I grew up with parents who gave me the complete freedom to discuss everything under the sun, and I was encouraged to have my own opinions. They made sure I value independence, hard work, creativity and responsibility. I was encouraged to dream and aim for the sky. Yet as I grew up, I realised that things were changing.
When I started developing the body of an adolescent girl, the freedom that I had always possessed had now started to develop a lot of conditions. I was subtly asked to hide bras under a towel while choosing clothes before a bath. I was taught to keep my underwear in the innermost pocket of a suitcase. I was taught to refer to periods with all sorts of words and phrases – anything except actually saying the word ‘periods’.
All of this was never taught to me through words, but through actions. My mother and grandmother referred to the menstrual flow of blood as ‘dirt’ coming out of the body. This never stopped my mother from picking up my bras off the floor, throwing away my forgotten pads in the bathroom as I left in a hurry, or washing my stained underwear.
I was told again and again to aim for the highest standards, and gender was never an issue while we discussed professional ambitions. But when it came to the silent and dangerous subjects – responsibilities in the house, clothes, permission to go out, opinions, postures, different festivals – I always received answers like, “some things don’t change,” or “traditions,” or “we’re at a much better place than where we were before!”
As a young teenager, I was left utterly confused and unsatisfied with these answers. I began voicing my questions. Everyone was extremely proud and eager to profess how they advocated gender equality in workplaces and educational spaces. They shied away from real conversations about the body, emotional difficulties, gender equality at home and genuine freedom for women.
When I brought up statistics and the fact that this apparent gender equality at workplaces wasn’t enough, I was often called an “overthinker”. A stubborn, loud, aggressive girl. It’s funny how women are automatically called headstrong and adamant when they choose to talk about the elephant in the room and take a stand.
This was always pointed out to me in an indulgent, sarcastic tone – “God! You’re so headstrong and stubborn. But we’re used to it now and we still love you a lot.” This made me reflect. Every time I hid my bra under the towel, every time I placed the packet of sanitary napkins deep into my backpack, and continued to carry the rest of the medicines in my hand – I felt like a hypocrite. Yet I still continued to do all of this for a long time, and sometimes still do.
My mind was filled with difficult questions which no one was ready to answer. Should I be grateful for the fact that at least I was allowed to express myself, knowing that the freedom of speech is a basic right? Should I be grateful about the fact that I was never sexually assaulted in my own house, knowing that my feminism comes from a place of privilege?
I was scared to ask these questions, I was scared to be a ‘bad feminist’. This continued for a very long time till I found the courage to talk to people, till I found the courage to write. This made me realise that we women are our own best supporters and own worst critics. We are our best resources. Our collective voice is our best support. Feminism is innate in us, and understanding it takes time. We don’t have to go out to look for it. We just have to be our natural selves.
We need to start asking ourselves and the people around us difficult questions. We need to start having open conversations, and stop running away from debate and confrontation. It’s going to take a lot of courage. But we already have it. We just need to find it, and collective support is the best tool we could use to find it. We need to start facilitating safe spaces for our voices.
A simple three-step approach can help us find our collective courage. Start with your questions, your own story – when you do that, you give someone else the power to voice theirs. Second, listen to their story with kindness and empathy. We may not always understand people’s circumstances, but we can try. Third, encourage them to create the same safe space for somebody else. This is a safe space. We’re in this together.
Eshaa Joshi is 18 years old. She is interning with Shaheen Mistri, CEO of Teach for India, on a project called Kids Education Revolution, an attempt to reimagine education in India. She writes poetry too.
Featured image credit: PTI