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Each one of us on the Women’s Web team has come to this team in such different ways, live very different lives – yet we have a kernel of similarity that fits us all together like a wonderful jigsaw puzzle.
Informal discussions over lunch at work, or impromptu chats often bring out personal facts, odds and ends of information that go on to make a more composite picture of each one of us who make up the inspiring team Women’s Web. Things that we wouldn’t discuss during day to day work.
But we’re all feminists.
Sure, very different women, with different ways of applying the ideology in our lives, but all of us believing in the same thing – that everyone (no matter where on the gender spectrum or birth circumstances) deserves the same chances, the same power of choice, and the same freedom to be full human beings. That patriarchy is the worst thing to happen to humankind.
But how did we come to be on this journey? In really different ways, as it turns out. So here are some of us speaking about our journeys.
I hated growing up a girl. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and the most common reason I was given for having to do something that my brothers were exempt from, or not being permitted to do something they had no issues with was – “because you’re a girl.”
Three inequities stand clear in my memory from childhood.
One, I wasn’t allowed to learn how to swim (and I still can’t swim) because the local swimming pool had mix-gender classes, and “how can our girl swim with all the boys there?”
Two, I was supposed to help in the kitchen but not they, because “even if you become the district collector you will still have to know how to do all this.” ‘District collector’ being the height of breaking the glass ceiling then in our circles.
And three – the menstrual taboos. It’s very humiliating, not just the fact that you’re told you’re ‘impure’, but also the fact that everyone around is aware of your periods, especially the visitors.
Being a rebel, these sealed for me the fact of being a feminist, though I didn’t know it myself.
Nikita Sengar completely agrees with the ‘rebel’ bit, and speaks of growing up in a patriarchal family where “the only purpose imposed on a girl is to get married, do household chores, be a ‘good’ wife/ daughter/ bahu/ mother and live life that way.”
Anju Jayaram has just the opposite to share. “In my immediate family,” she says, “until I was a 19-something, I didn’t see much difference in the way my brother and I were brought up.” So when she saw the inequality that was common among her extended family and friends, it struck her how wrong it was.
But Anju fought against it, especially when other boys bullied her. “As a young 6-7 year old,” she says, “I was called Padachi Panjali quite often (loosely translated to fighter Panjali or fighter cock)! It was as if girls are good if they are silent and meek, and can be looked at as ‘beautiful things’, but if you fight back, oh my!!”
This is a stereotype we all live with and it takes some effort to break this conditioning.
Nishtha Pandey agrees with Anju‘s experience. She remembers how she and her brother were raised equal. “I remember how both my brother and I were taught how to maintain a house and also how to change a bulb,” says Nishtha. “We both had the same rules that we needed to follow when we went out with friends.”
But there was an aunt, she says, who had taunted her mother with “your girl is acting too much like boys, you give her too much freedom.” After which her mother tried to make her ‘behave’, which she hated! So, feminism, to her, means being as she wants to be.
Jyotishree Mohanty, or Jo as we all call her, remembers being in the 4th and finding freedom in cycling alone to school.
“Biking to school gave me a sense of freedom,” she says. “But, as I grew older and started to go for my tuitions, which was usually in the evenings, my dad used to drop me and pick me up. A regular thing for Indian parents, right?”
She hated it! Because it took away her freedom and made her dependent on her dad. Someone else was now deciding what she could do and what she couldn’t. “So,” she says, “I protested and made sure this stopped. And to this day nobody tells me what I can do and what I can’t.”
Madhur Dave speaks about taking ‘pride’ in being unlike most girls. “I remember growing up with four cousins who were boys. I always took pride in being ‘one of the boys’ and not having too many female friends.” Anju concurs. “I prided myself in being ‘not one of the girls’ growing up as I associated being a girl with being dainty, being interested only in looks, and gossiping without any knowledge of the world.”
Madhur soon realised that she was wrong by associating ‘being a girl’ with ‘not being good enough’.
“As I grew up, I realised how toxic that was, how being a girl wasn’t a bad thing and that I should take pride in it,” she says, as against Anju who came out with, “And since I didn’t see my self in this light I assumed I was better, but often I would be brought back to reality when I would be lumped with the other ‘regular’ girls.”
Ruchi Verma was brought up in a conventional family, and at a very early age she was told that her grandmother was upset at her birth, being the second daughter. Even her maternal grandmother had given something to her mother to eat, to ensure she was a boy!
“I feel we are all born feminists but we are forced out of it,” says Pragati Adhikari. “I hated the idea of being boxed into stereotypical roles just because I was a assigned a certain gender at birth. Throughout my growing up years, and until today, when my own daughters are ready to step out into the world, I feel that we still have a long way to go.”
About the circumstances around her birth, Ruchi says, “In all of these cases, my mother really stood out as a role model for me as she shunned the advice/criticism of both set of mothers and never really let it get to us.” As a result, even though she saw these issues, she was able to let them slide.
It matters a lot, mothers standing up to their circumstances, standing up for their daughters – it teaches the daughters to become strong and stand up for themselves too.
Nikita Sengar saw her mother stand up to her patriarchal family in her own way, trying to create her own identity despite what was expected of her, especially by extended family.
