For being born a woman, I never felt different, until one day I came face to face with the difference.
“Is it true than that we have to do the things we do because of gender,” I asked myself. I was surprised at the answer, little suspecting that while I advocated empowerment I needed to be free myself.
The space in our heads that determines who we are is confined within limitations. Not born at birth but in constant interactions; confined in a cage, wanting freedom, not knowing when, where and how my identity seeking expression.
I considered myself lucky, for in my country, I was born into privileges very few others of my gender would even dare to dream. Ignorance was bliss. I had the opportunities to education, was allowed to dream of careers and challenges, find ways to escape long hours of study to play cricket with the kids from my village, climb trees and hills, swim in the river and challenge my siblings to a game of cards. I was never stopped from participating in debates and camps, trekking and travelling.
Learning to cook and other household duties were the least of my concerns until the day I was suddenly being measured by such life skills.
I quickly realised that my studies didn’t matter too much. In fact it made them feel uneasy. The patriarchal ego. The way they worked around this was through what I later realised has a definition: ‘Benevolent sexism’. They praised me for being such a great housekeeper and an even greater cook. They revered me for my feminine skills but always two steps behind my man; rushing me to impress them further.
And before I knew it, I too, became among the many women I know, who sound feminist, but who in fact are desperately seeking to fit into an expression within a patriarchal society.
It was when I began to see these subtle signs all around me that I felt choked. And when I raised my voice and said no I heard the roar of dissent. I heard the challenge that lay ahead of me. The fear of loneliness and crime. Of identity conflict and shame, the fear of unwarranted guilt and sorrow of abandonment.
I heard the fear that woman face every time they want to say no and compromise.
I heard the guilt of working women who wake up at unearthly hours so that they can complete their cooking and household chores and get to work before others do. I heard the rush of hurrying feet hoping to avoid the lone lanes for the fear of rape. I heard the shame of our beautiful bodies, hiding behind loose clothing, telling us how to dress up.
I felt the strangle of my dupatta that ensures that my place is defined. My eyes were not meant to stare, for I was gazed upon and not meant to gaze.
So when I felt cornered and said no, I realised that thinking you are empowered and feeling empowered are separate experiences.
I heard similar stories countless times. Women ashamed to fight their battle of freedom because of social expectations. Of sleepless nights and drunken husband, of broken bones and crashed dreams.
I had always felt lucky not realising that it was maybe because I had never said no before.
Defining women empowerment in a patriarchal society is clichéd. It’s measuring her against those who are abused. Maybe she is free in the walls of her house, but the moment she walks that street she is always compromising.
I do not take this bus, this road or this hour because I am a woman.
I know parents who bring up their daughters in ways that make them feel equal and capable. But I also know more daughters who are constantly treated like second class citizens. They sit in my class, knowing that education may never change their destiny except maybe give them an edge over a marriage proposal.
Nevertheless it doesn’t matter which house she walks out from, the streets are the same and so are the offices and systems. We have some of the best laws that favour our women, yet do they deter crimes against women?
I speak to younger women whose ideas of identity are not yet smeared with discriminatory experience. I ask them, “Do you believe you are empowered?” Most answer me confidently. “I do.” And quickly add, “for sure I will not take any of the nonsense dished out to me.”
So I ask them a favour, like I do you now reading this. A society can change the way they treat their women by expressing zero tolerance every time a crime is reported or witnessed. By remaining silent we give a licence of consent.
We need to change the identity of women from the role she plays in her men’s life (mother, sister, daughter, and wife) and know her for what she is good at (doctor, engineer, teacher and even homemaker). And soul sister if ever you are stared at, stare back for then you say I too am in control!
(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)