How to Pitch The Lighthouse
Hilal Isler
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Sheema Kirmani, Photo credit AFP

A Woman’s Revolution

An female doctor once told me a twisted tale of dubious moral behaviour, which results from an overall positive evolution in educating women in modern India. More women studying to be doctors, for example, leads to a bigger pool of educated, smart and ‘higher’ valued prospective wives. This in turn, has created the unexpected consequence of a further divided society, because in this elite club (in addition to the tradition of caste exclusivity) where doctors tend to marry other doctors, the male doctor has become an even more attractive prospect. His family can, and do, bargain for ever larger dowries from the pool of women’s families! Putting aside the fact that any form of dowry in India is illegal, is this really a model for female emancipation?

I come from a British and European education (which can hardly pretend to be the most inspiring example of men’s behaviour towards women). Yet, as an Indian woman in a patriarchal culture, I’ve also had enough ‘family’ education to know and feel the misogynistic stickiness of treading in honey-coated beliefs. I lived the formative years of my childhood in India with my grandparents, and during this time, I subconsciously learned from the roles of the women of the household; they prepared and cooked all the meals, washed the clothes, swept and cleaned the floors, kept the garden, did the shopping, and so on. When the women were together, there was a lot of fun and laughter. However, it was also implicitly understood that we didn’t go out of the house alone and were at the beckon call of the demands and wishes of the men, which could not be delayed for anything. And while my uncle was taking exams and preparing to go to college to study accountancy, my aunts could only look on longingly, in spite of their own dreams to continue with further studies. At an age when they could have studied and trained for a profession, they were having conversations about arranged marriages.

One perspective of such a traditional set-up is that the sharing of activities (men go to work and provide the resources, women are the homemakers) makes economic sense and plays on the ‘so-called’ differing strengths of men and women. However, women in this situation should not make the mistake of assuming that ‘serving’ their men equates to ‘being of service’ for the bigger picture. I witnessed all the women in my grandparents household evolve into angry, frustrated women, who felt unsupported and even thwarted from achieving their dreams and ambitions.

And in spite of the frustrations, women nevertheless habituate themselves to use the skills they learn, for their survival, whether they continue to support mental, spiritual, physical growth (or not) in later life. In Indian society, as in many other patriarchal societies, one of the primary modes women measure their self-worth by is through food. As in the classical phrase, ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,’ women cook and feed.

In my own family, whenever I go to visit my mother, ‘feeding’ me is one of the first points of conversation she raises. In India, I’ve seen women friends, who are educated and have professional careers, using food to buy their self-worth with family and friends; all other skills become secondary. When the pre-occupation to feed becomes the sole defining measure of our worth, then we need to stop and look deeply at ourselves, because something is seriously amiss!

Though it takes more than a couple of generations, and beyond intellectual, knowledge-based education, to transform the ingrained roles of women in the Indian culture, especially if they believe that the men in their lives ‘don’t have a clue.’

Shifting to an awakened reality of true ‘equality’ requires a revolution! But not a revolution ‘against’ men. It is a revolution within the self, the revolution of a strong spirit and a bold confidence to not care about what others think. This is especially so in relation to family, because the family unit is the strongest influence on our guilt, and each member knows exactly where to push the most intimate buttons to derail the revolution. For example, how many Indian women have I heard tell themselves, ‘My kids will starve if they miss a meal,’ or ‘I have to send a home-cooked lunch for my husband every day,’ or ‘I can’t possibly feed my mother-in-law yesterday’s leftovers.’ These are the ways women have learned to bargain for love, affection and survival. The question is, as individuals, are we ready for a revolution?

I am not promoting that we should stop taking care of our families. A woman’s revolution cannot happen in opposition or isolation from the other half of our planet, i.e. the men! However, feeling constantly duty-bound, frustrated and angry is also not the right attitude. What it takes is to stop blaming and instead look without judgement. It takes being honest with ourselves about how we have unconsciously used our feminine wiles and ways to our advantage. We must accept that we create anger and violence in ourselves: shouting at our children, arguing with a partner, lying or distorting the truth in order to have an advantage in business, holding onto past upsets and hurts, resenting and criticising others’ successes and failures, hating the way our body looks, and so on. The list is endless.

Only when we are able to see and admit those aspects of our femininity that have had, and will have, damaging consequences (including for the men in our lives), can we truly grieve for our previous lack of awareness and learn the lessons to move on. Ultimately, each of us needs to be willing to take 100% responsibility to act. To ‘embody’ our intellectual knowledge into the every-day-ness of our lives, we must let go of what is familiar and habitual. Each action must come from our individual decision to act. We do not necessarily know the outcome. We will make mistakes and fall down. When a child is learning to read and write, we do not scold her for making mistakes. To learn a new language, including the language of revolution, takes time and patience. And this is what we must give to ourselves.