“I grew up watching her create a balance, fighting on an everyday basis and not settling otherwise. It made me question everything that was wrong and hence I became a rebel in no time – I had a problem with everything that created gender bias, restricted women, hindered their growth.”
I saw the same happening in my childhood.
Despite a patriarchal household, my mother had made her mark. As a doctor, she was quite successful in her private practice, even while operating within the confines of the very patriarchal family she had married into – complete with following menstrual taboos, kow-towing to in-laws, following a load of back-breaking traditions, etc. She even did another degree in medicine around the time I was in middle school.
As I was thinking of this, Madhur Dave spoke up. “I believe my first lesson in feminism came from my parents. At one point of time, my mother earned more than my father, and despite society nudging him to push his ego into it, dad refused to. In fact, he was proud of his wife and loved her just as much. I was constantly curious because several people asked me if my parents fought because of the pay gap difference, which I had never seen them do.”
“When I asked my dad why people expected fights, he explained that my parents are equal and that even though my mom may be a woman, she is just as deserving of the pay raise. He explained that even though the world might tell me otherwise, I am NOT superior or inferior to the males, in fact, I am an equal and will always be.”
Our education was a big player in getting us thinking.
“Education enabled me,” says Nikita Sengar. “Unlike other members of the family, my parents always believed in the power of education, and standing on our own feet. Growing up with that purpose, I was never afraid to speak up, and while people found me annoying, somebody who speaks much more than she should, nobody could force me to stop. I realized how important it is to have your own place in the world, and I had just started.”
Aparna Vedapuri Singh says that she was angry as a teenager and a young woman. “I think I was always a feminist,” she says, “but did not have the vocabulary to articulate what I felt. For instance, there was the rage I felt when a teacher organised a debate on ‘should women work’ – the idea that women’s paid work was debatable was infuriating, but I did not have the language to articulate why I was infuriated. Words like autonomy were alien to me. Growing up in the 80s and 90s I had a lot of this anger within, but often felt like an isolated ‘angry young woman’.”
Aparna Vedapuri Singh
Nishtha Pandey then took up this thread. “When I got more exposure in life and experienced discrimination and sexism it made me angry. I remember I used to fight lot with men and even women, for treating other women in a discriminatory way.”
“I have been an outspoken rebel, who would go on fighting with individuals, explaining how things are wrong, what needs to be done and list never stops,” says Nikita, joining the conversation again.
I could completely get what she was saying. I have always been the ‘troublemaker’ in my family, the girl who wouldn’t keep quiet, and asked too many questions.
The girl who insisted her brothers also help in the home. The girl who even today, as a woman, is considered a troublemaker, who exited the family WhatsApp group because she was cornered from all sides by a posse of (well educated) cousins going on about ‘fake feminists’ during the #MeToo movement in India, but kept explaining to them how and why they were wrong. The woman who was told that “if you stop seeing everything through a feminist lens, half your problems will go away.”
This family background (both natal and marital) made me a closet feminist, realising that my beliefs and politics was against the grain of traditional society, but not having the words for it, even giving in at times when the going got really tough. As a young woman already in the 80s and early 90s, I really didn’t have much choice, until I found my tribe at Women’s Web, and my writers.
Anju Jayaram agreed. “Social media and working with Women’s Web was a revelation it gave me words and terms to things that I felt and had experienced but could not articulate.”
Ruchi Verma also understands this. “I have been a closet feminist for a long part of my life,” she says. “I was lucky to meet my now husband at the age of 18, and he is the one who actually got my feminism out of the closet through our many discussions on various topics. I became an open rebel with him by my side. Soon enough, I was ready to challenge beliefs and ideologies.”
But the environment matters a lot – whether patriarchal or feminist, as well as how one handles things. “Joining the Corporate world at the age of 21, I was a part of a division that was just starting up,” continues Ruchi. “Being in Sales HR, I have been to sales meetings till late at night with no other woman around. But, all of this helped me shape my belief that you can command respect through your actions irrespective of your gender. This further strengthened my belief that capability matters over gender. With a feminist boss at work, a man, soon we had women in our sales force too.”
Pragati Adhikari speaks up, “In my personal life, I have been being dictated throughout on what to do and what not to do. Despite giving up my dreams and aspirations to facilitate the growth and peace of mind of so called adults in my life!”
“I remember sitting one day with my girlfriends from the hostel, and a question popped up,” shares Nikita Sengar at this point. “How many men/boys have you met in your life who you find absolutely gender-neutral or at least not sexist at all? There were four of us, and every one had met exactly zero such men. It shook me to the core. It reflected the intensity of the problem. I changed that day; became an obvious feminist. I stopped fighting with senseless people around, stopped wasting time in convincing, educating the flag-bearers patriarchy and shifted my focus.”
“Books really helped me shape my thoughts and form my own ideas of feminism,” remarked Ruchi.
Aparna agreed. “My introduction to feminism came as a 17 year old thrown into reading Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, in a pre-digital, pre-globalised world where I had no idea what this book was about,” she said. It shook me into understanding the dystopian world that can come about if we continue minimising women’s choices and disregarding their full existence and autonomy as adult human beings. Since then, I have continued learning what it means to be a feminist, and specifically, what it means to be a feminist in India.”
