I wish I had learnt about feminism in my mother’s house because it would have equipped me to deal with a chauvinistic world when I took my place in it as an adult. Instead, I had to learn through trial and error and some experiences do not make you a better person, contrary to clichés about strife turning you into a better person.
This article is inspired by the piece written by Tarini Gautam titled, Shaming Survivors of Sexual Abuse Must Stop. I began to think about how much safer Indian women would be if they learnt about feminism in their mother’s house.
I don’t mean to be sexist when I refer to mother’s house and not to father’s house or parent’s house. I only use the term mother’s house because a mother is normally the first human we learn to trust and believe in. Regardless of your creed, colour or race, mothers are the primary nurturers from the time a baby is born. The American feminist, Adrienne Rich, wrote about the primacy of mothers in her book Of Woman Born and it is informative for the way it narrates the extent of a mother’s influence in the lives of her daughters.
The hold of an Indian mother over her daughters is an unchallenged aspect of Indian motherhood. It is viewed as a time immemorial practice imbued with almost a god like status. Perhaps it is time to challenge it when you consider that the Indian patriarchal system kicks in quite early as a baby girl grows up. Girls are consciously and subconsciously taught to be a passive recipients of the ways of the patriarchy and this instruction comes first and foremost from the mother.
My earliest memory of feeling left down by my mother was over the topic of marriage. ‘When you get married one day‘ was a constant refrain in my ears when I was growing up. I had two aunties who did not want to get married and they were constantly vilified and treated as if they were a dangerous form of female species for not desiring marriage. They were told that they were a stain on the family’s honour.
‘It is better to be a widow or a divorcee than to be unmarried‘, is what the other women in the family used to say to these two aunties. My mother was the most vocal of these voices. I hated it. I hated seeing the aunties whom I loved for being fun and caring, crying upstairs in secret in the double storey house we lived in. I would try and console them by telling them to ignore what was being said. I could not understand why being a widow or a divorcee would be a better position to be in when both were treated with disdain in Indian society.
My mother has been a widow for 20 years now. I watch the way she feels inferior to her social circle of friends whose husbands are still alive. I don’t have that sort of relationship with her that enables me to ask her these questions but I wonder whether she still thinks that her opinion is right.
Even though I have been married for a long time, 29 years—I don’t want my own daughter to get married. I tell her that it is fine to live with a man and have children without the bond of marriage. Rather startlingly I have a clutch of Indian female friends who don’t want their daughters to get married either. It is as if we are fighting back against the Indian patriarchy.
We are the ‘pushback’ generation of Indian women who are teaching our daughters to value their worth according to their own subjectivities i.e. their abilities, their capabilities, their achievements and not as a commodity valued according to a cattle market of ‘women of marriageable age’.
Truth be told much of this exists in western societies too, but maybe in a watered down version. If a teenage white girl does not have a boyfriend she is seen as being an oddity. My daughter who is 17 has not had a boyfriend yet and I am often asked whether she is a lesbian.
While in Indian society a girl has to be ‘pure’ for her husband, in western societies a girl, it seems, learns about her feminine worth through the eyes of a boy as soon as it is considered decent to date. Marriage is a huge industry in western societies and many girls dream about wearing the white fluffy bridal gowns from a young age. These dreams are nurtured in large part by their mothers too.
Female subjugation is a universal problem, but we are all shaped by the cultural conditions we grow up in. It is hard to be positive about one’s cultural background when it has shaped you in such a way that you have to find forms and discourses of resistance to fight back.