Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Celebrating Half the Earth and Sky

तेरे माथे पे ये आँचल बहुत ही खूब है लेकिन
तू इस आँचल से एक परचम बना लेती तो अच्छा था

I am a total non-believer when it comes to celebrating days- the sole exception is perhaps my birthday . For rest of the things be it cancer awareness or human rights, I do not think we should have one commemorative days . I feel the same way about International Women’s Day . 8th March is difficult to forget , especially if you live in a metro . Suddenly from newspapers to TV channels and from Government functions to office associations get into a ‘women friendly’ mode . They plan special editions, special movie shows, special awards and a lot of other gimmicks . Most of us fall prey to these- we feel this one is “our” day . Sadly the reality hits bad for rest of the 364 days . So, like the tale of the two cities, this post is also about two extremes – for it was indeed both the best of times, and the worst of times on 8th March 2010 for me - most hilarious and most tragic . Sometime during the afternoon when I was firefighting the numerous files and issues pending with me , I got a call from my headquarters office. I was told that a Get Together of lady officers has been organized in the evening. Though terribly hassled with my work, I still found myself totally amused at the thought of a group of civil servants sipping tea and discussing women- related issues while admiring each other’s sarees . Of course , I politely refused to attend. On the other side of the city , few days back my maid’s 17 year old daughter had delivered her first baby . The young mother and her days old baby found the taste of big bad world – ironically on the International Women’s Day when the man of the house threatened to throw them both on streets. How it started was unimportant but a very familiar drama followed with men of both sides raising voices, women of both sides crying and the like . The drama was of course sprinkled with the usual social flavor of taboos – “a girl needs a husband- however bad he may be” “ I am girl’s father so how can I say anything” “ She is my wife, I will do whatever I want” and of course, a very convenient “ This is their family matter , how can we interfere” . The 17 year old illiterate mother and her baby might not be aware about the welfare measures being started for their likes and celebrations going around the world for their empowerment . A small incident summed up all that is wrong with the discussions on women issues – compulsion of marriage ,early marriage , early motherhood, no say on decision of life , domestic violence and no access to legal assistance .

I am unable to brush aside the contrast between two sets of women. One –educated civil servants in their beautiful sarees meeting for a get together and to discuss women issues to mark the occasion and the other of my maid and her daughter who have their destiny chalked out for them by the exploitative conventions of previous century . Well, to be fair, I can see the society changing in front of my eyes and yes, we have , on a very broad terms ,come a long way from the days of our grandmother’s generation – but still there are layers beneath the layers. Empowerment unfortunately does not come from outer appearance. It is not even a subset of economic independence. The ability to think and decide for themselves , to assert for their views and to have control over their lives is still not available to most women.

While thinking on this issue , I thought of how my family raised and liberated its daughters . It started with my great grand mother . She was a matriarch in the true sense of the word. A very forceful person in her opinions, she was more comfortable discussing politics with her four sons than making food for them. It was her philosophy that guided the grooming of women in our family for three generations after her .She used to write in journals on issues of social reforms and religious practices. A staunch believer in non ritualistic religion she insisted that her marriage would be conducted without a priest –in the Arya samaj way, and the bride herself conducted the ceremony. Even later in life on many issues she had contrasting views with her husband and aired them publicly with absolute confidence. Out of her four daughters in laws , she insisted that all of them should not only be educated but should be able to run their families independently. She insisted on freedom of opinion and freedom to earn livelihood for her granddaughters as well. One of her daughter in law (my grand aunt) though married in a Arya samaj family , remained a true communist till her death . Her mom in law ensured that freedom for her . My grandmother comparatively was a more typical example of her generation- demure, introvert and obedient. However, when it came to show real guts – she too set an example. When my grandfather was in jail (during freedom movement) she took up a job of a teacher and insisted that she will earn for the living of her kids . It was an unwritten rule in the next generation for my aunts that they should be economically independent- before they marry. They were encouraged to take up careers , wear the way they want and air their views(even when wrong) with full confidence .They were also given absolute freedom to select their partners in life. As a result we ended up becoming a true National integration family – with uncles and aunts from all parts of the country . The rules were made even better for our generation. Marriage was optional…career was not. One can argue that my great grandma’s philosophy of liberation through economic independence was a faulty one but I have seen the results first hand. All of my aunts, cousins and sisters are fiercely independent people. Many of them look very ordinary, lived very ordinary…but go a wee bit deeper and you find astonishing clarity in views , confidence to take charge of their lives and even those of others around them. They bore trials of life much better than ordinary women. Even wrong decisions, bad relationships, widowhood or old age could not break their basic courage – “ I can handle anything” remained the family motto. I look around my life these days and find innumerable number of women who were given conditional freedoms, I find popular media strengthening the stereotypes and even the most intelligent educated urban women succumbing to this slavery of mind . Even among professionals I find women getting dictated by families and friends about how to live, how to react and how to behave. For channels who think that only the romantic comedies are the “chick flicks” or the companies who feel anything pink is for the fairer sex I can just pity. For I am sure there are many more simple women like the women of my family who are much more evolved than the gimmicks of kitty party culture. Well, we do not need one special day for us, after all – all 365 days are our days .