How To Be A Woman In The India of 2018
By: Malini Bhattacharya
Published On: March 07, 2018
Feminists in India have to pick their battles with fastidious care. There isn’t any dearth of battles to choose from, no surprises there, given that our cultural inheritance is skewed disproportionately in a way that male privilege and female disadvantage sort the genders into two separate masses with vastly different lived experiences, both as individuals and as collectives - not a gap that’s easily bridged, not a chasm to be closed in our lifetimes.
Meanwhile the feminists of India, armed with theoretical gleanings from the three major women’s empowerment movements that the West has already seen, scream outrage, build piles of injustices the gender is subject to, march, protest, write, lecture, agitate, and light candles and shout slogans to conjure up their vision of equality, egalitarianism between men and women. The nation, in characteristic redolent style, throws cold water on these initiatives, through violent or semi-violent sabotage, by perpetrating prehistorically determined gender roles, and by upholding a vivid “type” of Indian womanhood, which is in no relation to womanhood anywhere else at any point in the history of civilization.
This is where the median Indian woman in the year 2018 looks like:
Clothing: Shakespeare had said clothes maketh the man, but that doesn’t hold true in India, where clothes do make the woman. Political parties, religious and community heads, parents, husbands, and peripheral relatives keep an unwavering focus on what women wear. You can wear sarees paired with modestly cut blouses, long skirts, the quintessentially Indian salwar kameez. Don’t even bother thinking about using makeup, leaving hair loose and/or uncovered, and dressing in remotely androgynous or what will be called “skimpy or vulgar” clothing
Work: Only 23% of all of Indian women are part of the nation’s workforce. Good Indian women are meant to stay home, cook, clean, bear children, rear children, look after the quotidian needs of large families that often take in distant relatives and elderly members of the extended clan. All this domestic work, of course, unpaid, because spending lives in the worship of domesticity is what women are made for. If an Indian woman does make it through into the workforce, she’ll have a list of appropriate career paths “good for women” cut out for her - teacher, librarian, nurse, receptionist, dressmaker, nanny, flight attendant, janitress, domestic help. With every one of these roles Indian women do without same-sex mentors, because earlier generations of women haven’t got to leadership positions, and because the glass ceiling over women employees and business owners in India is getting lower by the minute. And we won’t discuss the gender-based wage gap because it’s too depressing.
Sexuality: There’s one legal sexual orientation in the country, and that’s ramrod straight. Departures from this prototype is met with harassment, discrimination, judgment, criticism, hostility, and ostracism in very active forms. The queer Indian woman is an outcast, of the same ilk as the woman lesbian or bisexual woman, transgender people, the woman who has had premarital sex or multiple sexual partners, or has not married by the time she is in the middle of her twenties. Good women do/are none of these things. Good women pass on ownership of their bodies to their husbands, who are allowed all the licentiousness in the world.
Lifestyle: Good Indian women are lucky! They don’t have the encumbrances of a lifestyle to deal with. Bad women visit clubs, dance, drink, smoke, stay out late at night, often don’t live with their families, refuse to marry as soon as the legal age of marriage presents itself, have friends of the opposite sex, and disobey every sanskari sartorial rule in the book. They have opinions, they fight these opinions with gusto, with an aggression most unbecoming to women. Good women do not raise their voices or their eyes. They keep their heads bowed.
Thanks, but no thanks!
The above is why so many women in India have chosen to say, “Thanks but no thanks” to Women’s Day. (“No, thank you, the patriarchy doesn’t feel better with gifts and cards.”) But as the cry goes and grows, maybe a decibel louder each year, we hope that it reaches some ears, our own for the most part, and we realize, even if slowly, our own power. Each woman in India is fighting the battle, whether she knows it or not, and she will continue to until some equilibrium between genders has been reached and more importantly acknowledged. Resting hope in tokenisms like today, is probably a failed cause. But if we do look beyond the capitalist fair around us, we will see hundreds of years of struggle of men and women who have made social and personal changes to bring us here.
From here, it is us. Alone and together in this battle and as long as we let ourselves be, even when the world won’t, we are already winning. Because only with unabashedly living our reality can we hope to change it.
To be a woman in 2018, do what needs to be done. Be you, bravely.
Happy Women’s Day!