Thinking like a feminist

I always thought the term “Feminist” was dodgy because it invariably conjured baseless stereotypes of man-hating, bra-burning, equality-demanding, brow-beating women who have way too many shrill opinions. I had a problem with being put into that slot, if I called myself as a feminist. But it didn’t take away from the fact that I did and continue to think like a feminist. I believe in equal choice, equal opportunity and equal rights for both men and women. And at its most basic level, even with my rudimentary knowledge of the movement, I know thats what it comes down to. To my mind, it means that as a woman, I should enjoy all the opportunities and benefits that society has to offer any man. It means that I should have the freedom to make any choices that I see fit for myself, and live with them, just as a man would. Choices about my sexuality, marriage, financial independence, religion, lineage and the like. It means that I have a choice. Period.

But what happens if, given all the choice in the world, I choose not to take the so called liberated path? What happens, if despite my liberal upbringing in an oestrogen-heavy family (my mother, sister and I clearly outnumbered my father, the only male in the house), where nobody ever told me that girls must only be seen and never heard, and despite my rather wild and free growing up years, I suddenly make a turn to choose a path that is seen to go against everything that my feminist mind tells me is right?

What happens, for example when I score more than acceptable grades in 10th grade and go on to choose art, music and history in my +2?

What happens, for example, if I realise early in life that I have met the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and that it doesn’t matter if that happened at 18, 32, 40 or 24 (as it did with me), and I choose to marry early?

What happens if I move in with him, to live with a joint family in a rather traditional home, where for the first time in my life I experience the differences? Between the women I have known all my life and the other kind of women that populate this country? Between men and women? Between women with children and those without?

What happens if I, in the midst of one of the best jobs I had (one that could have gone on to make a rather fulfilling and very sound career), decide to suddenly throw it all away because my husband wants to move cities for his work? And I decide to follow.

What happens if I suddenly realise that I love the domestic life. That I love building a cosy home, cooking hot meals and baking cake?

What happens if I like doing chores? If I find out quite accidentally that ironing clothes and washing dishes are therapeutic?

What happens when I chuck a career I have invested a good number of years in, to be a stay at home wife? To be the one that willingly cooks the meals and does the laundry, feeding off of her husbands salary?

What happens if I, in these days of DINK families, decide that I want to stay home, not have children and yet be okay with sharing my husbands income?

Does it make me any less liberal? Some would say it does. Some might even say I have regressed back to the dark ages where women were resources for housekeeping, baby-making and nthing more. I have often been scoffed at for choosing the un-feminist route in life. For cutting short a life of free sex and merrymaking, to settle down with the man I wanted to. For choosing to adjust living with the in-laws as opposed to throwing a fit and having my husband move out. For chucking a perfectly good job opportunity in favour of my husbands. And more recently for choosing an “purposeless” homey life.

This is precisely the reason the term feminist irks me. Because despite having all the choice, and the freedom to pick, it still left me feeling like I had to conform to all the women breathing down my neck, telling me how that was none of that was the feminist thing to do. Or that was not how a feminist should think.

The trouble is, I never really had to make myself think like a feminist. It wasn’t that invisible cloak I needed to put on, right before I made a decision, in order to help me choose the feminist thing to do. I didn’t have to step out of my shoes, and into my feminist shoes to know what I had to do in any given situation.

With what some people call a semi-hippie upbringing, where both my sister and I were pretty much brought up like boys, I really didn’t know the difference. Nobody told me I had to choose science because good grades = engineer/doctor = emancipated girl child. I was told to follow my heart and do whatever I wanted, even if I wanted to crochet doilies for all my life, as long as it made me happy. As a teenager, my mother would ask me to pitch in in the kitchen, not because someday I would get married off and my in laws and my husband would expect it of me. I was told to cook because it was a life skill that I would need when I lived on my own and had to fend for myself. When I turned 18, my parents forced me to learn to drive, because it was just another thing all adults needed to know to do — be independent. When I graduated from college, they urged me to apply to jobs outside of Bangalore, because it was important to live outside ones comfort zone they told me. Then came the big M word and when I sprang the news on them that I had been dating a Sindhi boy and now wanted to marry him, they asked me to get engaged to him if it made me happy, but to take a few years to get to know each other better, before I settled down on my choice.

