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Feminism, to me, is one woman lending support to another woman in pain. It's women speaking the nuance of their existences without being saint or sinner.
Feminism, to me, is one woman lending support to another woman in pain. It’s women speaking the nuance of their existences without being saint or sinner.
In the early years of my journalistic career, there was a phase when I was covering a lot of stories that featured crime against women. I had always wanted to work on issues like that but it happened entirely by chance, and I repeatedly found myself in courts, around police stations, at protests, in ashrams for widows, in the company of sex workers and in the living rooms of acid-attack survivors. I heard a lot of stories, but there was no room for any of them in the cut-and-dry language of news reports.
I don’t mean to criticise journalism, it serves a vital and specific function, and it’s subject to a lot of liability, which means that it operates within a format, and it must. There is no room there for my feelings, the lessons I learn, or the nuanced ambiguity of daily life.
This doesn’t mean that journalism is lacking, it means that I was never meant to be a journalist. It was the wrong choice of profession for me. I am a writer who hedged her bets because choosing a profession as ‘unreliable’ as writing does not satisfy the Indian sensibility. In comparison, journalism comes with a reliable salary and a title that people recognise.
But I am not a journalist. I realised this while in a small village near Varanasi in 2015.
I was working with a photojournalist who was documenting the daily life of young women who have been widowed, and ostracised or trafficked as a result. Her portraits captured the aesthetic of pain and little pleasures in a wonderful way, but the reason I loved working with her, and why I love working with photojournalists in general, is because they always need a lot of time to get their stories. We spent two days at the home of one of her subjects.
I cannot share her name, but let’s call her Tara. The journalistic version of Tara’s story is that she was nineteen (at the time), she had been married to an alcoholic man more than twice her age who died of cirrhosis within the year, and she had to run away from her in-laws lest they send her to an ashram, and after all that, her parents were arranging yet another very similar match for her.
The moment I first met Tara, we had a connection. I wanted to talk to her and not about the tragedy of her life.
The problem is that there’s a great divide when you visit ‘rural’ areas as a journalist to get a story. We have to acknowledge this.
Let me underline privilege.
When I, an English-speaking woman with a job, who lives alone in a big city after being educated at expensive institutions, that I could get into because of the privilege of a good education, and can afford because of the privilege of financially-stable parents, tells a young survivor of rape that “everything is going to be okay,” that’s not entirely okay.
Let’s look at it from the other end. Just suppose – if I had been raped, things would decidedly be different for me. And that’s not better or worse, but it is true. The emotional trauma may be the same, but the socio-political factors we would be subject to would be different.
Feminism in India is fighting a complex battle. There are women like me who want the freedom of sexual liberty, equal pay and the right to be out at night. There are also women like Tara who need to secure basic agency, physical safety and the right to an education.
It’s multi-wave feminism all at once, and it cannot be avoided, because the fact that it exists only demonstrates that there is unjust and unequal social development in our country. That’s what caused it. A system that develops based on whether you have enough privilege to afford growth and exposure is one that leads to alienation amongst people. It leads to us not being able to support one another’s pain because doing so is condescending, and often, insincere. When you engage in the conundrum as a professional, a journalist, you cannot pretend to understand a person’s life, only to depict it as effectively and factually as you can.
I was sure that was the right approach, until I met Tara. She smiled at me and later when there was a break for tea during the sewing lessons, she found me outside. She started telling me about herself and her life, and strangely, I started to tell her about mine. She invited us home and we went. In the evening, Tara and I went for a walk around the neighbourhood. We came at the ruins of an old concrete house and sat at the back, near the pond, and she put her arm around me. She took my arm and pointed at the scars of self-harm on them.
“You loved someone?” She asked, “That’s why you did this? I did it too!”
She lifted her sleeve and showed me her scars. We didn’t have the same reasons. Mine were about being so alienated from my body, I had to see something I had done to it to be able to believe it was mine. Hers were about feeling trapped inside a situation where she had no control and regaining some form of control over her existence. Our reasons were different but the experience of the patriarchy and the resultant violent misogyny was the experience that led both of us to the situation that enabled our self-harm.
“I’m sorry you were in so much pain,” I told her.
She started to tell me about how much she loved taking walks in the evening, and how much she had to bear to take those walks. Her parents thought she was being too free and shameless because she wanted to walk alone in the evening. Her neighbours thought she had loose morals because she wanted to show off her body to people. Her relatives thought she had no shame and needed to be married off immediately so she didn’t get any freer.
I went there expecting not to be able to relate to this woman but I got it. I had faced it too. When we were young girls and we took walks, our parents may not have called us shameless, but they did tell us not to do it or just play inside instead. I’ve had neighbours tell my parents I was walking here or there and my entire leg was visible in my pants. I realised that sometimes the cold, analytical reading of a situation that my job required predisposed me to focus on the differences.
“They just don’t like it that I’m doing something I like,” she said to me.
“They don’t,” I confirmed, “They’re scared of your freedom.”
“I just knew from the moment I saw you that we would be friends,” she said in a moment of serendipity, in which I rarely let myself believe.
“I’m very happy I met you,” I told her.
And that was the moment I realised I should have always been a writer. Those are the stories I want to tell. That’s what feminism is to me, too. It’s one woman, seeing another woman’s pain and experience, and lending her own in support. It’s women speaking the nuance of their existences without being saint or sinner.
My job allowed me access to all these amazing women with vast stories, but it also required that I write those stories while leaving myself out. As a result, I gathered a repository of stories that were never told. These aren’t stories of the women you know, but they are the stories of the women you see regularly. They’re not focused on incidents or trauma, they’re focused on who these women really are, and what they taught me about myself, and womanhood in general.
A few months ago I wrote my first book of poetry titled Girls I Found In My Pen published by Writersgram Publications, and the reason I did this was because I think in the necessary and structured approach of feminism, activism, law and journalism, something about women is being left undiscussed. The art and the magic. The humanity. The nuance of our experiences.
In general, society paints women not necessarily as monolithic, but definitely as creatures that fit pre-defined roles and that treatment continues when women are seen as ‘victims’. As victims we must fit the type under even more scrutiny.
Nothing displays this phenomenon better than what the prosecutrix in the Tarun Tejpal case faced. Suddenly a woman’s sexual fantasies and knowledge of the law were a impediment to her being a believable victim, and that’s because she doesn’t fit the mould. We only believe women who fit the mould: the chaste victim of rape, the demure survivor of domestic abuse, the full-covered recipient of street-harassment, the gullible victim of revenge porn.
That’s not who women really are!
I needed to commemorate real women. That’s why I chose to do it in poetry, because we need to see women for more than labels and virtue. I needed to tell the stories I had heard.
Stories of ‘immoral’ women who enjoy sex and still can really be raped.
Stories of young women who don’t understand why they must be innocent and what that means.
Stories of women who suppress their gender in order to gain professional success.
Stories of girls who don’t yet understand gender, and witness the horror of it.
Those are the stories I chose to tell, because those are stories of women I actually knew. Everything I ever wrote in a news report, those were just facts.
If you’d like to pick up Girls I Found in my Pen by Aarushi Ahluwalia, use our affiliate link at Amazon India.
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Image source: a still from the film Masaan, and book cover Amazon
Aarushi Ahluwalia is an author, journalist and columnist. She has been covering women's issues and rights for various news organisations throughout her career of almost a decade, and now runs a women's media read more...
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(SPOILERS AHEAD. Please read after you watch the movie if you are planning to)
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