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With three aunts who were homemakers and had faced all kinds of domestic violence, Ell P was always told to first begin earning enough to support herself, and only then think of marriage.
The Indian girl child is told often enough that she doesn’t deserve better. That she’s nothing more than a womb. That she can’t possibly ask for more. Yet, women refuse to give up on the dream of equality, of seizing their place in the sun. Starting 6th October 2018, as part of the conversations we have at Women’s Web for the International Day of the Girl Child on 11th October, we present a special series in which a few of our best authors write about #GirlPower. Some write from their own experience as girls, some about the significant girls in their lives, and some even to future daughters – a rich tapestry of emotions that is woven with love, bravery, inspiration, hope, fear, pain, and so much more.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” said Virginia Woolf. Ell P was similarly told as a girl that she needs to be an earning member of society before she can think of marriage. For marriage brings its own set of dependences, and a woman able to support herself has a better chance of standing up for herself…
“A father and his son were driving down a highway. The car meets with an accident and the father instantly dies. The son is critically injured and rushed to the hospital. The surgeon takes one look at the son and says, ‘I cannot operate on him. He is my son, Arthur.’
How is that possible?” I ask.
There are whispers, “The surgeon is the grandfather”, “The surgeon is the step dad”, “The surgeon is the sperm donor!” And the entire room bursts into raucous laughter.
Out of the fifteen people in front of me, one woman answers, “The surgeon is the mom.”
A man says, “Well, you can’t blame us for not getting it, you know. Women suit better in professions like housewives, beauticians, teachers and HR.” The room again breaks into another round of raucous laughter, but this time it is only the men. The women stand, awkwardly smiling and looking at each other.
“Do you have a daughter, Sir?” I ask.
“Yes.” He says, proud.
“Oh, so the only career options she has is housewife, beautician, teacher and HR, is it?” I ask. The men now, grinning awkwardly, look at each other and the women smile at me, for perhaps avenging their career choices in front of this blatant masochism.
I grew up among four strong women, my mother and my three aunts. Growing up, the one sentence I have heard all my life, was, “First stand on your own two feet, and only then, should you think about getting married.” It was never about the need to learn to cook, or to stitch. I grew up among a crop of cousins, mostly boys and one very boyish elder sister. For the longest time, I had short, boy cut hair, scraped knees and no skirts in my wardrobe.
My mom, a psychology lecturer, was a firebrand then. A sharp tongue, lashing at my clueless father with her caustic wit every time he tried to bucket her into the Bhartiya Naari stereotype. When I think back, the instances of discrimination between my brother and me were almost negligible. What I learned as a young girl, growing up, were two things, never stop earning, and marry a man who believed in equality.
My biggest lessons in life came from observing not just my parents, but also the lives of my aunts. My mother struggled through a family mired in patriarchal muck. While my grandfather was a very forward thinking man, my grandmother on the other hand, followed the tenets of patriarchy like the Ten Commandments.
I have heard stories, where my grandmother and my uncles would physically wrestle my mom, in order to stop her from going to college. With six children, my grandmother desperately needed her eldest daughter to stay at home and help with household chores, rather than run around the town getting an education.
But like I mentioned earlier, my mother was a firebrand, when all other girls were plotting to sneak out with their friends or boyfriends, my mother would sneak out to study. Her perseverance went on to make her the highly educated lecturer that she has been almost all her life.
Yet, the treatment dished out to my mom, ensured that her younger sisters choose home science courses instead of professional ones. In the seventies, when my mother married at twenty-five, a much later age according to the standards then, and that too, a love marriage, to man of her choice; my aunts were married off during their education. From lawyers to government officials, how proud was my family at the choice of their suitable sons in law.
Yet, growing up, the stories I heard of the treatment dished out to my aunts gave me enough nightmares to ensure that I get a goddamned job to support myself.
From being dragged to the roads and beaten mercilessly, to having their father in law peep into the bathroom window, while they bathed. From being conned out of every single penny my aunts ever saved, to being tagged a whore because they talked to another man. They have been through it all. In our family, one did not need to read the news to know what kind of atrocities women were being objected to. It was all there for us to witness first hand, and get first hand accounts from our aunts. Yet, the thought that my aunts could walk out of the marriage, get an education, start earning; never once crossed the minds of my grandfather and my uncles.
Imagine the plight of us kids, the older ones, who understood. We loved our families, we loved our aunts, and in our innocence, we planned grand rescue missions to save them from the existence of their drudgery. Our villains were not the Darth Vaders, Amrish Puris and the Shakti Kapoors, they were the husbands and in-laws that drove my aunts to us with a black eye and missing clumps of hair.
I wish I could say that our missions were launched, my aunts were rescued, got great jobs and were finally with good men who deserved all the love they had to offer. But no, that was not the case. My aunts struggled through life, bearing the indignity of being a wife and a daughter in law, in most Indian households that don’t value a woman who doesn’t earn. And I know of so many occasions, where they wanted to escape. But where would they go, what would they do, what about the little boys and girls they had birthed? How would they financially support themselves and their kids?
Even my mother, their elder sister, could not offer unconditional support, because, after all she was a woman living in the home of her husband.
They lived the life of a glorified maid, waiting for their children to grow up, get jobs and then rescue them. Save them, so that, at least, in their old age, they are able to live the life of dignity.
This was my life, as a girl child, in all the fun I had, all the contests I won, and all the accolades I gathered. There were always these women in my life, who suffered through every single day, yet hugged me and kissed me every time I saw them, and told me, “First stand on your own two feet, and only then, should you think about getting married.”
Read all the #GirlPower posts in this series here.
Image source: Shutterstock
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