Tag Archives: feminist

Womanly Woes

I caught a glimpse of a serial on television the other day. This was the scene – a blind wife throws herself at the husband’s feet begging to be allowed to stay with him. Her disability is seen as a major hindrance that prevents her from doing her wifely duties and chores. Well-wishers urge the husband to dump her at an ashram and find a new wife to take care of the house and his child. With tears streaming down her face she begs this stone-faced man who scolds her and tells her to make her way to the ashram.

She painted such a pathetic picture of herself, wailing uncontrollably, helpless and totally at the mercy of her husband that it stirred something in me. This was no modern day soap but inklings of such desperate behavior do show up in pretty much every television offering. Forget television, in the back drop called real life a lot was going on. The triple talaq debate for one. Raping an unconscious woman gets a Stanford student a light sentence to protect his future. And in another part of the world a woman gets on the wrong side of law for reporting sexual assault. A Bollywood star (I’d rather call him scum) compares the rigors of shooting his film to being raped and if history is to be believed he will get away with it thanks to his celebrity status and blind fans who will back him up unashamedly.

Where is the justice? I wanted to reach into the screen and shake up that waling woman and tell her she was better off without that jerk of a husband and to stop treating him like some Greek God that needed to be appeased. Known for people pleasing, we women take it to another level when it comes to men. We deny ourselves in order to please our men. Oh he doesn’t like me wearing make-up. Oh he likes my hair short. Oh he doesn’t want me to work. What the hell do you like woman? Does he honor that as well? I hope so or he is so not worth it. Some women deny their own needs to the extent of living in loveless or abusive relationships. You deserve to be loved and honored for what you are. You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. It is sad that so many economically impoverished and uneducated women are left high and dry by men who use and abuse them. It is sadder that many educated, highly capable women suffer in silence instead of walking away from abusive or adulterous husbands.

The excuses are many. Kids. Society. Financial dependence. But when a man does the same thing no one questions him. He can wash his hands off his kids and get away without paying child support or alimony. But women? Oh no! Walk away from an abusive relationship and you have ruined your child’s future, marital prospects, psychologically damaged them and what not. And guess what? It’s always the woman’s fault!

If educated women can’t stand up against these atrocities then what hope does a poor housewife who can’t read or write have? Her fate is sealed and she can be cast out on a whim or just by uttering a word three times. Or worse held hostage and made to do the housework while the husband carries on with other women. Victims of aggression and insatiable lust, these women suffer unspeakable horrors. Some pay the price for standing up. They are burnt alive or marred for life by acid attacks. When will this end I keep asking myself. Sometime soon I really hope and then even the media will reflect that change with empowered women who hold their own without a man hovering in the background.

Unleash the Goddess Within

Whenever I think of Goddesses incarnating on earth I fondly remember my grandma. She was a powerful matriarch with an iron staff (or should I say sword?) She was fearless and stood up to most anyone – die-hard patriarchs included – who saw her as a hapless widow. She owned her power. She was kind, generous, loving and very shrewd. She saw through facades and flagrant unctuousness although she appeared to revel in it. She was like a fierce lioness with a brood of cubs that she guarded vehemently. She was definitely a Durga. There is this picture of her taken on her birthday. She is dressed immaculately in white, brandishing a sword (thanks to her indulgent brother) while sitting on her bed with her dogs languishing in the background. On her nightstand she had a picture of the Goddess Durga slaying Mahishasura with his decapitated buffalo’s head and body lying under the goddess astride a lion. The lion is mauling the remains of the demon while blood drips off her trident.

I was reading the book, “Awakening Shakti” by Sally Kempton and it was all about the different goddesses and their powers. It even had a fun quiz at the end – Which Goddess are You? The author didn’t want the readers to take it too seriously and just wanted everyone to have some fun. I took the quiz in that very same spirit but slowly it took on a serious turn. I related to different Goddesses with very contrasting qualities. Of course everyone is a mix of qualities and it’s not always possible to fit in one particular category. In my case however, I saw how I was dominated by one Goddess during one part of my life and others during other parts of my life.

Every woman goes through a phase in her life when she feels like a goddess, oozes charisma and a dizzying fragrance that others find irresistible. In fact some men fear the power of such a woman and demonize her as the femme fatale. The evil one that seduces one and all. Some patriarchal societies don’t encourage women to flaunt their beauty. They want it kept under wraps and want women to feel ugly about their bodies. In extreme cases they mutilate women as a way of punishing them for embodying the beauty of a Goddess. Look around you and notice how people make you feel ugly or unworthy or encourage you to hide your inner beauty because they are afraid of it. To be a goddess you must see beauty within you and appreciate beauty around you.

