Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for January, 2022 is Our Evolving Relationship With Feminism. We invite submissions on the many changing aspects of the feminist discourse, throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
My mother often questions me, “Why do you need to call yourself a feminist? Isn’t standing up against what’s wrong enough?” Almost every time, this discussion leads to my rebuttal that vainly tries to prove my feminism to be superior to hers. This argument is deep-rooted in the past of my relationship with my mother.
But it is only recently, when she shared anecdotes from her and my grandmother’s (her mother-in-law) lives, that their acts of defiance against their regressive surroundings inspired me to intersperse their feminism with my fight against patriarchy.
My grandmother, a rather petit woman, was mother to seven children and spent most of her married life in our native village, approximately 150kms away from Kolkata, with my grandfather. Our house always had an abundance of guests due to my grandfather’s popularity in the neighboring villages. My grandmother’s fame initially came from her identity as the wife of a very dignified man. But it soon changed when she executed a plan so vicious, that it left everyone stunned.
Child marriage, unfortunately, is still a reality in many parts of our country. Our village was not free from it either. These child marriages led to the widowing of many young girls who were abused by their in-laws or merely neglected, and sometimes even returned to their paternal homes.
Whatever the outcome of the recently widowed bride was, the customs and traditions of religion necessitated these young women to eat colorless, boiled vegetables and meager servings of rice that lacked any sustainable nutrition. This led to a large number of women turning anemic after which they started having irregular periods and fell victim to various ailments and malnutrition.
They were denied medical attention and remained untreated even after considerable pleas to the village officials who found the entire demand amusing and said, “Who cares if they die? Do they have a child or a husband to live for?” Enraged by this, my grandmother decided to take matters into her own hands. In the huge expanse of the backyard of our house, in a chamber tucked behind the kitchen next to the cow-shed, my then 28 year old grandmother created a space for all the widows of the village to gather in secret.
The constant presence of an excess number of guests in the house meant that an immeasurable amount of food was cooked everyday for lunch and dinner. The leftovers were either taken away by the domestic workers or fed to the herds of animals who were residents in our house. Taking advantage of this situation, my grandmother increased the amounts of fish or egg being cooked for every meal and sneaked them under banana leaves into the back chamber.
Every afternoon and evening, widows of all ages came to our house under the pretense of card games or gossip, entered the chamber, ate the food my grandmother had kept aside and left in a rather joyful mood. With her being in-charge of the domestic chores of the house, my grandfather never even thought of doubting his wife. Instead, he was rather pleased and smug about his wife’s rousing popularity. As years passed, the silent defiance continued. Widows lived longer, healthier lives.
After twenty years when my mother came into the equation as a young bride, she unearthed this agenda and was immediately drawn towards it. Trying to improve her mother-in-law’s legacy, my mother began a secret supply of medicine and books which she took back from Kolkata. Soon, the chamber became a safe space for everyone. Women came to share their problems, while the now elderly widows gave out necessary counsel. Children came to read books and play.
Even though my grandmother passed away 11 years ago, this gathering still continues in our backyard. The old, withered village officials now boast about the good health of the women and children of the village. As I watch their empty pride inflate, I ask my mother why it remains a secret when everybody more or less has an idea about it by now.
Every time, she says, “The moment it’s official it will be shut down.” I get angry after this and insist that then the women would fight for it. She looks at me with narrowed eyes and says, “They are already fighting everyday. If we can guarantee a safe place for them, nobody gets the right to take it away from them, that too for glory. You call yourself a feminist, but you forget that feminism is not a battle. It’s like surgery that needs to be done to get rid of the disease. Battles are glorious. Surgeries are meticulous. They need patience and endurance and sometimes you need to keep your head down and work for hours until you see results. These women and children will become better than their fathers. They will want to be better.”
Today I look at these women – healthy, happy, in charge of parts of their lives – and I see my grandmother’s vision come alive. When she started, she didn’t know what feminism was. But she was a feminist in a true sense of the term. She saw injustice and stood up against it. So, now I argue a little less with my mother and try and listen and learn.
I observe her in action and I see the feminist I want to be. Her actions against an unjust society are not mine to challenge. While I might have better operating equipment, my mother and grandmothers were amongst the first surgeons who made the first incisions and made it possible for us to envision a disease-free future of equity, equality and liberty.
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee For Feminism In India