In Kool Kanya’s theme of the month ﹘ Feminist In Progress ﹘ we decode the nitty-gritties of practising feminism laden with imperfections.
Being a good sister and being a feminist have a lot in common.
When I was younger (think 90s and early 2000s), I hated having sisters. We fought all the time; from the moment we were threatened to wake up to our walk till the bus stop, till we finally tired out and fell asleep. And sometimes, even in our dreams. We were often jealous of each other. We would get annoyed when one got more attention than the other. And we all felt alone in our misery.
I have five sisters. I grew up with a lot more. Some friends at school used to jest, “Vandana’s family has taken the sole responsibility to even out India’s sex ratio.” On paper, I have one sibling, but that is only because to the world, being born to the same parent(s) defines who you can call a sibling. But I grew up in a joint family and a very close extended family, so to me, the idea of ‘cousin’ didn’t exist. They were all my sisters. They are my sisters. My aunt’s daughter who grew up calling my mother ‘maa’; the one who looks like a carbon copy of me; the one I liked to match all my clothes with; the one I sang John Mayer songs to as lullabies, and the one who loves me more than any other sister could.
But this is all from the perspective of a 30-year-old me. The 13-year-old me is probably angry at something K said, or annoyed that she has to look after D and V. She’s a few years away from realising what sisterhood can look like — support, love, and acceptance.
This is my love letter to sisterhood and to my sisters, who have shaped so much of who I am today.
Sisterhood and feminism
These two words made their way into my lexicon very close to each other. I grew up in a small town in the 90s, which wasn’t exactly a bustling hub for revolutionary ideas. Though I read the words in a dictionary (because I was a dictionary-reading nerd), that is all they were to me. And even though I knew the definitions, I couldn’t visualise them.
They weren’t like ‘childhood’, which was the theme of every book I grew up reading, or like ‘femininity’, which everyone around me prayed I’d develop.
But I did eventually learn what sisterhood and feminism meant and how they fed each other, and it would have been impossible for me to understand one without grasping the other. Both are rooted in solidarity, empathy, and sharing a bond. Without connecting with and understanding it, there is no fight for equal rights. Practising one means practising the other.
Here is what having sisters has taught me about feminism.
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I cannot (and don’t have to) fight alone
The adults in our house were oddly well-synched. When facing us sisters, they always appeared as one solid unit. While my sisters and I were like princely states ﹘ fighting amongst ourselves ﹘ the parents were the colonisers, sweeping in to shut us all down.
That was, until, the day I wanted to go on a school trip.
My parents were swift with a blanket ‘no’. But K said that it would be good for me. D followed up with how important it is to make friends. V started negotiating the terms for this trip (we’ll make our beds and I’ll drink daal every day), M just stood there in solidarity (she was too little). And eventually, after a lot of drama and begging, we won.
Denying one meant denying us all
When my sister first told my parents that she wanted to marry her boyfriend, they flipped in the classic Indian way, where my dad wouldn’t stop shouting and my mum refused to speak. By this point, all of us sisters were very close, and hurting one meant hurting all of us. So while K was being denied the right to her choice of a romantic partner, the rest of us were equally heartbroken. We couldn’t let her give up. Because if she couldn’t have it, could any of us? And if we did, would it be fair? Reinforcements were called in; allies were assembled. Several months passed before they gave in, and K was happily married.
I want to create more opportunities for them
K rallied for me to study fashion communication. I did my best to help D study textile design. All five of us helped V bake and pack 900 cookies over a week to help start her bakery business last Diwali. When G says she wants to become a detective, we try to find her books to read and get inspired by. When M says she’s unsure about her future, we try to brainstorm the what, the where, and the how of possibilities.
We want the other to have a shot at success and we all try our best to help.
Sometimes, people make mistakes
What do you do when someone you love and support does something you can’t get behind? By that, I don’t mean something like Louis CK masturbating in front of non-consenting women. I mean something like petty stealing. Or accidentally saying something racist, casteist, or Islamophobic.
A lot of people confuse unconditional support with absolution. But that is not true. Part of the job of a support system is to help the other grow and become a better person. As sisters, we try to create a space where each of us feels safe sharing a vulnerability or a mistake we might have made. We trust one another in that we’ll be guided towards a solution. Making a mistake shouldn’t derail your life or what you believe in. If you acknowledge it and make amends, you are setting an example that people can learn and change.
We’re not rivals. We are teammates
Women have been sold the myth of ‘aurat hi aurat ki dushman hoti hai’ for way too long, and when you add sibling rivalry into the mix, it’s a toxic mess. Sibling rivalry only exists, in my humble opinion (me, not being a psychologist or a parent), because they have to fight one another for the validation, attention, or love of a parent. Our parents did the best they could. But we were young and silly. I was sick a lot and my sister was loud and demanding, so each one felt like the other was getting more attention or love.
Once we overcame that need to get validation from our parents, the rivalry stopped almost instantly.
Instead of turning to our overworked and under-rested parents to make us feel safe and supported, we started doing it for each other. We were younger, we had similar experiences, we understood each other better. We no longer had to fight for the same, limited resource, but help each other get it.
It’s my job to educate them about feminism, equality, and rights
My grandfather instilled in me a love for walking. I’m convinced that my father’s flair for storytelling is the reason behind my writing prowess. From my mother, I took some stubbornness and an iron will. From my aunt B, I try to learn dedication. Growing up in a family as big as ours has a lot of pros and cons. But the best thing it offers is a chance to learn from each member.
When M said to me that she wanted to be like me, I knew exactly what she meant. She didn’t want to be an underpaid writer, on the cusp of 30, but a willful, takes-shit-from-no-one, loving sister who has built a life on her own terms. And I’ve worked hard at this life not just for myself, but for my sisters as well.
I want to tell them that they are worth more than what they’ve been led to believe. That their ambition can go higher or lower and it wouldn’t reduce their worth. I want them to know that they have rights, not just as women or Indians but as human beings born into this world, that no one can take from them. And that these rights come with the responsibility to uphold them for everyone else. I want to tell them that this is what being a feminist is all about.
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