On my eighteenth birthday, my father asked me to choose any two books I wanted as a gift. I picked Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto and a collection of essays by Germaine Greer entitled The Madwoman’s Underclothes. At the time, my often impetuous formulations on the gender debate had little nuance, and my understanding of poverty, privilege, caste and other elements of my country was limited; consequently my feminism was simplistic, and without context.
Regardless, I was proud of my feminist sensibility. As I have said, it was largely shaped by a real person—my gutsy, unconventional mother—but also by the much more abstract world of books by writers like Greer, Gloria Steinem, Virginia Woolf and, much later, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi. That I did not read the great Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s iconoclastic Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) or Sarojini Naidu’s poems until long afterwards was evidence of just how culturally unidimensional I was during my student days.
Back then—on the cusp of the nineties—we debated gender with a certitude that left no room for the slightest self-doubt. Why was the woman expected to take her husband’s name after marriage? Did the institution of marriage even make sense? Why did we bring up our daughters on a Barbie diet and our sons on a staple of mindlessly violent video games? Was waxing our legs and painting our toenails an example of pandering to the male gaze?
This is not to say that these do not remain valid questions in the eternal, and I would argue, universal, debate around what makes us women who we are. I have never understood the scorn with which these issues were, and are, sometimes dismissed as ‘westernized’.
Today, more than two decades later, I still get worked up over these intractable questions. But, in the years of our youthful feminism, we certainly didn’t understand just how different things were outside our circle of comfort for millions of Indian women who were battling brutality of a kind that made some of our concerns seem luxuriously self-indulgent.
As young student activists and feminists, our battles were sincere. We vowed never to accept a ‘Ladies’ seat in the overcrowded university bus. We petitioned the well-heeled St Stephen’s establishment to open its doors to women in the BA Pass programme—no one had thought of questioning why they weren’t allowed, to begin with. We fought with our male friends to get St Stephen’s to open its Residence (hostel accommodation) to female students. Only students-in-residence could run for college president; with no such option for women, the top union post was closed to them. The boys, only half jokingly, argued that women-in-residence would take away their freedom to walk about the corridors half-naked. Dr John Hala, a former principal, had quipped, without the slightest trace of embarrassment, that he’d have to open a maternity ward on campus if he accepted the demand for half the residence blocks to be reserved for women. He’d shown the same brazen chauvinism during one of the institution’s most infamous controversies in 1985 when three male students had smuggled skirts, shorts and panties out of the ladies’ common room and strung them across the cross in the main balcony of the college.
There was a seeming paradox about this. On the one hand, our beloved college was steeped in the best liberal traditions—it encouraged dissent, argument and rebellion. At the same time, it would keep throwing up instances of sexism within its precincts, some subterranean, some overt. Authors and bureaucrats, ministers and artists—some of India’s biggest names had graduated from St Stephen’s. Yet, all these years, the tradition of the ‘Chick Chart’—a public roster listing the ‘sexiest’ women in college—had survived in the name of ritual and custom. Were we going to be ‘cool’ and laugh along, replace it with a list of our own that similarly objectified the men, or protest its very existence?
We remained preoccupied with these battles—big and small. In our little world, we saw ourselves as crusaders for equality, unmindful of an entire universe of gross prejudices that lay outside the boundaries of our socio-economic cocoon. It would be many years before we understood how class and culture complicated the gender discourse.
There was only one issue that did cross the economic and social barrier—sexual violence and abuse. Even though every single girl I knew had her own sordid experience to share, oddly, it was not at the forefront of our heated college conversations. For all our ostensible empowerment, like so many Indian women, we had probably come to accept, albeit subconsciously, that some form of sexual violation was an inevitable consequence of our coming of age. So, day after day, crushed into a corner of a packed public bus, we would alternate between anger and resignation when leery men pawed our breasts or pinched our bottoms.
Some days, we would slap our assaulters, on other days we would push them away or shrug them off. In both situations a voice inside us would suggest that we were lucky—this was not rape or abuse, it was what was (and continues to be) hideously described as ‘eve-teasing’. This was the level to which we had internalized society’s denial of sexual dignity to us. We mentally calculated how bad the abuse could have been and were ‘relieved’ when it didn’t plummet to the absolute depths of depravity.