The irony is, that despite all that, I did exactly what I pleased. Chose humanities over science. Got married at 24. Lived with the in-laws. Said goodbye to a lucrative career. Chose to stay at home. Became fully domesticated and loved every moment of it. All through it, I was acutely aware of all my choices, of all that was possible. And my greatest strength was always in the comfort of knowing that I could pick the one that suited me best. Not because someone forced it on me, or because someone said it was the right thing to do or because I was afraid of being typecast as that hardcore feminist or that meek spineless girl. But because it’s what sits best with me.

To me, that’s what being a feminist is. To have the right to choose. Whichever way I please. And so it made (and continues to make) me very uncomfortable when some purists end up polarising this creature that is The Feminist as a certain type of person only defined by her need to be economically independent, single and fancy-free, rebellious and undomesticated. I have a problem with slotting the feminist into that small little cubbyhole. Because isn’t that going against what fundamentally feminists sought to do? Liberate women from stereotypes? Enable greater choice? Allow freedom to do what feels right and what suits them best?

When I read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, my confusion was suddenly starkly clear. And I realised that this is why I was never quite able to unpack the term Feminist in my head and call myself one. This is why it made me squirm. I was afraid of falling into a slot. Into a cubbyhole that gave me no space to breathe. Then I read this awesome post by GB, a blogger I have silently lurked around and loved oh-so-much, for so long now. And again, I realised that the reason I was never quite sure of calling myself a feminist out loud was because I was never made to think that feminism was a special way of life that one had to adapt to. It wasn’t something one had to step into at some stage in life when one chose to be emancipated. As far as we were concerned, it was the only way to be.

It is only in recent times, that I have realised that perhaps I am what you can call a feminist. I owe it all to my parents, for bringing us up the way they did. The focus was always on being aware, eyes-wide, pro-choice, always seeking equality, and never settling for anything less than that which makes us happy.

As a result its how I think. Its how my parents and sister think too. Its how we see the world. Its what we have grown up with. Its the only way we know. We just never labelled it. If that makes me a feminist, so be it.

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34 Replies to “Thinking like a feminist”

  1. It took me 29 years to understand that in my 3 females and 1 male household, my dad was the bigger feminist, amongst the four of us. My mum never had to think of changing her surname, she had the freedom to never visit her in- laws if she didn’t care for it, she did not have to do the ‘get the kids ready for school/ teach and help them with their homework’ bits of being a mother..the list is long. Had my dad spoken about all these things like it was a big deal, I would have realised it earlier, but as things stand, neither he nor my mother find this exceptional or laud-worthy. This is exactly how things were always going to be in our household.
    And that is why, ‘as a result its how I think. Its how my parents and sister think too. Its how we see the world. Its what we have grown up with. Its the only way we know. We just never labelled it. So if that makes me a feminist, so be it.’
    Brilliant post, Rev.

  2. Man Rev, this one brought me back from the dead. Every bloody word hit a chord. Every single word. I come from a family where the mom doffed two hats when dad was away sailing, and when he was back, it was a big vacation for everyone. I never understood the concept of feminism, nor of being the dainty girl. Like R says, my dad was probably the bigger feminist among the four of us. When I did bring up equality when I realized that it wasn’t the norm, I was quickly labeled feminist. I don’t think of myself as one, I ink it takes a lot more awareness to really be one. For me it was the only done thing, the only thing I have known. “If that makes me a feminist, so be it.” is right.

    Also “woman giving up her job = not being feminist enough” and “man giving up his = not being man enough” more about stererotyping than anything else? Who made these rules anyway?

    I am commenting on a blog after so long that I have forgotten how to form sentences and articulate what I am trying to say here, but you dont get my point, don’t you?

    Brilliant post, this! I am sharing it on Facebook.

    1. I get exactly what you mean. Man, its good to know there are others like me. Because YES! I so agree with you — when you come from a background of not knowing any differences, and you are suddenly exposed to them, pointing them out results in you being branded a feminist. That too like its a bad word or something!

      I also think my dad (probably unknowingly, because they never used the label) is as much as feminist as my mother is because they worked on instilling this equality in us together. I remember my dad once telling me I needed to learn to fix a flat tyre myself because I shouldnt have to depend on a boyfriend to do it if we were ever out and stuck.

      Im rather tired of these stereotypes. It seems that wherever you go, whatever you do, you fall prey to some stereotype. And yes, the men have it worse some times no?

