“Don’t start with your feminism-veminism in front of everyone okay, please?”
There were the pearls of wisdom that I was bequeathed just moments before I stepped in to celebrate Raksha Bandhan at a relative’s home – a space crowded with an overwhelming majority of north Indian relatives whom I was meeting after a significant period of time.
To contextualise, I am what they call an ordinary #browngirl with some strong #desi roots. I’ve been lucky enough to be nurtured by parents who’ve raised me to be career driven.
My parents were able to look beyond their own upbringing to be able to raise me the way they did. And so, in my own home, I never encountered much cultural conditioning around what women are supposed to behave like and look like.However, I experienced rude shocks every time I was compelled to revisit the family tree.
So what is a feminist awakening?
No sermons or theory here. I just want to get down to what it means on the micro #ModernIndependentBrownGirl level, as experienced by me and my friends.
It’s when you look at the world around you, and can start to recognise its inequalities, and prejudices not as facts, but as aberrations, created by distorted belief systems.
This is what it can look like –
- You realise that all those girls you were taught to compete against and hate were themselves made to feel insecure and insignificant.
- You can no longer listen to your mother talk ill about her sister-in-law’s lack of cooking skills.
- You develop a distinct distaste for your aunt’s chatter about how the next door neighbour’s daughter will most probably end up “getting pregnant” if she continues hanging around with boys all the time.
- You know there’s something wrong in your uncle’s refusal to correct his son when he bad-mouths a girl he knows.
- You feel disturbed at the thought of your cousin telling you that her father encourages her brother to go out there and “live his best life” while she has her phone checked for “getting dirty messages from boys”.
The list can go on. But you get the drill.
As an early-twenty-something who’d like to believe that she’s reached somewhere on her feminist awakening journey, it can be really difficult and infuriating to engage with people who refuse to see their problematic notions for what they really are. Women older than me tell me that it gets easier as you grow older, because you learn how to choose your battles, speak up where necessary, focus on your own life and let your choices speak for themselves.
Maybe I will get there someday, but for now, the question I am asking is this.
What do you do when so much of what you stand against is reflected in your own family?
Step 1: Suffer in silence
Let’s face it. We’ve all done it.
To my aunt who asked me to keep my feminism at bay in front of the khaandaan, I said exactly nothing.
Once we were done with the niceties and everybody ran out of their share of “aur bataos”, the conversation quickly steered towards casual jokes and jovial desi family banter. (read: sexist jokes and casual body shaming serenades).
I didn’t break into a feminist sermon when an uncle tried feeding me a plate of laddoos because he thought that just one would not be sufficient for my seemingly large appetite.
I laughed it off and said I wasn’t hungry.
I didn’t preach “my feminism-veminism” when a younger cousin felt that he was qualified enough to comment on the futility of my having a career at this point in life.
Remember that scene in the film Dil Dhadakne Do when Ayesha Mehra (Priyanka Chopra) has her mother-in-law interrupt her as she speaks about the challenges her family business is currently facing? While being discouraged by her husband for the same. Remember her reaction? It was a big old nothing.
Or that time when her mother asks her to toughen up and power through her marriage despite being disrespected multiple times.
Was I bad feminist for not trying to correct them? Was Ayesha a bad feminist for putting her family’s reputation above her own mental health?
Step 2: Use empathy to justify your timidity
After suffering in silence and feeling bad for doing so, my mind wanted to justify why it was ok for me to say nothing. Here is what it came up with.
“They probably mean well.”
When my aunt suggested I keep quiet every time something problematic surfaces, she was trying to help me avoid conflict. The family was, after all, getting together after a significantly long time and it didn’t make sense to rile things up and preach about something I’m still trying to learn. Besides, people don’t change because they are lectured to.
When my uncle asked me to eat a plateful of laddoos, he was coming from a long history of people thinking that body shaming is funny, or assuming that by pointing out someone’s body type and shaming them, you are motivating them to “better” themselves.
Body shaming isn’t right. But neither would it have been right to publicly shame him in turn for holding problematic notions about women.
You see the vicious cycle here?
2. Ease of getting along
It’s easier to pretend to laugh at problematic jokes than engage with them and make them understand why they’re not really funny. It’s easier to nod along at “aaj kal toh jhande lagane ka fashion chal gaya hai” then actually recognise and call out those red flags instead.
Step 3: Avoid
I left the said relative’s house with a massive headache and a flashback of all those times I had requested my mother to let me stay away from family gatherings.
When I was younger, there was always a resistance and slight unhappiness that would come over me the moment I was informed of an extended family gathering. For reasons unknown to me (until this Raksha Bandhan gathering) I have tried to avoid these minor get-togethers for as long as I can remember.
And so, avoidance became my last resort, after I had lost all faith in my capability to deal with my own family.
And then, I was introduced to a slight glimmer of hope.
How not to fall into old patterns 101
Somewhere between all that casual sexism cacophony, an uncle joked about how his wife could no longer wear her pre-lockdown jeans. At that moment, a tiny eight year old cousin asked him, “Why?”
And that’s how I learnt the power of the inconspicuous “why?”
Maybe the next time I’m being questioned about being a little too devoted to my career I’ll probably just slip in a casual “Why not?” and watch them squirm as they try to explain their sexism.
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