In the middle-class neighbourhood of South Delhi where I lived, boys who were not yet eighteen would stalk me on their two wheelers, swerving towards me as they whizzed past, an arm outstretched to grab my breasts or pull my hair, laughing and whistling with glee at my visible rage. When I wasn’t feeling combative, I learnt, like many women of my generation, to walk alongside the rows of residential houses instead of on the road, so that I could quickly slip inside an open gate and pretend it was my own home if I needed to duck an especially unpleasant set of goons. Yet, there was no conscious sense of victimhood to our lives. Instead, I suspect, in a peculiar Indian version of boot camp we saw ourselves as hardy women made stronger by the wars we fought against the frequent infiltrations into our private spaces. We came to treat such instances of harassment and abuse as the rites of passage of growing up female in India.
In 1990, around the time I was proudly proclaiming my feminism in college, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote a discomfiting essay in the New York Review of Books that revealed that 100 million women were ‘missing’ from Asia and parts of Africa, most of them in China and India. A few years later, in 1995, a UNICEF report revealed that there were between 40 and 50 million girls and women ‘missing’ from India’s population. Missing was a polite euphemism for gender-driven genocide.
In 2006, the UN published another staggering statistic: every day 7,000 baby girls were aborted or killed right after being born. In other words, a girl was aborted or murdered every twelve seconds in India. If she wasn’t murdered in the womb, sand or tobacco juice was forced down her nostrils when she opened her mouth to cry so that she would choke and die. Renuka Chowdhury, the then Minister for Women and Child Development in the UPA government at the centre, admitted that in the previous two decades alone, 10 million girl children in India had been killed by their parents. She called it a ‘national crisis’.
But, on the sun-soaked lawns of St Stephen’s College, in our well-intentioned if elitist bubble none of this was what we were anxious or outraged about. Our privileged existence channelled our aggressive fight for identity and equality in other directions. Indeed, most of us thought of ourselves as glass-ceiling busters, supremely independent and free of the shackles that women in other countries were ensnared by. I remember the sense of superiority I felt years later when I found a copy of the The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider tucked away in the underwear drawer of my American roommate at Columbia University. It was self-help pap that ostensibly helped you land Mr Right. The book urged women to be ‘easy to be with, but hard to get’. I would watch in astonishment as my super-bright roommate, a post-doctoral history candidate, fought back her urge to phone the attractive man she’d just been out on a date with, because The Rules forbade the woman from making the first move. She had all the usual questions about arranged marriages in India and whether my father was going to bundle me off with some man I’d never met. I didn’t fit a single one of her stereotypes about India, I thought rather smugly to myself. Instead, I sneered at the institutionalized dating rituals that trapped otherwise accomplished women, even in New York, the world’s grittiest city. I would proudly list the many women who had become prime ministers and presidents in South Asia, astonished that Americans had been unable to crack the political glass ceiling in their country.
At Columbia—while filming a documentary about the premium placed on motherhood and the lengths couples were ready to go to for a biological child—I remember standing on the editing room’s radiator in frustrated anger when a classmate from the Midwest demanded that the clips of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem leading an abortion-rights rally be deleted from the finished version of our student project. An otherwise laid-back and quiet sort of guy, he was an adamant pro-lifer who did not believe in a woman’s fundamental right to abortion.
Once again, I retaliated with the Indian example of how we had closed the debate on abortion and women’s reproductive rights long ago, while the so-called developed world still grappled with these issues. My self-righteous outbursts made no space for gender-driven illegal abortions—mass murders really—that were my country’s abiding shame; quite truthfully, in the sliver of India that had been my little universe, I did not even stop to think about them. In effect, I had confused the many paradoxes of India for progressiveness. It would be several years before I would confront the fact that, for a woman, India was one of the most hostile and unequal countries in the world.
This wasn’t to say that the generalizations made about India and the place of women, especially in the West, weren’t infuriatingly distorted or, worse still, lacking in any self-awareness. I sometimes wrestled with competing impulses—rage at the relentless horrors women battled every day and simultaneous impatience at the Western world’s many caricatural notions about us. But this was not before I had undertaken my own journey of ‘unlearning’ and introspection.