      1. When mine found out that I was waiting for the husband to fix the gas cylinder, he looked extremely disappointed. Mum never told us that she’d “tell on us when dad comes back” because it would have been a 9 month wait for something as stupid as not finishing my homework :p I have been labelled far too often in recent times.. But then when I hear women wonder aloud why I have no qualms “admitting” that my husband loves to cook and that I am not sure if I am mother material, I realize I am probably better off being labeled a feminist than get tied down with weird stereotypes that make no sense in my world. (Yes, these women exist. And no, they are not even relatives because if they were, it wouldn’t have registered :p)

        1. The reverse happens too no? Like I have been labelled as “gharelu” like it is an inferior state to being the hoity-toity hardcore feminist, just because I am at home. And I find that equally absurd. Most often it is the women who find it hard to believe that this was a choice that I chose with my eyes wide open because it is one that makes me happy. It is even harder for them to believe that in doing this (and my other choices) I have nothing to prove to anybody.. The world is filled with strange people with weird brains.

  3. Have you read this? http://nymag.com/news/features/retro-wife-2013-3/ She is but one of several thousands that’s writing about this. Also check out BLUE MILK and her blog and writing if you like. While I have some arguments against them, points most of them make are valid from several angles.

    If anything, I’d argue the feminist who stays home, loves to cook and care for her 4 or 5 children seems to be the growing norm right now around the world. Basically ‘schooling’ the earlier notions of feminism! Feminism merely fought different types of unfair, unjust issues against women at each point in time. It was about work in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, it was about voting, salary and other such things after and now at some level it’s about everyday freedom to just let us be and not mess with our daily lives, what we wear, eat yada yada!! That whole neo mami thing that GB wrote about was probably the most brilliant way to sum up this discussion. I swear this is one of the things I loved about living in the US. No one gave a crap about your choice .. that choice was yours .. and that’s all that ever mattered. I think India is slowly coming into it’s own and that’s a really yucky process unfortunately. Neo mamis and mamas everywhere. I think we’ll get over our ‘wannabe-ness’ sometime and move onto “I don’t care what you are or what you want to do, leave me the hell alone”. At least I hope we will soon.

    If you’re interested, you should read this author and the whole LEAN IN bashing going on. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/ That whole Sheryl Sandberg thing that’s making the rounds – while it has a lot of good stuff going for us corporate women, it basically talks as though that’s the only form of feminism that should be. And there’s a ton of other feminists wisely pointing out that this is very old school in some ways, to prescribe that working women and corporate stereotypes are what sum up feminism today.

    You’re not alone, trust me – the entire world is currently debating just this, just as we speak – thanks to Sheryl Sandberg and her PR machine amongst other things :)

    1. That is basically my issue with the whole Sheryl Sandberg hoopla also. Iv read that piece from The Atlantic, and it left me feeling like anybody who choose otherwise is somewhat inferior or inadequate. Its the reason I have always shirked the term myself. To be honest I think I have just always been anti-labels. And more so any label that slots into so tight a spot you cannot get out even if you have a change of heart.

      Going to read all the links you’ve shared here..

  4. Loved this post, my dad was a throwback to the old school plus he traveled so he didn’t do much around the house. However he never forced decisions on any of us, we had a democratic household, everybody was allowed an opinion and the right to voice it too.My parents’ each had their areas of expertise and they never interfered with the other’s process or decision making facilities. Plus, my dad and DH now, both treat their respective in-laws with such grace and respect. There’s none of that you’re the wife’s family, so you don’t count for much crap.

    Also, you should watch Mona Lisa smile. The first 2 paragraphs resonate with the concept of that movie.

    1. Ah yes, the son-in-law parents-in-law equation is another strained stereotyped relationship na? Im glad there are enough people willing to challenge that status quo and do it with grace.

      I actually haven’t seen Monalisa Smile. Shame, I know.. Must get my hands on it.

  5. Once again, awesome post. And Girl, I am so proud of you. You make choices and stick to them, even if they seem a tad bit unconventional these days. You should do what makes you happy.And you do that.
    This whole post seems like you are trying to justify your choices and your reasoning behind them to these ‘Feminists’. Why do you need to conform to their idea anyway?
    Why do you care what they have to think about you? If anything, they are shallow for jumping to conclusions about you, Not you.