At one time widows were expected to shave their heads and wear drab or white robes and no jewelry so they would not tempt other men into entering into a liaison with them. Which brings me back to my grandma. She wore white saris but was the epitome of style. Probably the years she spent in England made her realize that not everywhere are widows treated as outcastes. But she did not discard all of her Indian upbringing. She somehow molded the two and made white her fashion statement. How empowering is that?

Remember Sita? The beautiful goddess who married the handsome Prince Rama. The divine couple were a dazzling sight and people could barely take their eyes off the two of them. But later on in the story the beautiful Sita follows her husband to the forest, suffers untold miseries and then gets abducted by a demon king. She waits for her husband to come rescue her while ugly demons taunt and torture her. Ravana, the demon king waits for her to join his harem. She refuses until one day he can take it no more and attacks her with the intention of molesting her. Only then does the timid Sita take on a fiery persona and forbids Ravana from touching her lest he gets burnt by the intensity of her Shakti or power. Ravana backs off, sensing the intensity of her power and not wanting to risk his life.

To cut a long story short, Rama kills Ravana and rescues Sita but refuses to accept her since she has lived with another man (Sita suffered the changing seasons and was at the mercy of the elements in the Ashoka garden. She never stepped into Ravana’s palace nor did she wear any of the silks and jewels that he offered her.) She had to pass the test of fire to prove that she was chaste. Only then did Rama accept her as his queen.

So many women I know fall into the Sita category. They sacrifice their joys, ambitions and dreams in order to support their spouse and always put themselves last. Why even I am guilty of being a Sita during the early days of my married life. Isn’t that what every mother teaches her daughter consciously or unconsciously? I was reading my journal from many years ago and one of the entries struck me. I was told to “act submissive” during the wedding ceremony. It incensed me now, but my 23 year old self was willing to comply with that absurd request!

We are all taught to be Sitas. To be docile, in the shadows, ever serving our Lord (husband!) Made sense in Sita’s case because Rama was really the Divine incarnate. Now how many husbands treat you the way Rama treated Sita. And even Rama wasn’t perfect!

I was happy to play the domestic goddess. To cook, clean and care for the kids while my husband worked for a pay check. After a few years my domestic goddess felt disempowered. I could no longer play the role of a supportive, self-sacrificing Sita. The Durga in me emerged – fierce and seated on a lion – ready to pounce on anyone who doubted my power. I had to find a balance between nurturing others and myself and that came only from knowing where to draw the line and having the power to defend it.

When I don’t take good care of my needs the Kali comes out in me. Now Kali is the shadow side of the goddess. Dark and menacing with a necklace of skulls and a thirst for blood. Some call it PMS  which to me stands for Protesting Matriarchal Suppression! No one wants to be around Kali. She strikes terror in the hearts of men. And yet she is needed every now and then to restore the balance when it is too far gone to humanly restore.

Is the female of the species deadlier than the male? Occasionally yes, if you push her buttons too hard and too often!  But in a balanced state she nurtures one and all, imparting beauty, knowledge, protection and creativity. So which Goddess are you or which Goddess do you aspire to be?

The Other Side of Shiva…

Blue and pink. Fairies, princesses, ballet and gymnastics. Legos, pirates, superheroes, cars and trains. Even before they are born, our babies have their whole lives planned out – what color their rooms will be, what clothes they will wear, what toys they will play with and preferred activities and games. We put our babies in neat little boxes painted blue or pink and label them boy or girl. When they try to crawl out of the box and get into the other one we push them back into the box we think they should be in. Think about it. Do we truly honor our children and see them as unique marvels of creation? Nope. We thrust our preconceived sexist ideologies on them.

Try dressing your baby in blue even if she is a girl and take her out for a stroll. I did that! Everyone went on about what a beautiful baby boy I had. Keep your girl’s hair short and again she gets mistaken for a boy. Once in school, girls with short hair get bullied for keeping their locks cropped. When boys grow their hair long it is cool – except in India. Schools out there don’t like boys with long hair. I’ve heard that they send some of them with their hair tied up in rubber bands just to make a point.

I recently dug up some old tapes with footage of my kids as toddlers. My son was walking around with a pink baby doll and kept calling it “baby”. As much as I encouraged him to play dolls with his sister, somewhere along the way he got the message that dolls are girly. It makes me sad to see my kids drift apart and do their own thing when at one time they used to play together for hours.

