Growing up in a rural middle-class household comes with its fair share of struggles, especially if you are an educated girl child. From the very beginning, my mind was always trained to function, dream, and respond a certain way. I saw my mother restricting herself willingly to domestic duties and my father discussing finance and the news with my uncle and grandfather. Every night, I would sit with my mother and watch daily soaps. On TV too, I would see women playing similar domesticated roles and soon started idolising such behaviour.
I remember playing ghar-ghar where we girls would borrow our mothers’ old dupattas and use them to cover our heads and faces just like our mothers did when male members of the family were around. Everything around me conditioned me to dream of becoming a wife one day.
It’s not until I moved to a boarding school and saw women teachers there that I realised that women could work outside of the home too. Till that point, I had only seen women being a housewife and thought it was the universal job of women everywhere.
While school taught me women can choose any profession of their liking, it instilled another set of adverse stereotypes in me. The girls were taught how to walk, talk, eat, sit and laugh a certain way.
In Class 6, one of our classmates, out of curiosity, brought up the topic of mensuration to a male teacher. The next day, the whole school was talking about it. The hostel attendant punished that girl in front of everyone, saying, “Aapke ma baap ne aapko koi tameez nahi sikhayi (didn’t your parents teach you manners?)”. That’s how it was ingrained in me that the biology of a female body is not meant for public discussion.
By the time I reached senior secondary, a majority of the girls in my class started getting their periods but we always discussed it in hushed voices. For a girl, the biggest embarrassment was not getting a low grade but a bloodstain on her kurta – because the boys in our class were never told about them. This gave them the freedom to laugh and mock those who would end up staining their kurtas. What was even worse was the disgust you’d seen on their faces as soon as they’d spot the stain.
It was always one stereotype leading to another, birthing it a vicious cycle. Instead of fighting it all, I wholeheartedly accepted it as part of my life as it was easier that way.
It was in college that things started to change. I intentionally applied for an all-girls college to try and step out of this vicious cycle, to not accept stereotypes anymore and to develop opinions of my own. My life at Lady Shri Ram College became my pedestal to develop a feministic approach to life.
While I was busy normalising my thoughts and opinions on womanhood, things were still the same back at my countryside home.
During the first Covid-induced lockdown, when the world went topsy turvy, us students returned to our homes. I took a train home. During the journey, I thought of how to conduct myself at home and decided to not let loose my newly-gained views and opinions. It isn’t that I didn’t want to discuss my growth and understanding about women with my mother – I was just afraid of being the odd one out in the family.
Soon enough, the regressive thoughts around me started to push me to the brink. The women in the house would suddenly start discussing my weight and advise me to eat less in order to find a suitable husband. I was told by one neighbourhood aunty, “Look after your body, eat health or there will be complications for you once you give birth.” These jibes about my body became more rampant with each passing day, and my thoughts began to spiral.
What came as the biggest shock to me was my cousins complying to these stereotypical norms. They were still aspiring to be dedicated wives one day. In a rural setting that treats women as nothing more than a domestic entity, young girls are left to search for a purpose in wifehood.
I tried talking them out of this dream, but they refused to listen. They felt cheated when they heard women could be anything they want. The realisation that they were sold a mirage in the name of a perfect life came as a hard knock. Unlike me, they had not been offered the freedom to explore the definition of womanhood. Instead, an orthodox definition of womanhood that ran along the lines of wifehood was imposed on them.
So I sit here thinking of what a colossal waste a decades of the feminist movement had been for girls of my community for it seems it could not even touch upon our lives faintly.
On many quiet evenings, I climb up to the roof, get a view of my town and wonder if girls here will ever get to dream of being anything other than a dutiful wife.
Manvi Gupta is journalism Student and a committed reader
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty