Category Archives: gender roles

Why feminists make great mums.

We, women and men, who identify ourselves as feminists, stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us. Over the weekend, everyone on my Twitter has more or less told everyone else what feminism means. Particularly, comedian Tanmay Bhat, and actress/model Lisa Haydon.

One boldly declared feminism meant equal rights for all (*eyeroll* this is why men talking about feminism should have a proper feminist friend, or read a book) and the other denied being a feminist (this one also should read a book). While I eyerolled my way to a mini galaxy at the former’s well-intentioned but misinformed opinion, I nearly went into a deep spiral of sighing surrender at what Haydon had to say. Deniers of feminism, then, wound me the most.

Some day, Haydon said, she wants to have children and make her husband dinner, and thereby not be a career feminist.

First things first: I have absolutely no clue what a career feminist is. Why hasn’t someone told me that’s possible? Does it pay well? Second, and more importantly, now that I have kids must I regretfully hang up my tag and resign myself to…, umm what exactly? It’s what Haydon’s denial seems to suggest. And to be honest, I will give her misunderstanding some credit.

When I was pregnant with my first child, in my foolish battle over choosing to go with my biological clock over my ideals of feminism, I had decided that I was a failed feminist. It didn’t matter that I had read Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience and imbibed all she had to say about motherhood as one of society’s indestructible constructs.  When I heard my foetus’s heart beat for the first time, it was all I could do to not soar and cry at the same time. What can any feminist get done when all she has time for is constantly change nappies and be the exemplification of all that patriarchy has wrought into the shape it considers mother?

I obsessed over this till I went back to Rich and remembered the one thing that had made all the difference in the way I viewed my own ideas for motherhood and, indeed, my own mother, much before I had children.

Early in this landmark book, published in 1976, Rich says, “Institutionalised motherhood demands of women maternal ‘instinct’ rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realisation, relation to others rather than the creation of self. Motherhood is ‘sacred’ as long as its offspring are legitimate.”

This was, and always will be a life changer for me, especially what it considers sacred. But that’s a discussion for another day. When you realise what is demanded of you as a mother is someone else’s idea of it, the chains drop away. You observe your own experience, as Rich did, and mould it into something powerful, as Haydon has the opportunity to do, if only she looked at her life and saw that everything she can do today – from choosing to have sex with anyone and not having a baby to choosing to wanting to get married and be allowed to have a baby, cook, keep house. Contraception? Thank you, first-wave feminism. Want to cook dinner for your husband and not feel like you’re a slave? Thank you, third-wave feminism.

As a single mother, my children’s first role model is me. It can be débated if I’m an ideal one but the fact remains they see me do all the “man work”  as well as the “woman work”. Carry a 30kg sleeping 7 y. o. up two flights of stairs? I’m your woman. Cook them a loving, fun breakfast? Yessiree, feminist mum to the rescue. Cuss on the road because someone cuts you off dangerously? Yep, I’m right here. And have 2.5 year old who insists on wearing his sister’s pink dress to a birthday party? Well,  do what I do and let him. This last detail has been the one defining factor for my life as a mother who lives feminism. This attempt to break down gender binaries that patriarchy has so deeply dyed us with. My son is six now and has his own wardrobe of “girls”  clothing, albeit a tiny one and believes women and men can wear whatever they choose to. Even though not many people do. But what he knows better than knowing that you can choose to wear what you want is that what someone wears is not your business. My daughter, who is a year older than him at 7, finds herself asking me at least once a day if there are women this or women that. If there’s a bunch of men doing something, like playing football, I find myself googling a women’s football match for her to get a glimpse of because she’s asked me who the best women footballers are.

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There’s no one defining moment that a mother can claim to be a turning point in her parenting role as a feminist. It’s a series of incidents and conversations. The day a boy pushed my little girl aside and said only boys can climb trees, not girls. Or the day my little boy was teased for crying broken-heartedly when a couple of his friends beheaded a snail. In my households, and I am happy to say in those of many of my friends, these incidents become a rife ground to dispel the notions of gender roles, and patriarchal values.

My response has always been one of rationale, of challenging what my kids have been told. “Well, what do you need for climbing trees,” I ask her. “Strong hands and legs,” she says. “And do you have them,” I ask. “Yes,” she says. I don’t draw conclusions after that. It’s a simple enough road for a seven-year-old to walk down and conclude that her sex doesn’t get in the way of climbing trees. Strength does.

 

I keep going to back to Rich’s book because, more than any other manual on how to be a mother, Of Woman Born teaches you the best. It teaches you that feminist mothers raise strong children, they raise children that have compassion and a real world-view untainted by gender politics of power at home. And it all begins at home, doesn’t it? Feminist mothers in loving marriages teach children that men and women can work together, that a feminist fight is a combined fight, not one that a woman carries alone. And for that reasons alone, you, my dear feminist-mum-who-cooks-her-husband-dinner would have a raised a child that is better than the one raised by a mother who denies her feminism.

