Friday, April 13, 2007

My grand-aunt, the feminist?

My grand-aunt wore a wrist-watch with the dial on her inner wrist and the buckle on top. Her grey hair was always neatly combed back and held together at the back of her head, a few inches above the nape of her neck. Whenever she headed out she would always wear a neatly starched saree and carry a functional purse.

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.]

Update:

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.

17 comments:

apu said...

wow. sujatha. beautifully written. While many of the other things are becoming apparent, "they are not the keepers of culture or tradition or a family's honor;" - this is something that is still a distant dream for us. Women are also deified and often given impossible burdens of "keeping up the family honor". We are just people too, like men.

Shek said...

Good job writing this post, Sujatha. I think the view towards women are changing in the eyes of the society as the newer generations progress to be a more important part of the society. Women have always had a lot of respect in my family, for as long as I know...and it is something I have grown up with.

I think the awakening towards women's dignity has an exponential time curve meaning the dream may not be as distant as apu puts it.

Charu said...

wonderful post, Sujatha... but a long way to go especially the last few lines. shek, it is true that some women are covering this distance quickly and with less effort, but many many are not which is why I agree with apu here...

and I love these fiercely independent women of the older generation - had written about my mother-in-law's aunts long ago. such women go around making it all seem so easy, but I can only imagine their struggles...

Tachyoson said...

wonderful post! ... truly , as Charu puts it , its a uphill struggle all the way, but the inner steel of the ladies like your grand aunt and Charu's Mother-in-law's aunts are indeed laudable....

Amrita said...

That's a great post Suj! You know, when I made the suggestion, I didnt know what was going to come of it but I'm glad I did because these are the stories of some truly remarkable women!

shub said...

wow! What a lady! And thanks for sharing this. May I link to this post on my blog?

Sujatha said...

Apu, thank you. Yes, a long way to go, but slowly I really do believe we'll get there...

Shek, thank you. But I do think that women are already a very important part of society, but their contributions are not receiving the accolades they merit.

Charu, thank you and thank you for the link to your posts. Growing up, the stories of these women did not seem remarkable at all, but now having seen what it takes to make a living and be productive members of society, it seems so incredible that they all did what they did with so few resources and against such enormous odds.

Tachyoson, thank you.

Am, thanks for bring up this issue. It is absolutely necessary to preserve these stories for us and for the generations following us.

Shub, thank you and of course, please feel free to link to this post.

Poppins said...

This comment is not related to this post. I just wanted to tell you that I recently wrote a post that linked to your c-section post : http://blogpourri.blogspot.com/2006/02/caesarean-deliveries-scientific.html

Hope that's OK with you.

I love your writing !

Sujatha said...

Sure, Poppins, thanks!

desigirl said...

Great one, Suj! Well worth the wait!
:D

Gagan said...

Well written and stirring piece.
I don't disagree with your conclusions Sujatha. Not at all; but I thought you tried to say too much in the last paragraph. It might have been more effective if you had held back and worked all of the ideas of that conclusion into a longer piece. Your grand aunt's story spoke so clearly and eloquently on its own that I thought it got overshadowed a little.

Sujatha said...

Gagan, thank you for your comment. I understand what you're saying and you're right. There are so many nuances here that it is difficult to do justice to it in volumes of books. As I was typing I had so many things to add to that last paragraph, but I stopped where I did because the basic point that I wanted to get across was that women are human beings first and everything else later if ever.

Celia said...
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Anonymous said...

Well written.But, I always thought that extra concern and care was shown toward women's health and it was a bias against men.

Sharanya Manivannan said...

What an inspiration! My own source of strength is one of my maternal great-grandmothers. She was an incredible woman who lived in defiance of the era and her own circumstances.

Aren't we lucky, to have those one or two amazing foremothers who went before us? (I don't know about you, but my great-gran would still be an anomaly -- well, one of two -- in my family today.)

iron garden gates said...
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iron gates said...
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