Despite all the roadblocks that the women’s movement in India has faced, the lack of solidarity continues to be the one that divides and destroys the movement. It would be cautious to remember that even Apartheid succeeded at oppressing people of colour and institutionalised racism by creating divide among the oppressed. Will we let division conquer the women’s movement as well?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
When I was just a little girl, I asked my grandmother about her wedding. She told me she was fifteen when she was married and while even at the ripe old age of seven that horrified me, I pretended to understand that it was just a different time and things like that were normal. It’s all good. I asked her, in my infinite naivety, how come she decided to marry so young, and in response she told me the most horrifying story about her friend Surmeet.
My grandmother and Surmeet were best friends and their families, given that they grew up in the late 20s, were rather liberal for the time. They were both taught to read and write, they weren’t confined to kitchens and linen rooms and they were allowed to step outside the boundary of their homes. One day, Surmeet told my grandmother that her marriage had been fixed and the man was a farmer at a nearby village. My grandmother was understandably confused because to her understanding they were both still young girls but being a girl in the 20s must have been different because they both accepted what would happen in less than a day. Soon enough, Surmeet was married and she left.
Less than a week later, Surmeet was sent back in shame with deep burns on both her hands rendering her hands essentially unusable for years.
My grandmother, understandably horrified and concerned about her friend, went to Surmeet to ask her what had happened. A tearful young bride, Surmeet, told her that when her mother-in-law and husband realised that she could not cook, they poured hot oil onto a pan and forced her hands onto it. A woman who can’t cook, after all, doesn’t deserve her hands. Surmeet made my grandmother promise that she would start learning to cook immediately so this would never happen to her, and my grandmother understandably scared shitless did so immediately. My grandmother grew up without a mother so she asked Surmeet to tell her mom to help instead, Surmeet’s mother touched by their concern for one another, taught my grandmother how to cook.
A year later my grandfather, stationed at a unit near my grandmother’s home, saw her and fell in love, and she on her end, being amenable to his job and social appearance, asked him the one question that truly mattered to her in terms of matrimony.
“*If I don’t know how to cook something, will you burn my hands?”
He said no, she said yes, they lived happily ever after and had many, many, *many* children together. With that nonchalantly-told story, my grandmother damaged my tiny, innocent, seven-year old heart forever…and I will always be grateful to her for it because she taught me, without actual burns, the most important lesson in solidarity I would ever learn.
Recognize and respect the fucking struggle.
My grandmother and Surmeet may as well have been sister suffragettes because they were doing what you do when you are handed a mapped-out destiny instead of a birth-certificate when you are born. For whatever reason, be it the colour of your skin or the shape of your genitals or the place where you were born, injustice all stinks the same, and powerlessness helps each other cope. The only way Surmeet knew to protect my grandmother from handburning was to ensure she learnt to cook, and the only thing my grandmother wanted in a man is that he wouldn’t burn her and I think not wanting to be burnt is a pretty fair priority.
I feel I wouldn’t have acted the way they did. When i first heard the story i thought to myself, why would I even get married, and why would I? I was born knowing i would be educated well, qualified to work and support myself with my own money, and marry eventually for social-validation of love. I believed this very strongly when i was seven, even more belligerently when i was 14, and almost not at all now. Now I know that in their position I don’t know what I would have done, because while I can study every aspect of that time I cannot apply to myself all of it. History is not asking me to choose, it’s asking me to study and realize I cannot relate to living as they did because I don’t have to, I certainly cannot say what I would have done in their position. I can only understand it because I was born into a social circumstance that it took many burnt hands, bodies and spirits to facilitate. This seems so easy to understand when it’s applied to Surmeet and my grandmother but why is it to hard when it comes to the woman who sat next to me on the bus yesterday. I’ve always thought that I am too evolved to engage in a concept as petty as woman-eat-woman, and for a large part I am. Contrary to what may appear of my seemingly-opinionated demeanor I am a proponent of balanced opinions and absolutely no hatred. I’m not blameless I’ve acted out against women before, even engaged in petty rivalry and unnecessary judgement but it has always left a bad taste in my mouth, and even when I have not succeeded I have always tried to do better with other women. I don’t know why we were taught to behave like this. Why we were taught to approach other women with insecurity instead of the wonder we reserve for potentially sexual engagements. Of course I understand how this happened, I understand how pitting one woman against another for the office or the man is a deliberate attempt to keep women from noticing there is more than one spot available and not just, more than one dream available.
We are not as threatened by differences as we are by similarities. I see another quirky-cute-smart- confident woman and I think sometimes, what if I don’t beat her, will she get my dreams? And then, I take a step forward. I go talk to her. I go talk to her until i stop feeling threatened and recognise the things there are to admire in her. The things that the world would be robbed of if i tried to undercut her because of my insecurity. The essence of competition is to bring out the best quality in each competitor, not to diminish it by allowing insecurity to rule the roost and extinguish things of value. Being able to respect a woman who threatens you is ultimately a form of self-respect, we’re only threatened when we recognise in another the ability to compete for what is ours, the higher the quality of competitors, the better it ought to make you feel about yourself.
And sometimes we feel threatened by people who just don’t share our dreams at all. Women who judge other women for wearing make up or not wanting a job, for flaunting a body or not, for being fat or thin. Women who insist they aren’t like other women and then list a bunch of qualities that other women were never precluded from. Women who think being intelligent makes them not like other women. All of this, it stinks. If someone different makes you feel superior, you should reassess how you see the world. If someone different makes you feel uncomfortable, you should reassess your eyes because as much as we would like to be able to say with certainty what we would do in the life of another, we cannot say, we can only understand.
But ultimately I see there is a final frontier to all this. I have to extend my feelings even to the women who are talking about me behind my back and staring at me in the street as if I am in the wrong world and it is hard. It was hardest when I moved to this place recently. This tiny town lodged in the past where there is a tag attached to my head evidently that reads does not belong here and everywhere I went I heard whispers follow, and everyone i met asked me questions as if i were a specimen and not a person, where i had to defend on a daily basis why I, a woman, was behaving like this to women who just didn’t understand, and were determined to believe I was a bad person because I had sex with more than one person (and how) and stated my opinions outright. I didn’t even understand why I had to defend the obvious amid stares of distaste and disapproval, and I didn’t. I don’t need to defend myself.
But I didn’t attack them either. I befriended them. Against all odds, against all perception, we have relationships with one another within which our differences are established reality which sometimes causes something as healthy as an argument and sometimes something as toxic as the defamation of one woman by another.
And you know what.
You can do it.
I respect your right to dislike me, and I will fight alongside you nonetheless because I don’t want to see your hands get burnt, and if they must I will burn mine right alongside even as your roll your eyes at me for just doing anything to make a point because I can’t accept that I could be wrong. You can believe that about me. I can believe that you are stubborn and refuse to evolve. We can believe this about each other. Because I will recognize and respect your struggle, and when you explain to me that wearing glittery eyeliner to class is part of your struggle against your parents for freedom, as I try to teach you the only feminist text in our syllabus, I will respect you.
I will hold onto my naivety.
I will not let hate win.
If they couldn’t break us when they burnt us, they cannot break us because I don’t like your pink eyeliner. Unless you let them.