The reason this image of my grand-aunt is so strong in my head more than a decade after she died is that among all the women I knew of her generation growing up, she was the only one who went off to work every morning. She was an Education Officer in the Karnataka Government.
Her life could have gone so horribly wrong. It had all the ingredients for the making of a disaster. She was married at seven to a 42 year-old man. Following the marriage he disappeared, never to be heard from again. A few years later, he was legally presumed dead and my grand-aunt had her whole life ahead of her - as a widow. She would be at the mercy of relatives for food and a roof over her head. However well meaning the relatives would be initially, it was more than likely that she would have been nothing more than a useful hand around the house.
Contrast that with how her life actually shaped out. An older female relative offered to pay for my grand-aunt's education. The relative herself was very well educated - she was the first female graduate of Mysore University and the recipient of a scholarship from the Maharaja of Mysore. She put my grand-aunt through school, steered her towards a vocation (teaching) and was single-handedly responsible for my grand-aunt standing on her own two feet. By the time my grand-aunt passed away, she had been the proud owner of a nice house in a quiet, leafy neighborhood in Bangalore for very many years.
My grand-aunt's life and that of her relative were shaped by their own ability and that of their family to view their lives as having value outside the then prevalent social framework. My grand-aunt's life did not cease to have meaning just because she became a widow.
I have no idea if my grand-aunt (or her relative) had heard of feminism or feminists, but her life was saved from ruination because in the eyes of the people that supported her, she was a human being - with potential, with hopes, with ideas as to how to live her life.
Feminism has made enormous strides over the last few decades in the areas of employment, education, voting rights, sports, etc. If, however, feminism is to succeed in the realm of human interaction and relationships, women must be viewed as human beings first, as thinking, feeling entities with a voice of their own.
Women are not chattel; they are not objects of sexual desire to be plundered at will; they are not available to be harassed and molested as they are walking on the streets; they are not vehicles for dowry; they are not the keepers of culture or tradition or a family's honor; they are not slaves; they are not punching bags; their health is not secondary to that of the menfolk; their maternal families are not second-class citizens; their work - whether they choose to stay at home and take care of the children or work outside of their homes - is as valuable as the men's and merits recognition as such.
[Amrita wrote a post on what feminism means in the Indian context and asked me to pitch in. DesiGirl tagged me for the same effort. Apu is putting up links to all bloggers who are joining in. Thanks to all of them for triggering some forgotten memories.]
The Hindu carries an interview with Baby Halder, author of A Life Less Ordinary in its magazine section today (April 15, 2007). Please read.
Baby Halder, hailed as a star for her life-story A Life Less Ordinary, broke the tradition of silence that shackles women's lives in India. She's worked out the trajectory between the bitterness of bearing the burden and the need to turn the tragic into a reservoir of learning.
Her story is the story of the marginalised. Being a woman is in itself a form of abuse. "Why can't people think of her first as a human being and then a woman? We have the same limbs, eyes and a mind and can live our lives just like everyone else. We should stop depending on men — that they will earn and we will cook and serve. If they step out to work, we also work at home." She still has the 10 paise coin Baby's mother left in her palm before walking away from her children.