A version of this was commissioned by Buzzfeed India and appeared here.

 

 

Even if you’ve been hit just once

The other day I saw a man speak very rudely to a woman at a supermarket. There were other people watching but that didn’t stop the man from being rude and mean to his wife. I couldn’t understand the language they spoke but their bodies and expressions spoke a lot louder than their words. In the end, when it looked like it was dying down, the woman grabbed the shopping cart jerkily and started to walk away. The husband, however, took that as an insult and raised his hand as if to hit her. Suddenly, becoming aware of his surroundings, he dropped his hand without striking and she, after flinching instinctively, walked away quickly, face red in embarrassment and, perhaps, rage.
This took me back to a place more than 10 years ago where I had gone to Rajasthani neighbour’s house. She had invited me over so I could get henna put on my hands, she specialized in it. There were other women and my turn finally came. Midway, her husband returned home and their toddler son went up to him for attention or whatever. He gave him a rude shove, the kid fell over, took it in his stride and ran around naked as he was doing before. And in five minutes, he went back to his father only to be rewarded by a slap across his face. The kid started bawling. The husband said something to his wife, even though his mother and sister were hanging around, about taking care of the kid. She, ‘modest’ in her veil, didn’t raise her head from what she was doing and said something quietly back. He responded. She kept quiet. In a burst of controlled temper, he walked up to her, took his slippers off and started beating her with one. To say that I was outraged and frozen in shock would be an understatement. Nothing prepares you for that. What was more horrifying is that this woman didn’t budge or raise her hand or cower to protect herself. She just sat there taking in the beating, not letting go of my hand on which she was giving way to her art. When he stopped and threw away his weapon in disgust and walked away, she mutely continued painting intricate designs on my hand. All I could see was the top of her head. And then, I saw silent tears of humiliation splashing her sari, wetting the soft cotton.
In an earlier relationship in my life, there were a couple of instances where I had been hit. I hit back too but it’s not half as effective when the guy is taller and stronger than you. Rage alone is not enough to do someone serious damage.
I grew up, like a lot of Indian kids, getting a sound smacking every once in a while. While my brother got it worse, I think, he now lives with having made complete peace with it. I, on the other hand, have never been able to do that. I believe a lot of the anger that still resides in me comes from there. I can’t quite tell. Maybe I am just discontent as a person, maybe I make excuses for my temper, I don’t know. But the truth is I have a pretty nasty temper. And on more than one stubborn occasion I’ve had to use a couple of hard smacks on my nearly-three-year old daughter (hands and legs only) to discipline or … dare I use the word… punish. I believe she’s a bit immune now and I worry seeing that. And it really hurts to see her flinch when I move suddenly in tense moments. And my brother, enlighteningly once said, “If physical abuse damaged you so much, then you wouldn’t as much touch your kid in a violent manner.” I felt chastised and saw he had a point. But then recently, it has dawned on me that it could have gone either way. Just like anything else – some people swear they’ll never beat their kids; others perpetrate the violence. As of now, unwittingly, I’ve chosen to do the latter.
Ever since this realization hit and I put my finger on my ill-inherited temper (my grandmum – who I love to bits – was a terror to my mum and her siblings. There are stories of her punishing them by placing a steel spatula heated over a flame on their legs, for lying to her) I have been looking at ways to change. And I lasted a good three weeks or more before the control broke and my daughter got a whack from me for scribbling all over the walls in my hall with crayons. She’s done it more times than I can count and I know all kids do it. But limits are limits. I’ve put her away in corners, not given her crayons for weeks, have spoken to her about it more times than I care to remember but nothing makes an impact. So I am left to assume that this bit of mischief holds so much wonder for her that she can’t resist. And at some point I may have killed some creative spirit but I hope not. If I have, I am not going to think about it now.
But I digress. In an earlier post, I said I much prefer a fist fight as a resolution to a problem than a silly cold war, if a confrontation and spilling of painful truths is not an option. It seems a bit immature but I find it the easiest way to get rid of all the negativity hanging around. When I wrote that post, I was convinced it was the way to go. But soon it began eating at me, and I wondered how someone with a brain and a thought process could prefer such a base way of dealing with things. How can someone who wants to get rid of the violence in her system prefer this way? How can someone who has an appreciation of beautiful things prefer this instinctual, violent way of handling a situation? I got no answers. I left it alone so that I could come to it later.
And today, while talking to someone, this whole violence thing came up and I was told, “If you’ve been hit more than a couple of times, by different people then it’s because it’s your fault.” I am a little offended. I know I drive people up the wall. I can be very exasperating, I’ve recently realised. But does that allow the blame to fall on my shoulders? (I use I and my in a general sense. I am talking about the person who is at the receiving end of any kind of domestic violence.)
Premeditated hitting is one thing, but can a person be faulted for the being hit in the heat of an argument? I don’t think so. I believe no matter how annoying someone is, no matter how exasperating, domestic abuse is not the victim’s fault. Just like rape or molestation. So when this came from someone tremendously close, I was forced to examine exactly why the person was saying this. I see that sometimes people will snap but what is it that makes some people walk away from a situation and some hit back?
As a means of control, physical violence works. It builds tremendous resentment and hate in the victim, but over time, it is an effective way of getting instant obedience. Abused women have been known to snap after years of being beaten and kill their partners. Abused children have been known to develop deviant personalities. Recently, I was having this conversation with my really wise sister in law and she said she had never been beaten by her parents, or even yelled at. And for me that’s a miracle because she’s so well turned out – sorted, organised, patient, never has a mean word to say about anyone, gentle and kind. How, then, did her parents manage to discipline her? Soon, she went on to say that her elder sister now whacks her son once in a while when he gets completely out of hand. And my sister in law and her parents are amazed that she does it. “Where is that coming from,” she said aloud, completely lost for an answer.
Indeed, where does this natural violence come from? And how does one undo the damage it has caused?