“My journey as a feminist started very late,” chimes in Savitha Sampath, at this point. “Almost when I became a mother.”
Becoming a parent can be a huge thing, and change the way we see the world, especially when a parent of a girl, in Indian society. We want to make things better for our daughters. We want to be role models in our daughters’ eyes, not the woman who ‘gives in’. This includes me.
“My daughter is my first child,” Savitha continues. “When I was pregnant with the second, almost everyone around me, the extended family or neighbours, would casually make a comment, ‘This is going to be a boy! Then your family will be complete… ‘ During family functions or marriages, everyone would bless me for a baby boy! Everyone from flower vendor to shopkeepers/ servant maid or temple priests have blessed me to have a baby boy! The pressure of delivering a boy child is so much here in our society, that even now, they consider giving birth to a boy should be the ultimate aim of a mother. Giving birth to a girl child is not celebrated that much, especially when the second one is also a girl.”
After a reflective pause, she continued, “Equality is still hard to achieve in the family. Being equal/ treating my children equally is like an everyday battle! Even on something as mundane or as silly as eating leftover food, which is traditionally not served to male members of the family. Nobody questioned this; even I had not questioned all this until I had to do this to my kids.”
Jo nods at this. “As a parent, with all the ‘well-meaning advice’ coming from ‘everyone’, I still do what I think is the right thing to do. They are my kids, I decide. Thanks but no thanks! I tell my daughter that she decides what she does, no one else does, and intend to pass on the same to my son.”
“Feminism according to me is living my life according to my rules. That said, it doesn’t mean that I am not receptive to new ideas or suggestions. I am but again I decide whether to adopt and implement or not,” says Jo immediately.
“I now argue with my girlfriends on how can we empower ourselves more, on what biases we need to ignore,” says Nikita. “I educate some of my male friends and brothers who understand the concept, and are at least open to change for the better, on how equality can be facilitated. I try to show others how they are being treated unequally and that they can change it. These handful of people around give me hope to create ripples of positive change, and I just work on and with them. As an individual, I have evolved a lot. I have identified many cultural biases rooted within myself and worked on them, and still doing so… and fighting others alongside.
Pragati joins in. “For me feminism means that I am free to take decisions regarding my life without being judged by others. If I am a responsible adult, then I wouldn’t want others to dictate my actions just to facilitate themselves, and I also wouldn’t want others to judge me on what roles I take up by choice. For me, it is very important to remember that in the garb of feminism, I don’t end up becoming the ‘system’ I am against.”
Madhur, who has once said ‘Why not love ourselves in the greatest “Screw you” to the society!?’, chips in with, “Feminism to me, means to have the ability to speak my mind, to do what I want without having my character questioned. It means, speaking up about issues that bother me and doing something about them. It means, helping people who need it, be it women or men. It means being my own person and loving that person despite society telling me not to.”
I agree. So does Ruchi, who now shares, “When I took a sabbatical from work as a new mother, I was thrown into the society as a ‘responsible adult’ for the very first time. Here is when I realised that I do not ‘fit in’. I am not ok with the idea of idolizing the husband just because you are the wife and he is the husband. I was not ok with the way gender stereotypes were told to kids from an early age like boys don’t go to the kitchen. I was not ok with the thought that a wife take her husband’s permission. Why could this not be just a consultation that either of the partner would do? This is when I started writing and became vocal with my thoughts about equality. I often get resistance from ‘pre-conditioned’ women but I think even a simple conversation (of denial) is good enough to plant the seed of feminism.”
Nishtha has been listening in to what we all had to say. “So feminism now for me is not about proving a point that I am better and you are wrong,” she says. “Instead it’s a fight to change the mentality of people about gender roles and stereotypes. It’s an effort which is trying to establish equality by bringing women to the same status as men, not ‘pulling men down to give women superiority’. It’s about being comfortable with who you are.”
I think in the meantime, of my idea of feminism, which has morphed and grown and become clearer to me over the five decades of my life – things were very different in my childhood. I did not have even 25% of the awareness and clarity that these young women, the youngest just 19 years old, have. But I see that clarity and maturity of thought in my 18 year old, who I have learnt a lot from. And who, I think, is my biggest success, even if I say so, on the path to feminism. I must, I tell myself, continue on this journey, even if only for her, though I hope my armchair activism (as a misogynist once called it) makes things better in some way for others.
Aparna, the Founder & CEO of Women’s Web, has the last word. “As women, we have certain common struggles, but also, we cannot deny that upper class, upper caste women like me have certain privileges that women from Dalit, Bahujan, or Adivasi communities don’t. Similarly rural women have certain struggles that urban women may not (or may not always). Women with disabilities have specific challenges, as do women who identify as queer,” she says.
“If we can fight for our common struggles, but also understand why that is not enough – why we need to let women from marginalised communities speak for themselves, then our feminism only becomes stronger. I also think it is okay for the feminist movement to have differences within itself – in the desire to present a unified voice, we cannot suppress some voices.
I am still learning everyday.”
We all are.
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