Some days back, during a Ph.D. viva-voce examination in our Department, the external examiner asked the researcher as to why she had studied Anita Nair in the light of post-feminist theory; why not in the light of the feminist theory. The research scholar looked at me. In fact, when her work began, she had brought the conventionally accepted topic ‘A Feminist Reading of the Selected Works of Anita Nair’. I had changed the topic to post-feminism. Why did I do it? I decided to be candid as I mostly do. I told the examiner that in my more than two and half decades at the university, I have seen so many young girls turn so bitter about life after reading, imbibing feminism. I wanted this girl to grow into larger ideas of human values, compassion for all, human rights for all etc. Once you adopt the feminist prism, everything becomes injustice. Moments of pregnancy, precious moments of motherhood, consummation in marriage, love, service - everything becomes biased, unjust, and discriminatory. When you have a young infant in your arm, you breastfeed him or her. You cannot ask your husband to do it.
I have seen so many young girls turn bitter and cynical due to their exposure to feminist philosophy. Their capacity to enjoy life, to trust, to sacrifice just vanishes. Please do not make the mistake of assuming that there is no gender injustice in our world. In fact, much more needs to be done to empower women and girls all over the world. But my concern here is different. I want to talk about the need of the institution of family, mother-child bonding, female qualities and the overall fabric of life.
I stand for the rights of women. I would not have been writing this piece but for the feminist movement. But now, it’s a very important moment when we have to decide as to what direction our feminist movement takes. We become what we read, what we watch and what we think. I want to talk about saving innocence and goodness in this world. There is injustice and brutality against the girl child and women in general. But we need to talk about other realities as well. We create realities as we talk, as we discuss and as we think.
The other day, I saw a beautiful picture of Lord Vishnu lying lavishly on the eternal serpent and Goddess Laxmi pressing his feet. But the line below the picture struck me as a hammer. It said, ‘Patriarchy, Misogyny or Just Love’.
It is possible that the goddess, the woman in question might be expressing her dedicated love in this manner. I don’t say that religion is not unjust. I have myself written on religion being unfair to women. But where is our capacity to appreciate pure love. You cannot build a family unless and until you consider the needs of others. You cannot bring up children without sacrifice. For children to be healthy, emotionally strong, we need a family. For family, we need compassion. Frankly, the stories, the examples, the cases of unwanted, uncared children scare me. If you are a feminist and you bear a baby and then, if your husband does not wake up at two in the night to tend the baby, then what? And it is not just the initial years of tending and caring. It is about all those tender years, schooling, learning, story-telling, sight-seeing, feeding, fighting, sports, growing, adolescence, tests… It goes on. It is a life-long commitment. Once a mother, always a mother.
Many times I genuinely feel that by serving the house, the woman masters the house. The house becomes the woman’s domain, her territory. Her rule runs the house. She decides the menu, the sleeping hours, the TV shows, the schedule. She may not ascertain it openly but she becomes the soul of the house. By service, she becomes important. The ‘victim’ narrative may be true for some cases but it is not true for the majority of the cases.
So many women all over the world prefer traditional roles to radical ones. Why? Given a choice, many women would opt for traditional roles. Why? We cannot run away from these questions. I have serious doubts whether loosening a woman’s grip over her house will empower her. When you free a woman of her household responsibilities, there are alternative arrangements- care-taker, house-manager, machines etc. The woman does not remain that important. I am speaking entirely from a woman’s point of view. When you don’t know what’s in the boxes in the kitchen or when you don’t have a kitchen, are you empowered? I doubt.
Merissa Mayer was Google’s first woman engineer when she joined the start-up in 1999. Through the years, she advanced to many executive positions. She also became the CEO of Yahoo. When asked about her being a feminist, Meyer said, ‘I don’t think I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights. I believe that women are just as capable if not more so in a lot of different dimensions but I don’t think I have the militant drive and the sort of chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.’
She went on to say that feminism has become a negative word. When one thinks that eminent women like Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana and even pungent, pro-women writers like Shashi Deshpande and Arundhati Roy have at one point or the other have distanced themselves from the term ‘feminism’, one is forced to ponder on the limiting nature of the term. Logically, we should not turn away from the negative connotations this originally noble term has come to acquire.
I am not in support of skewed domestic labour. Not at all. Men must share domestic responsibilities. But I know so many women who have elevated domestic work to the level of art, even worship. The home becomes a sanctified, beautiful territory. Beyond their economic means, these women in India and so many other places have turned their homes into the ‘best’ places on earth. The members of the family long to return to the home. To paint housekeeping completely as a worthless symbol of victimhood would not be correct. You only need some sensitivity to realize how deeply women feel for their ‘home’.
I want to ask today - are notions of softness, delicateness, emotionality attached to women, completely false? Is it false that women are more emotional, soft and sensitive? Is mother-child bonding real? Can the family as an institution survive without sacrifice? Do we need family? What kind of children are we raising today? Is man-woman relationship real? Is love real?
Life is messy. So many things at so many levels keep happening and changing. Amidst all joys, sorrows, happiness and shocks, we tend to remember what we lost, what we missed. The blessings of life go unnoticed. The facts that we were born in a privileged family, we have necessary money to pursue our goals, we have good minds, good bodies etc never get the kind of attention they deserve. A missed promotion, gender bias at work place, the luck of others etc. embitter us intensely. This is exactly my problem with feminism. It fails at art of living life. Feminists are bitter, over cautious. Feminists cannot stand happiness. A girl deeply in love is a threatening sight for a feminist. Dedication is subjugation. ‘Husband’ is enemy. I do not intend it as an insult when I say that in their quest for equality, assertion, domination, success, gain, prominence and money, a feminist-woman becomes a man. It becomes difficult to associate any softness with her. Everything about her becomes combative. Big bindies cannot hide hollow hearts. I want difference in genders to remain. Discrimination- no. Difference- yes. I am a woman and I know that a woman has to melt. I know and I have been taught that gender is a social construct but I would like to believe that tenderness is a natural female quality.
‘Devil Wears Prada’, ‘Gone Girl’ etc. are some of the classic movies that explore this aspect. I have seen many such women who have frozen hearts. I have seen feminists say that they do not mind even if society collapses. In their pursuit of equality, they are ready to embrace destruction. Here, as someone who started as a staunch feminist, I stand corrected. I would not like to see total disintegration of society. Family as a unit, as an institution is important for society. Family is the building block of society. I would like to see a cohesive society which produces mentally and physically strong children. I do not want to see a society of divorced couples whose children are confused and threatened. This does not lead us anywhere. This does not lead to women empowerment.
I am for the rights of women. I am for a woman’s dignified place in society. I am for a woman’s right to say ‘No’. I want women in army, in police, in administration, in market, in banks and on moon. I celebrate womanhood and the glory of being a woman. At the same time, I would like to see a complete woman, happy and joyous. I want every woman to have the backing and support of her family.
There are practical problems. It is very difficult for a woman to work in a patriarchal, bigoted, misogynistic atmosphere. Insults are hurled at a woman for everything. A male colleague would always like to dominate and dictate. In my mind, the solution lies in increasing the number of women in every single organization. When there are more women, the atmosphere becomes less threatening, more amiable.
Overall, it is a test for feminists. They need to take a very nuanced stance. The art lies in taking men along. As a father, as a husband, every man has something at stake. If a girl is empowered, her family is empowered. Benefits of women empowerment naturally percolate to everyone in the society. Happy women make a happy society.