An eye for an eye. Then let’s go shopping for glasses together.

Every time someone has said women are their own worst enemy, I’ve shaken my head in vehement disagreement. Every time someone’s said (usually a woman) that men are “lessy bitchy, more honest and less complicated” I’ve found arguments to counter each of those adjectives. I’ve quoted mother-daughter relationships; I’ve flaunted the example of my aunt who raised two stunningly-behaved boys with the express intention of making comfortable the lives of the women these boys would eventually choose to be with. My biggest example has been the shining picture of all those brave, hurt naked women protesting against the army in Manipur after the rape-torture-murder of Thangjam Manorama. What exemplifies better the fact that we are all sisters than mostly middle-aged, probably not very educated, women shedding clothes and any vanity to create a voice for the wrong done to one of theirs?
But over the last year, that conviction has defeated me more than a couple of times. I find the reason women need men, will always be dependent on them – apart from the usual, natural ones — and claim to have better friendships with them is because they are willing to first blame a woman in any situation, even if there is a man involved and in a logical, non-PMSing world you can see that he is as much at fault, if not more.
I am no saint: I’ve been guilty of it myself, squarely blaming a woman in the situation rather than seeing the contributions of other people involved, generally speaking. But that was before I got my wits around things, a few years ago. Ever since, especially if there’s a man involved, I’ve found that while I see how both have contributed to the situation, I do more or less successfully condone both their behaviours; or condemn, as the case may be. (That said, I am no one to condemn or condone but I am not sure what other word I can use without diluting the sense of what I am trying to say.)
Even when it comes to kids, I find other women will first question the mother’s integrity, involvement and love when they perceive a kid is uncared for or misbehaving. I remember a woman asking my then not-yet two-year-old, because her nails were a little overgrown, “You haven’t cut your nails? Mama doesn’t cut them for you?” Maybe I am being oversensitive but I took that as a subtle dig at me. Surely, my young daughter can’t have answered that question, so perhaps it was meant for me. And typically, this is from a mother who is insanely involved in the lives of her kids, with rarely an interest outside her own offspring. Most women with other interests wouldn’t worry about slightly overgrown nails too much, I believe. Blame the guy once in a while, ladies. Remember how difficult it is for you to do everything. It’s the same for the other girl.
Or for that matter, how liberally mothers and sisters will blame the woman their son/brother is married to for any behaviour that they don’t approve of. What makes them think their boy has suddenly lost the ability to think independently? He could equally be responsible for that really ugly – perhaps, cheap? — sari that he gifts them or crappy things that he says. Why call the woman he is married to controlling? (If you ask me, I  have so much faith in women that I think men’d do loads better to be controlled some.)
Look at situations where women are the boss. Women subordinates will bitch and moan about every aspect of her being – her fashion sense (or the lack of it), her perceived inability to run a team, probably her husband and kids too, and not to mention what they see as favouritism to a male colleague. I don’t see these women complaining when a male boss favours them over men colleagues. Neither do I see them nitpicking at his mismatched shoes and belt or his dirty fingernails. Heaven forbid the otherwise well-dressed woman boss who walks in with cracked heels or chipped nail paint.
In a complex, messy situation, involving both the sexes, the thin veil of civility and politeness will necessarily be worn when two women confront each other in front of a man. (I am talking about reasonably intelligent women who sadly believe calm words are stronger than fists. You might come across as more sophisticated with the former but a fistfight is immensely satisfying. You should try it sometime, girls.) Take the man away and it’s likely to go two ways. Either they’ll be cold and ignore each others existence. Good way to go, I think, but leaves you with no closure and an avenue to constantly bitch about yet another chick. Or they’ll call each other words, enlist their own army and cry war. This is good also. Because you aren’t repressing any of the anger or hurt that you are feeling. And a bitching gang-bang always makes you feel superior, right? Except, this approach requires you to be prepared for defeat – either by the same coin or by silence. Either way, you have a war-ravaged entity to clean up afterwards.
My sympathies will always lie with the woman. Always. It’s a promise I made to myself in my effort to create the sisterhood that I see around me. A sisterhood that I see is in the same existential pain as me.  This incessant need to retain their bodies according to an ideal of beauty, the crazy race to be a better mother, a better sister, a better girlfriend, a better everything, not just a good something. Always better in comparison to someone else.
I may not like her, I may see through her and I may tell her exactly what she is but if she’s been wronged, then that’s where my sympathies will lie.
I have tried to understand what it is that makes us so ridiculously competitive in the minutiae of our lives. Is it because the majority of us don’t play sport seriously? Yeah, I know it sounds silly, but think about it. Playing sport or following it passionately builds an attitude of resilience, partnership and appreciating someone exactly like you. It gives you that famous spirit of being a good loser. And you’ll admit most women are sore losers for most their lives. Or until they reach their 40s and have accepted themselves. Sport I believe gives you a little more than your little world to focus on.
Is it because we are, since childhood, encouraged in subtle ways to compete against everything – including the boys? For affection, attention and approval? Is it because we are taught we are “little princesses” but then we grow up and find out the princesses are common as pimples? That we have crooked teeth, bad hair and not the greatest sense of humour when we are out fraternizing with other princesses?
At risk of sounding like a violent person, which I probably am, I’d much rather sock someone’s nose in, receive a black eye, be bereft of fistfuls of hair and leave scratch marks on someone else’s pretty face than war coldly.
I, a feminist, say this sadly, in the end. Ladies: 0, Gents: 10

