I was always a lazy girl, at least the way my mom looked at it. I preferred reading in bed or writing poetry or doing my homework or playing with friends over cleaning my room or trying to cook. The first time I cooked anything other than instant noodles was when I was 20 and my parents were not home. I decided to cook the Indian staple – dal and rice and fried potatoes. It took me two hours and gave me a lot of stress. My brother and I finally ate that food and I sort of told myself – “Never again.”
Growing up, my mother often asked me to do little household chores. During summer holidays she’d ask me to dust around the house with a cloth – wipe the tables, fold the sheets, brush the sofas. Almost always I’d tell her I wouldn’t do it if my brother didn’t do it. So, from a really small age, I sowed the seed of feminism in my family – not because I understood what feminism was, but mostly because I was lazy and would have hated moving around if my brother wasn’t doing the same.
Over the years my brother started helping out more in the house than I ever did. He’d arrange the dishes in the kitchen. He knew where mom stored boxes of snacks and biscuits. He helped serve food when there were guests in the house and even when there weren’t. It was a good system – good for me, not so for many others in my family. Some of my aunts laughed at him, some other relatives praised him for being a guy and helping out, some of my cousins mocked him. Through it all, I was worried. This behaviour wasn’t good for my desire for fairness and equality.
While most people I know realised they were feminists quite late in their lives, I realised I was one probably when I was 12. Before that I didn’t need to. Before that I was a child and not a girl. At least that’s how I saw the world. There were little snippets of discrimination but they were so little that I didn’t realize those instances were tied to my gender. I didn’t realize that my family’s indirect obsession with fair skin was also rooted in the society’s idea of gender roles. I didn’t realize that the fact I was expected to hide my periods and never talk out loud about them was also preparing me for how women were expected to behave. I didn’t realize that the stranger who touched my breasts in a public bus when I was six years old was also preparing me for the burden of womanhood.
Despite it all, I always loved being a girl and then a woman. I liked the power of my gender. I liked being a little more compassionate, generally prettier than men were and overall less crap. I’m not dissing men here, I never will. But isn’t it obvious? If you look at the characteristics of the number of women in your life and the number of men in your life, you’ll probably accept that women tend to be nicer, in some way or the other. They care more and are generally less threatening. That’s why a 22-year-old man riding on a bus with 10 drunk women at midnight wouldn’t worry as much as a woman in his situation. That’s the power of his gender – a power I wish didn’t exist.
My idea of feminism doesn’t mean that men and women should be equal in the literal sense. They can’t be. Men won’t get periods. Women won’t grow long beards. Men won’t give birth to babies. Women won’t generally have the same kind of muscular strength. But we need to strive for as much social equality as we can. We need to look at our surroundings, our families, our friends, our neighbourhoods and our workplaces with the lens that helps us see the differences in expectations, opportunities and life-experiences between genders.
A few months ago, I met a guy on a date in one of my favourite pubs in the city. He said he didn’t understand the idea of feminism. He kept picking on examples of how many women used this word with the wrong intentions. He looked at me and said – “We both come from a privileged background, we’re both educated, we both have good jobs, then why are you concerned about equality? Look at how women in poor and illiterate families are being treated. Those are the people we need to work for.”
While I didn’t disagree with the fact that those women were the ones who were the most disadvantaged because of sexism, I wondered at how this guy discarded my experience of inequality without knowing how and where I was brought up. He believed that equality already existed in our society and in the families we came from. After talking to him about this topic for more than an hour, I knew this was a moot point. But I was surprised at how easy it was for a man to doubt how I lived through womanhood.
I’ve spent more than two decades trying to understand the subtle ways in which sexism colours our lives from the time we grow up. With every passing year, this understanding deepens and I notice how gender intersects itself in almost everything we do, everything we are. It’s taken a lot of unlearning for me to learn new ways of being, new ways of grasping how I can be someone who questions these norms, how I can help those around me embrace the idea of feminism instead of belittling it as a movement we don’t need.
You know why we need it? Because it frees us all, men and women alike. It frees us from the weight of gender expectations. It allows us to be. And if you’re not a feminist, you either don’t understand what it stands for or you’re too scared because it challenges everything you stand for.
This Women’s Day, I request you to understand and accept the gender inequality we still face, not just in smaller villages of under-developed nations but also in big corporations of first-world countries. Start with your family. Start now.
P.S. Just so you know, I started cooking regularly two years after saying, “Never again” 😛