    1. Actually Zinal, the things I have talked about are not so unconventional in my immediate circle. From these comments itself you will see that there are a few others like me. I personally know a lot more. The post came out of some reflection, sparked by chancing upon this article actually: http://tehelka.com/why-indian-men-are-still-boys/
      I don’t have much to prove to anybody, so there is no question of justifying any of my choices. I can see why it must sound like that, but this post was more about realising and accepting that the freedom and liberty that I grew up with, and have come to take for granted is actually a rarity in this country.

  6. What you’re ysaing is bit like the Turkish Delight thing – in Turkey it’s just called a Delight.

    I think the slight difference between being a feminist and being unconsciously brought up in a feminist environment is the critical faculty or the consciousness. As a feminist, as Menon says, the formatting underlying everyday existence becomes visible, particularly the gender-biased formatting but lots of other things too, which is why feminists usually identify with other struggles too. When you make choices, it’s not just “my choice” but there’s at least some reflection on the wider implications. This is not to say that one always makes choices for the greater good, but that there is some consciousness of what each choice entails.

    I think feminists today are more conscious about the risk of feminism becoming another prison of dictated choices. Hence the change on position with regard to the hijab, or with regard to “female foeticide” as described in Menon’s book. Even with regards to naming, while I think it’s great that more women are balancing things out by not renouncing their names on marriage, the gates should still be open to women who choose differently. In that series on naming I linked to in my naming posts, one of the women describes how in the 80s or something, she was wearing a miniskirt and got flak from an older feminist (objectification yada yada) and she said something on the lines on – I didn’t become a feminist for other women to tell me what to do. And that’s the crux of it. But I still think we need to make thoughtful choices.

    1. Oh absolutely. Completely with you on the bit about making conscious choices and being aware of the wider implications of some of the things we choose/dont choose to do. I think the accent was always on that too, when we were growing up. Which is probably why I grew up believing that having that freedom/liberty to chose was what was good for womankind as a whole. And probably also why things like girls changing their first names, giving up careers unquestioningly to stay at home, and the like made me aghast. It wasn’t so much the choice itself, but how unthinkingly or easily accepted these choices were. COnversations with my MIL and SIL have often made me see that had they had different upbringings, that opened their eyes to the possibility to choose, they might have chosen otherwise.

      My issue is with the label, and the stamp getting so watertight that it leaves no room for someone who has surveyed all choices and then chosen something seemingly inferior.

      And yes, I need to get myself Menon’s book.

      1. Oh oops, I re-read GB’s post just before yours and got confused about who referred to that book and now I realised it was her, not you. But I guess my comment was not entirely incomprehensible desptie that.

        1. Hehe, yes I got what you meant. And the book has been on my mind for a while. R and I were discussing something this just last week, and she quoted the book too. Also, even though I havent read it, the book inspired the title for this post :P

      2. I’m just a passer by, but I feel compelled to leave a comment here. The Bride has said much of it already. I want to add that your definition of feminism in terms of a few decisions of individual women is hardly accurate. Feminism is about consciously transforming the institutional landscape that governs the range of available choices. Therefore it necessarily entails a conscious solidarity with many other movements with similar visions. A feminist is not someone with attributes, but neither is it someone who makes a few individual, albeit unrestrained choices in life. Rather it is someone who shares and participates in a larger vision. The politics of feminism is bound to evolve in accordance with the times (starting with franchise, moving on to equal wages, then maternity benefits, control over her body and fertility, etc) but the vision remains intact. Without imbibing and understanding that vision very consciously, one cannot be a feminist.
        Btw, I’m privileged to have been a student of Nivi Menon and yes, you must read her book!

        1. and yes, only when you think of feminism as a vision will you appreciate that it does not slot you into a cubby-hole. Then judgments are not based on this choice vs. that choice. The universe of feminism is much much larger than that, and unfortunately, this is what many fail to understand when they criticise feminism for being a narrow ideology.

          1. Ideally Feminism would be perceived as a vision, not a state of being. If you see a few other comments I have made, you’ll notice I am saying the same thing. The feminist is not a creature you can identify based on a list of specified attributes. My intention is to highlight how dilute the understanding of “feminism” is these days. Everyone and her aunty seems to have an opinion about everything these days. Big words and labels get thrown around so easily and “feminist” is one of them, that I have seen get used entirely flippantly. My post is just a reflection of a very personal experience.

