Sometimes the rhetoric makes it feel like we have to rescue our mothers from homemaking, child-rearing and oppression, and in doing things differently we begin to believe that having jobs and “liberation” means that we are exempt from the shared, continuous trauma of our gender. Feminism taught me how my mother and I are part of the same fight and what it really means that I am a woman.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
My favourite film is Dev D. If you haven’t watched it, actually even if you have, let me explain it. It’s the most recent (from 2009) and “modern” retelling of an old Bengali novel which has spawned as many cinematographic ventures as the works of Shakespeare. Very simplistically, it’s a Madonna-Whore story, with a man battling addiction at the middle of it, it’s a little bit heavy on the metaphor. Earlier renditions of this film have very specifically, elaborately and culturally written the female characters into very tight roles. Paro, the Madonna-character, is dutiful, chaste, possesses a guarded sensual beauty, adherent to social expectations and the moral-centre of the protagonist, and thereby society. Chandramukhi, is a whore, and while she isn’t exactly negatively portrayed in some renditions of the story, her character is symbolic of sexual love, indulgence, madness, and she embodies the decadent desires of the protagonist. No points for guessing the character with whom I identify. The reason I liked Dev D so much was because they unleashed the female characters from their cages and let both be complete people. Paro wasn’t chaste, Chanda wasn’t sexual darkness. Paro was “wife” (not to the protagonist) and Chanda was “whore”, Paro didn’t represent devotional lobe and Chanda didn’t embody sexual love, but they both battled, enjoyed, and elucidated, their own moral dilemmas, societal struggles with the condition of womanhood, betrayals in love, sexual desires, tragedies of circumstances, objects of joy. They both had distinct, but equal beauty, and equal flaw.
In some sense, the entire narrative felt like it was about one woman, and all women, the systemic nature of sexism and how the differences between them were dictated only by the nature of social and patriarchal circumstances. Where early versions of the story presented Paro and Chanda as opposites, this version made you feel not only equally empathetically to both, but able to see how they could be the same people. In this version, to me, Dev stood in as the erratic, untrustworthy, sensitive (ie; easily swayed, like a sensitive scale) social compass of morality that is dictated to women as he oscillated between both women, sometimes complicating and sometimes enhancing their life, demonstrating rather well, how social mores force women to constantly deduce which version of their personality is acceptable to whom, and meter their behaviour into roles even when they feel like complete, but distinct people at all times. Delhi provided an excellently gritty backdrop, a city where reality, in beautiful clothes, smacks you in the face because it doesn’t give a shit about you. It was in this movie, that for the first time, I saw my feminism truly represented.
Feminism taught me that I can unapologetically choose not to fit into any socially-dictated roles, but feminism comes with its own constraints, and that’s one of its most challenging features because it doesn’t actually teach you to be this or that, it teaches you how and when to question things, including your own behaviour. It’s a long and continuous lesson. Like any philosophy, its principles and conditions are not to be parroted, but applied to the information in front of you with the best of your ability to reason and parse through facts. However, feminism also taught me to look down upon my mom. Let me explain. It wasn’t exactly feminism that taught me that, but some of the pop-feminism of the time (and actually, even some of today’s savarna, upper-class feminism), early feminist writing from India and feminist thought-leaders sent an “us for them” message in the sense that they created rescuers and the rescued. Us, privileged, employed, sexually “liberated” women who read English textbooks and studied ideology, were the rescuers, and women like my mother, the wives who relied on their husbands and participated in “problematic” social theatre, were the ones who needed to be rescued. Very early in my life, when I didn’t understand the nature of nuance, I said the same stupid shit that my mother should get a job, a new life and stand the fuck up to the societal abuse.
Then I actually got to know my mother.
