As women become more aware of our rights, it becomes harder for society to control our behaviour through the law and so it is done socially. It’s okay if you have sex, it’s okay if you drink, it’s okay if you are divorced, it’s okay if you are ambitious but just don’t talk about it. The reason we can write about the “secret lives of women” is that we are actively discouraged from having open lives.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I’ve been called a slut many times in my life. I mean, so what, right? Every woman under the sun has probably been called a slut. We deem women sluts for the things they wear, say, do or the places they go and who they go there with. It’s impossible, with this level of scrutiny, for women to not be sluts. In my case though, I’d say that on a socio-normative level their description was not entirely inaccurate (although it was not scientifically exact). I am the woman they describe when they say “loose character”. My mother often tells me, lovingly might I add, that it is fortunate I took on the business of finding love for myself because on the arranged marriage market I’m like a rotten egg. Well, she didn’t say rotten egg exactly. The essence is that my social and marital value is quite poor.
The problem is not that I drink or smoke. It’s not that I get in fights (and handcuffs) with cops. It’s not that I have had multiple partners in life (and with relish might I add). It’s not that I don’t have an “until marriage/children” approach to my career or that I will not only make it a goal to make more money than my husband, I’ll make it a production just to make a point. (Don’t worry, this comment doesn’t hurt my husband’s feelings, he knows who he married and I compensate by being really funny.) It’s not that I like to live alone or that I really take the fest out of festivity. It’s not that I go to bars alone and walk the streets in the middle of the night. It’s not that I date and will still occasionally flip through a dating app on a lazy Sunday. It’s not that I am all over feminism like I am over feta and sourdough bread.
It’s none of that.
It’s that I won’t shut up about it.
Freedom is an interesting concept when you are a woman. Freedom is not defined by law (which while restrictive, at least makes sense to the goal of coexisting as a species) but when you are a woman, it is presented as a conditional behaviour-based privilege. It’s that thing when your parents tell you they let you get your own apartment in another city because they trust you. What they are saying, perhaps even unbeknownst to them, is that they trust you to not drink, do drugs, have sex or start movements and therefore, they feel they can give you your right to education as a privilege that comes with some morsels of freedom. It’s the principle behind the unnecessarily restrictive rules in women’s hostels. It’s that thing they do when they insist on referring to your boyfriend as your “friend”. It’s the thing that makes millions of parents across the country threaten women living out of their homes with the following words: We’ll take you back home (if you step out of line). Freedom exists within a line and the most important tenet of that line is silence.
As the world progresses and women become more and more aware of our rights, it becomes harder for society to control our behaviour through the law and so it is done socially instead. It’s okay if you have sex, it’s okay if you drink, it’s okay if you are divorced, it’s okay if you are ambitious but just don’t talk about it. We can talk to our close friends or anonymously on the internet but socially the reason we can write about the “secret lives of women” is that we are actively discouraged from having open lives. I decided many years ago that I wasn’t going to have a secret life. The truth is that secrets terrify me because all I see in them is the power they have to control you. If I speak all my truths openly and at all times, no one can ever hold them over me. If I think of information without social connotation, I don’t have to weigh my words. Often it’s not that we hide things but we think about where and to whom we say can say what things. We measure our words so as to avoid startling or surprising anyone with too much truth, but the truth is a powerful thing.
I worry that with Gandhi getting a counter-cultural bad name, the truth is getting one as well. Speaking your truth out loud as a woman is a process akin to bloodshed. They make it hurt just as much. We like it when it’s done through poetry and pain, but when it’s deliberate and confident, we don’t like it at all. That’s what happens. College clerks tell you they don’t like your face. Neighbours tell their husbands to stay away from you (because that was all that was left for me to experience and now I have a fully-checked bucket list). Your peers sometimes feel alienated from you and as a result alienate you. Your parents are worried about taking you into their more conservative social circles. People call you names. Men put their hands on you without consent because they think you will just sleep with anyone. People slander you and assassinate you with morality. Partners abuse you to try and snuff the freedom out of you. Goons attack you for raising slogans in the street or holding a mic out for someone else to do it. People make faces at you when you say the word ‘uterus’ in their drawing room. The same people talk about loving Kamala Das frequently. People think you are always being difficult even though if they had a spoonful of empathy they would realise being the bone of contention everywhere all the time must be difficult for you too.
It’s difficult like yoga is difficult, because every pulled muscle is worth it. Every patch of soreness is worth it. I refuse to live without this pain. You know what’s really powerful about Kamala Das? It’s that she bared herself and she lived alongside her work (even though that may not have been the plan). The reason why we are so shocked and moved by her confessional poetry is because there is a real live woman behind it. There is a woman owning her truths and saying things women are supposed to say only in secret.
I have always wanted to live like that.
I don’t want to have a secret life.
Because as a woman I have done many things that were liberating. It was wonderfully fulfilling to file taxes for the first time, sign a lease, make the first move with a romantic interest and throw a punch. It was wonderful but none are comparable to the holistic practise of speaking my truth. I refuse to be afraid of it because no matter what it is, it’s a result of my choices. Choices that I made because I deserve the right to make them. There is nothing more freeing than taking your rights and using your voice. There is no fear when you stand beside who you are and accept all of it into a loudspeaker.
Then it’s not a scarlet letter.
Then it’s art.