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.