        2. I didn’t claim that my “definition” was exhaustive and completely accurate. Sure in a broader sense, feminism is so much more as you have very accurately and extensively defined. But this post deals with only one part. Specifically, the part about enabling wider choices for our children, inculcating an upbringing of that allows them to make those choices freely. For both boys and girls. Just that and nothing more.

          The crux of my post is a personal reflection on the upbringing I have had, which allowed that. Something I have taken very much for granted. It so happens that I feel most people (me included) have a half baked understanding of feminism, and its easy to make sweeping judgements that reduce it to superficial attributes and silly definitions, like the kind I have seen and felt thrust on me.

  7. The idea of feminism is to have equal opportunity, freedoms and rights to women. What you do once that choice is made by you is entirely different.. We have people like Chetan bhagat who make statements that marry a woman who is working and not the one who makes phulkas.

    But what if once the choice is made, the woman chooses to be at home? chooses to take care of the household because that is what she wants to do. We must learn to respect the choices being made, even if they may not agree with the opinion we have in our mind

    1. That is exactly my point :) The Feminist, is not a kind of person defined by a 10-point list of attributes. As human beings, I think the more aware we are of the choices available and the more open we are to letting women freely make those choices, one way or the other, the better it is for our girls and women. The more households that focus on teaching their children that choosing well is of higher importance than choosing something someone enforced on them, the more empowered we can hope they will be.

  8. I don’t mind being called a bra-burner or all that other mumbo jumbo because I’m pretty sure an ignorant man came up with that shit. As for the rest, we were also raised with this whole equality thing in check. It’s nothing special but I’m still glad I had that freedom. But I also know that feminism goes beyond my upbringing. It’s defending the rights of women that someone else fought for and we were born into. it has very little to do with actual day to day tasks because I was already blessed with that. It’s my default setting. Now, it’s more about drawing attention to what comes after you’re emancipated. So many women are in the position of power (i’m talking Ektaaaa Kapoor) but guess what she does with it? Makes 800 shows about virgin brides. I feel like a killjoy but I can’t get myself to laugh at certain type of jokes or watch certain types of movies anymore. It’s like my brain was re-wired in the last one year. I’m okay with that.
    We have the rights. We just have to work on challenging the stereotypical thought process (majority of which is male generated) and not being okay with clear gender biases in the information we consume. Where women are told they’re nothing if they’re not “fuckable” or if they’re raped, they’re nothing then too.
    Thank you for writing this. I’m sure you are the type of person who already knows what I’ve said but sometimes we comment on things just so we can be doubly sure of who we are and how we think.

    1. I think the title of the post is really misleading. I completely get what you mean. But the post to me was really more about my upbringing and how it affects my everyday choices. And it was a slightly sarcastic mockery of those who mistake feminism to be a flippant small “thing”. The more i look at the post the more i think the title didnt do what i thought it would #writers #fail

      1. I don’t think it is. It’s your post. Comment space is for other opinions which you can totally dismiss (and change and not reply to and also be pissy about). I have this friend here and she’s feminist so seeing her reactions to things sort of makes me understand how much deeper it all goes. For example: she notices things like the number of female musicians at music festivals. She also talks a lot about rape culture, which is now the main way men exert power over women without actually having to touch them. But that’s something for a different post, which I hope you write because you get it. OKAY BYEEEEE.

          1. whhhhaaaat?! No! Right from the title to whatever you said is true and because you are what you are, you now have extra power to call everybody out on this stupid double standard that just never goes away.

            1. It’s not a fail also because the movement is relatively new in India. Our families are probably the odd ones out and a concept like “rape culture” would be hard to understand if the parental units aren’t like ours were.

  9. wow! This is so interesting. I always have this conflict where I can’t decide whether I am a feminist. I completely advocate freedom of choice and equality for women but fail to identify with what have become popular and sometimes even ill-found manifestations of feminism like: wearing ugly clothes, feeling guilty about wanting to look pretty, being anti-marriage and all. It was hard for me to deal with this when I wanted to get married, but simply wasn’t sure if that would make me less of a feminist. But after reading this, I’m so glad that so many people feel the same way. In fact, I would totally want to stay at home, grow a home garden, clean my house, make breads, try my hand at bonsai. I would totally go for things that really make me happy.

    Btw, I am currently reading Moran’s “How to be a woman” and it has been making a lot of things simpler for me. I was so excited to have read this post precisely at a time when I’m reading this book too. :)

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