But this kind of bias runs deeper than just the color pink or dolls. It is like a subliminal undercurrent that sometimes catches us by surprise. Like the time when I was talking to my kids about growing up and having families of their own. My daughter who decided pretty early in her life that she wants to be a doctor asked me, ” Ma, who will take care of my kids if I go to work?”. It never occurred to her that her future husband shared the responsibility of raising the kids. I was stumped by her question and instead of telling her that raising kids was not solely a woman’s job, I offered to babysit while she worked!

While women have been excluded from boxes labelled ” A Man’s Job”, even if they were worthy and competent, men seldom crawled into boxes that had roles specifically for women. Remember Ben Stiller who played the male nurse in “Meet the Parents”? He was constantly ridiculed for his career choice. In my own life I theoretically believed that I (being a foodie and all) would love being married to a chef. In real life I turned down an alliance from a chef who worked in a five star rated hotel. So somewhere deep in my psyche I felt women needed to do all the cooking, maybe?

Back in my grandmother’s days women were not allowed in the kitchen because they had male cooks. My great grandmother who shares my name must be tut-tutting – two generations down the line her infamous great granddaughter has surrendered to the patriarchal system.

Born in the 70s I must have imbibed some of the energy from the Women’s movement. I grew up with a brother and we got treated differently, especially in our youth. He got to stay out late, go to clubs and discos and New Year’s eve parties, while I had to stay home. Anytime this happened,  I would raise a red flag and rant and rave (till I was blue) about discrimination of the girl child and women’s rights. My parents married me off young lest I go rogue.

After I got married my husband and I took on traditional roles – he worked and I stayed home and cared for the kids. I didn’t mind it at first but over the years I felt like I was taking on more and more. I was resentful and constantly nagged him about doing more around the house. Fortunately we both realized that our relationship is constantly growing and changing and that to make it successful one needs to adapt. Now I get more help from my husband and sometimes I don’t even have to ask.

Things are far from equal when we compare the two genders but in an ideal world we’d be equally balanced. There is a story in Hindu scriptures of a time when the mother of the universe playfully closed the eyes of Shiva. The entire cosmos was shrouded in darkness and all living beings suffered and perished. When the mother removed her hands, Shiva chided her and pointed out the destruction that she had caused. It broke her heart to see the suffering that she had inadvertently inflicted on her children. She set off to do penance and obtain Shiva’s forgiveness. At the end of her severe penance, Shiva and the mother merged as one so they would never be separate. The story is symbolic of the oneness of the male and the female aspects of the universe but we find it hard to picture that as humans. So the result of the merging of the mother and father of the universe is depicted as below. All we can do is hope for a time when we would honor the male and female aspects of ourselves instead of suppressing one or the other. For one cannot flourish without the other and they are inseparable.

The Charge of the Pink Brigade

  Tucked away in a remote part of Uttar Pradesh, India, is a firebrand of a woman. Her name is Sampat Pal, leader of the Pink Gang (Gulabi Gang). The word gang conjures up images of mobs of unruly thugs out to create chaos. But believe me this gang is a far cry from that. Donned in pink saris, wielding lathis or sticks, these women show up at courts and police stations when justice turns a blind eye to crimes committed by powerful politicians or wealthy landlords.

So who are these powerful women? Usually victims of abuse or violence who had no one to turn to and got justice through the Pink Gang. They in turn joined the gang to help other women. Sampat empowers these women – usually illiterate, tied down by housework and children and financially dependent on their husbands. She teaches them to speak up, seek help from other women and also stresses the importance of education. Learn to ride a bike so you can get to the meetings by yourself  says Sampat. She even encourages them to learn a skill that can help them earn money.

To understand how much she has accomplished, one has to get an idea of the Bundlekhand region. There are no sewers, no running water ( in certain villages), no roads even. The caste system is alive and well and inter-caste marriages are frowned upon. Many cases of honor killings have also been reported. Dowry deaths and abuse of women and girls is rampant. Where are the police you ask? The police pay the politicians to get them a job. The politicians are mostly criminals with several pending cases and criminal charges against them. The police end up being sidekicks to these lawless netas (leaders). The poor don’t stand a chance here where money can make the scales of justice sway its way.

From the gutters of Bundlekhand rose a lone Dalit woman. She simply decided to take a stand. To not be afraid anymore. To fight instead of cower in fright. Her grassroots movement has given a voice to the voiceless, faceless victims of Goonda Raj (thugs ruling over the state of Uttar Pradesh). Her fearless spirit wreaks terror in the hearts of anyone on the wrong side of the law.

