As a school girl in a middle class home, I never had access to ‘freedom’ – a personal phone, as I like to call it. It was entirely out of question, among other restrictions, but this changed as soon as I got into college.
I went on to study English literature at Delhi University in a progressive city with very progressive classmates. However, unlike my fellow classmates, college was more about the freedom it offered – freedom to move out of my house, to have my own personal phone, to be independent. As a result, it took me two semesters to understand why I opted for the course and six to understand its importance.
As soon as I got a phone, I developed a strong urge to connect with as many people as possible, even though I’m not great at making conversation. Nevertheless, I kept trying but all my efforts went in vain. Eventually, I quit and found solace in my introverted self.
Side by side, I was struggling with the new theories, philosophies and concepts taught in class. I also had to study an additional subject along with my core papers. I opted for philosophy. The subject introduced me to an age-old, repeatedly used, often misinterpreted word: feminism. During the course of the semester, I realised that there was much more to the word than what I had read on Instagram and other social media platforms.
However, as this was an additional paper, I didn’t take it that seriously. I crammed the theories for exams, and somehow managed to get good scores. But I came across the word again during one of my lectures on one of my core papers – feminist literature.
Feminist literature? It made no sense to me. “Why do we need a genre dedicated to a particular gender?” I wondered. “Won’t that further sideline the women?”
Our professor asked what feminist literature included – the works of female writers or works about female characters?
It was a tricky yet a simple question, a kind which we were often asked in our classes. The answer was the former, but why? And that was when we realised that during the previous four semesters – literature from 16th to 18th century – female writers were barely included.
That was when I started grasping the concept a little better.
Although reading and learning about the female authors and poets whose works were being neglected for centuries paved a way for me to value the concept, it was still not enough to understand the importance of feminism in my personal life.
So what was enough? Maybe the fact that while reading about romanticism, we only had one female writer, Mary Shelley, among seven other male poets, and even then, she was better known as a wife of one of those male poets. Or was it the movie that introduced me to Ruth Ginsberg and how she couldn’t be a lawyer despite having a double degree? Or the National Gallery in London with only 20 installations by female artists amongst a grand total of 2,300?
I don’t know what exactly made me aware of the word or helped me develop a connection with the history of the movement, but I do know I was becoming a person who was aware of her rights and could see gender-based discrimination in everyday activities.
During my monthly visits to home, I had already started questioning my mother’s requests all day to do chores, but I didn’t have any problem doing them. Basically, I would find these things problematic but I would also forget them as soon as I would come back to my free space, my PG and college life.
But now during quarantine, since I have been stuck at home for the last three months – the longest I have been in the past three years – I have been able to see through the deep-rooted problems at home. While I was enjoying my so-called liberated life in university, I forgot how my mother, my father and other family members were still tied to the traditional, rather oppressive, idea of gender roles.
Quarantine started at home, as it had in any other ‘privileged’ household, with a cooking marathon of sorts. The social media universe made it look like a fun activity for the family to bond and enjoy this time together while keeping each other safe. However, in reality, it was time to live life the patriarchal way.
While the male members of my house were enjoying new dishes and experiments everyday, I found my mother, aunts, sister and myself toiling in the kitchen for long hours. When after a month of this routine I argued with my mother to ask my brother to help with the household work, she agreed and asked him to.
But he, like every other entitled male, said: “Main thodi krunga ye kaam (I am not supposed to do this work)” and my mother agreed, yet again.
This is when I finally realised that although the feminist movement started centuries ago – and we do have come a long way since then – we would need another century of consistent efforts to accomplish what we started to reach for.
It is not about just one household and this one incident, but thousands of similar incidents at different households. It is not just about me or you, who are privileged enough to pursue the career of their own choice – it is also about those who are not privileged, who are not aware. It may take another century to let any woman to just be aware of these things and yet another to change it, but that does not mean we have to stop.
Feminism is not just a word or a concept. It is more than just a word – it is a way of life.