A little man, some woman, all me.

So I’ve been tagged by two people on the same tag. The very lovely Quicksilver! and the thoughtful Goofy Momma.
The tag is, basically, this.
I am to write down 10 things that people of my gender cannot do/should not do/have never done.
This is a tough one to tag me with because, as my regular readers (all five point three of you) will know the lines in my head that divide things are pretty blurry. My good and bad distinctions, my girl-boy differences and my too much-too little demarcations are pretty fuzzy. So I am going attempt this after having given it a full week of intermittent thought. You’ve been warned. Don’t you judge me on this.
I also strongly believe (and this is something that’s like breathing to me, not something I’ve learnt) that there are no clear gender roles. There is nothing a man can do (which is not biological or involves walking around bare-chested in public) which a woman can’t or shouldn’t do. That we refrain from doing certain things only points to our wisdom. So tolerate me if you think these are not typically ‘male’ things. This is just my classification of what I think are men’s prerogatives, usually. 
Here’s my list, then. 
1) I watch sport more than once in four years. At the risk of getting beaten up by my sisters, most women who have been tweeting, FBing and living football this last month, have been doing it only during the World Cup. If I have TV that’s not been taken over by someone in the family, I watch sport that doesn’t necessarily involve 20 nations. 
2) I know my cars. Really well. 
3) This might be complicated, so bear with me. Men, notice how you put a tee shirt on? Women, do the same thing. And if you have access to each other dressing or undressing, observe how they do it. See a difference? Yes. At least, for most of you. 
I don’t wear tee shirts like a lot of women do. I don’t put it over my head first, then poke one arm through, followed by the other. I pull it on to both arms first and then pull it down over my head. Same thing when I take it off. I tend to cross my arms in front of me and pull it off in one shot. 
Now that you know my dressing habits, may be I should tell you how I shave. 
4) I can shop for the most important things in life in half an hour flat. And I don’t need to “see what’s in Nalli’s or hop over to Zara for one last look.” Whether it’s a wedding sari, precious jewellery or a toy for the kids, half an hour is a lot of time for me.
5) If I need something I’ll buy it. I won’t go back home to pick up a charger I left home or take a detour to office to pick my spare up if I am in a hurry or am travelling or something. I’ll just stop somewhere and buy a third. 
6) I always shake hands when I meet someone new. 
7) I can catch really well. If something’s thrown to me, at me, I can almost always catch it without dropping. With one hand, with two hands, stretching my hand way out, any way. 
8) I like a little of the feminine in my men. I don’t now how that figures here. (I am not going to qualify this one till someone explicitly asks me to, okay? Okay.) 
9) I don’t care about walking in the sun or getting my hair messed up in bed. 
10) I always offer to pay for a meal, first. Not just my share, but all of it. I have no issues with that. 
That took some effort. Quicksilver, Momma, you both will pay. I vow revenge. But meanwhile, here’s someone breaking all kinds of stereotypes. He’s cute, to boot. (Thanks, @LailaNasseri for the link.)