Sampat’s life was not easy to start with. She was married off at the age of 12 and was a mother by the age of 15. The little she knows to read and write (she didn’t go to school) she learnt by watching the teachers and with some help from local boys. She taught herself how to sew, bought a machine ( by selling grain that the family stored!) and made money by stitching garments. She also knew how to ride a bicycle. One day she gathered a group of women from her village and accosted a neighbor who was battering his wife every day. After they threatened him, he stopped beating his wife. This marked the beginning of her activism.

Sampat believes that in unity there is strength and women should help other women. She also felt that wearing the same color sari gave them an identity and that is how they came to be known as the Pink Gang. She has an office and people show up asking for her help when the corrupt police turn their cheek. She then organizes rallies and sit-outs, outside the police stations and the court houses. She even gets the media to inform the public about the case. Invariably she wins and justice is served. Now the Pink Gang operates in other towns as well and she has women (trained by her) who deal with simple cases on their own. As of today they have twenty thousand members.

In the past four decades the number of reported rapes has gone up by 792 percent. Sadly, the conviction rates are dropping. Domestic violence on the other hand has risen by 30 percent. We can no longer wring our hands in despair and say – what can we do? If someone with Sampat’s background can make such an impact, we have no excuse. We have to form our own gangs and demand justice. This can’t go on. We have to deal with it. We can’t allow our daughters to deal with it in the future.

I encourage you to read the book “Pink Sari Revolution” by Amana Fontanella-Khan and I would also like to thank my friend V for thrusting the book into my hands at the library. After reading this book, I’m filled with hope. I know we will leave a safer and much more empowered India to our daughters and sons.

 

 

Yo-Yo Feminism and the Unsung Glories of a Die-Hard Housewife…

My mom had this plaque on the living room wall when I was a kid. It read…

I’m just a little housewife

With dishes three times a day

With laundry and cleaning and cooking

And toys to put away

Now it’s not that I mind the housework

Or the screaming kids at play 

It’s that husband that burns me

When he says with a smile

Did you do anything today??!!??       

I’d like to say that is the story of my life. But that wouldn’t be true. I go back and forth between being a domestic goddess and a die-hard feminist.  You just have to walk into the house to know which avatar has taken hold of me. The DG version will have the house vacuumed, dishes done and dinner prepared well ahead of time. She will also be humming a tune as she scrubs the tub and she might even bake a batch of cookies for the kids.

It’s a whole different story when the feminist takes over. You will have to hop over the shoes strewn in the foyer to get to the living room, from where you can see the mountain of dishes piled up in the sink. Yours truly will be on the couch wearing a grungy T-shirt and stained PJs. As the kids rummage the kitchen for something to eat, la femme reluctantly uproots herself from the couch and grudgingly makes dinner. Cupboards will be slammed, pots and pans banged around, while she mutters something about being a slave!

The unsuspecting husband walks in. “Hello”, he pipes. Only to be met with an icy stare. He knows better than to say something because that is all she needs. One word and she’ll start her tirade against all men and the thankless job of being a housewife.

Out here in the U.S., nobody uses the term housewife. It’s home maker or stay-at-home mom, which are equally unglamorous, unless you are in a reality show – The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills! These glam dolls just have to dress up, have lunch dates and dinner parties, launch perfumes, vodkas or clothing lines (another excuse for a party!). They also meet with their dermatologists and plastic surgeons regularly. They are a poor representation of the common housewife and a sorry lot.

While there is some part of me that envies them- the part that doesn’t like housework I’m guessing – I wouldn’t last a day in their silicone/botox world. Also being a person who hates the limelight I’d rather live a life of obscurity than have a camera crew taping my every move! So all I can do is pretend I’m a diva and expect the imaginary help to do the chores. When I’m done with being a diva or the house starts to stink, whichever come first, I suck it up and go back to being domestic goddess.

An unpaid job is a thankless job. There is no reward for cleaning up your house except that you have a clean house. There is no reward for cooking fresh meals for your family, except that you all enjoy vibrant health. There is no glory in showing up day after day at the bus stop to pick up your kids after school. No glory in sweating it out in a hot soccer field as your child plays. No bonuses to be had. No promotions to work for. Just the quiet satisfaction of watching your children grow up. Just having enough time to smell the flowers. Just the wisdom to know that life is magical and is unfolding right before your eyes.

Oh who am I kidding? I have often wished fairy god mother would show up, wave her wand and turn me into a princess and turn the mice and cockroaches in my house into maids, cooks and ladies-in-waiting! Until then I will never cease to sing my glories, be a domestic goddess and fight for my rights!

P.S. Domestic goddess just read this post and she insists there are NO mice or cockroaches in the house. Did I mention she was appalled?