perhaps there is a little one watching, wondering why mummy fasts for papa’s health and not the other way round. Isolating yourself during your periods may be your choice, but it’s still worth asking what is so dirty or strange about menstruation that it needs this special treatment. Giving up one’s career to follow the husband abroad may be a choice but the lack of women in top industry positions is the aggregate of many such choices. Choices often go beyond us.

For anyone who wants to grow as a person, examining one’s choices is essential. (I am reminded of Socrates’ words, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’.) Some of our choices may not be things that we can do anything about. Changing my name back to my maiden name would be troublesome in all sorts of ways. Some of my choices embarrass me today – and this includes the stances I have taken on issues. But if I don’t examine them, I will make the same mistakes again – and again.

Related reading: Chandni’s excellent post, ‘Feminist is a world-view, not a laundry list of women’s issues‘.

Pic credit: Svilen

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