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As women conditioned to second guess ourselves, we are often guilty of seeking approval and validation from others for our actions and choices, undermining our own power.
In modern day India, we like to believe there is equality between the sexes. Maybe on the face of it seems so (sure, there are always exceptions), but at the core, it’s a whole lot of baloney. Can you truly argue that a woman’s education and career is given the same amount of importance as that of men in her family?
When it comes to making tough choices, women are picked as volunteers. We have limited ideas of identity for women. We have fixed ideas of what makes for good and bad women.
People like to brag that they see no difference between their daughters and daughters-in-law. Really? Just because you ‘allow’ your daughter-in-law to wear hot pants and tank tops, and do not disapprove of her sharing a drink with the family, doesn’t mean the double standards have changed.
Pretty and sexy images make your family look hip and cool on social media because we have now learned to use clothes as a marker for progressiveness.
I remember, on one of my first few visits to India, I was told that only our domestic help wears Indian clothes at home, so I shouldn’t. Forget the fact that I live in New York where I get to wear Indian clothes maybe five times in a year, so I look forward to my desi avatar when in India. I have written 12 award-winning and best-selling books. I’ve won the ‘Voices of the Year Award’, past recipients of which have been Chelsea Clinton and founders of the #MeToo Movement. I run my own company as a mindset and wellness coach. I teach yoga to female survivors of violence. I still manage to cook fresh dinner for my family every night. But what would make me “modern” is a non-desi avatar.
The judgmental barometer for whether or not an Indian woman is ‘good’ hasn’t changed over the years.
A woman can be super-successful in her career, but at the end of the day, the million-dollar question that she is asked: “Can you cook roti, aloo gobhi, and dal for the family?” I am lucky that I find cooking therapeutic. But my friends and the girls in my family who don’t see themselves as a mistress of spices, are often criticized.
How often do the same mothers and mothers-in-law encourage their sons and/or sons-in-law to cook? If a guy cooks, the girl is considered lucky; if a woman doesn’t think spending time in the kitchen echoes with her, she is labeled as ‘incomplete’.
Growing up, many girls are told that they are equal to men and the same opportunities are available to them as their male counterparts — be it brother or husband. I was one of them too. But I grew up with conflicting values.
On one hand, I was surrounded by aunts who were heads of department in academia, one ran her own school, and another owned her business; on the other, there are/were so many women in my family who chose to remain homemakers and tried to tell me that a woman shouldn’t earn more than her husband or her marriage won’t survive. Passive-aggressively, so many of us girls with dreams were told that an ambitious woman can’t juggle a successful marriage and a home. Is the onus only on the woman to keep her marriage healthy and together? I personally don’t care whether you choose to work or not. To each their own. But… I have to say I wish desi upbringing was slightly less hypocritical and more nourishing for women’s souls.
I recently recovered from a life-threatening situation. Because I was hit by it suddenly, I hadn’t planned the 7 months of leave of absence from life and work. As I slowly rebuild my life, body, and career, the only thing that I hear from the older generation is to make a trip to India (which neither my body can handle nor my career).
Honestly, I do appreciate their sentiment of wanting to care and help. But I would appreciate it even more if I wasn’t invisible to them and if someone would ask what is it that I need to heal? Part of the caring comes from a genuine place, I get it; then there is some part that makes people feel important when they can say, “I am taking care of my daughter or daughter-in-law.” I also see through the social-brag element.
What none of them realize is that by defining me by my illness, even though I am in recovery mode, they make me weaker. Every woman has different requirements for her own emotional healing. For me, getting back to work and my workouts was high on the list. The former gives me purpose; the latter builds my mental as well as physical strength.
In general, being financially independent is extremely important to me. I have a very supportive husband, but I don’t believe that it is his job to financially support me because he is the man, just as much as I don’t believe that it is my job to serve him dinner every night because I am the woman. Aside from a few, no one has asked, “Sweta, how are you managing your finances or company or acquiring/retaining clients?”
The unsaid assumption is that because I have a husband, it will all “work out.”
I stewed over the treatment of gender differences for weeks until one day I realized that I was the only one hurting in the process. Gosh, I told myself, my mental peace is more important than anything else, especially when I am healing. There were two choices — either I could get upset and get into an argument about being overlooked, or channelize my energy (which I am still building, mind you) into something more productive. I don’t like confrontations and definitely don’t believe that everything needs to be a discussion. But staying quiet felt belittling.
I had to pick a path that empowered me. I took my anger and frustration, and meditated on it. Some deep thinking and writing about my feelings. Finally, it hit me: as Indian women, we need to rework our attitude. Because the society and patriarchal thinking won’t change overnight. Since the behavior of others doesn’t seem to meet our expectations, we need to write and own our story. Stop waiting to be heard.
We give away our power and in turn become victims. What I mean by that is, most of us seek validation and approval. But until when? Why am I offended that people don’t get my aspirations or healing process? Why am I even bothering to explain to those who have made up their minds — people have their generational and gender biases. Just because someone makes assumptions about my situation doesn’t mean that it is the gospel truth.
Deep down, we need to have faith in our own abilities. We need to stand by our choices. Be vulnerable with a few and surround yourself with those who nourish you. We need to believe that we, the women, aren’t victims. We are strong and independent. We rule countries, run homes, have fought wars — you get the picture. We have to stop perpetuating a victim-mentality. The power of positive thinking — it changes the rules of the game.
I teach yoga to survivors of sexual violence and trauma. My clients have expressed their gratitude for not referring to them as victims. In my novel, Louisiana Catch, the female protagonist, Ahana, is a sexual assault survivor. One of the members in the audience at the book launch last year walked up to me and said, “Thank you for addressing Ahana as a survivor, not a victim. It empowers the rest of us survivors too.”
Be angry about the situation, if you too have felt discrimination, but don’t sulk about it. Turn your frustration into something positive and work towards a solution. For instance, instead of arguing about what others didn’t understand, I went back to work and my workouts (working with a trainer to build core strength in my body). A bunch of my articles have found a home because writing is an emotional as well as creative outlet for me. I discuss my work and challenges with a handful of people I trust immensely because, honestly, too many is a crowd.
In your own unique way, stop relying on people to build you up. Stop giving away your power. When a woman stands up for herself, she inspires other women to speak for themselves. We all have only finite amount of energy. Will you use it to blame others or to build yourself up?
“A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Image source: a still from the movie Manmarziyaan
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