As the personal social experiences of being a woman began, I started to learn my mother’s life. Not in the sense that getting raped is what makes you a woman, that how you are treated when/if that happens is what reminds you that you have been identified as one. Gender can be personal, but a lot of its impact is social. When it comes to self-identification (especially that of legal and personal identity), I don’t believe any strict factors should apply, one is a woman if that is who they are and their reasons are really what matters. There is no need for card-carrying membership. However socially, we can’t dictate how we are viewed. When the world saw my boobs, it decided I was getting the woman-package in life. It decided the same for my mother. For millions of us. Even those of us who weren’t women but “presented” as such. It’s not any inherent experiences of womanhood that helped me understand my mother, I am not sure there are any inherent experiences or womanhood, it’s being able to identify with how society treated us.
By the time I watched the movie, I understood something I hadn’t been able to see in my teenage years and that is how heavily my feminism was influenced by my own circumstances, and anything that didn’t adhere to my goals for feminism, was women who weren’t fighting the right fight. My mother is never going to be actively involved in fighting the wage gap, that wasn’t her fight, to her what mattered was that her daughters be well-educated, self-reliant and financially independent. That men be checked for taking liberties with her just because she was a women who socialised easily with all genders. When I tried to claim my sexuality, she didn’t see the feminism in that, just like I didn’t see the feminism in her shoving textbooks down my throat. When I said that all women should have to get jobs, she felt personally attacked, and maybe rightly so, because it seemed like I was erasing all of the social context around women’s employment, and I was, because I was fifteen and comprised only of passion. When she told me I shouldn’t have children too soon after marriage because it would spoil my career, that I shouldn’t marry young and alter my career plans for a man, she wasn’t holding back my liberation or my desire to love freely, she was cautioning me against the motherhood tax. She just didn’t know what to call it.
Truly knowing my mother, opened my eyes to womanhood and feminism. My mother is an intelligent, complicated person and our relationship hasn’t always been perfect, but her life was the first life I ever examined from the feminist point of view, and it is how I learnt to ask the questions that demonstrate the pervasive nature of sexism, gendered violence and how rampant it is in enabling the trauma of women. Today, in terms of the trauma that is enabled by how society genders you, my mother and I don’t seem so different anymore. Jobs don’t guard you from abuse and being a “good woman” doesn’t keep you safe from social slander. We have very different lives, we enjoy different things, our circumstances are different, our goals are different but the pain we have experienced by virtue of being seen as women, that pain can come from anywhere, and inside you, it takes the same form. Once I got to know my mother, I started seeing it all around me. I saw the feminist victory of my highly-educated, working grandmother and also the feminist victory of my fiercely dependable, fearless homemaking mother. I saw the trauma of fitting a social role because it makes your life easier, placed it against the trauma of making your own choices as a woman in society, and it amounts to the same thing. We bring different things to the world, but the world brings different things to us as well, and a lot of that is about the circumstances life presents to you. A lot of it is about the accident of birth.
When I stopped learning from texts and let the women in my life teach me feminism by letting me in long enough to understand their trauma and how they fight and cope with that, that’s when I really learnt what it meant to be a woman. In reality there are no Paros and no Chandas. There are complete women — emotional, sexual, cerebral, gentle, aggressive, strong, cold, warm, insecure, confident, smart, silly — born into circumstances that dictate the nature of their traumas, and subsequent fight against them. Circumstances often dictate the goals of individualised feminism and not all of us having the space, agency, desire, need or want to fight the “bigger” fight. Sometimes the best you can do is see where into your life you can accomodate feminism and hope for the best. I cannot disparage that. I cannot categorise these women, that’s no different from Madonna-Whore-ing them.
I see what aspect of the gender thrust on us is what unifies us: the politics and the trauma. It’s not all the same but that doesn’t mean your fight is irrelevant, it means we should add that too to the list of our collective goals. Gender is nothing to me but the process of identifying, understanding and attempting to eradicate its negative systemic effects and individualised trauma, for everyone. It’s not fashion, it’s not sexuality, it’s not symbolism, that’s just being a person, it’s identifying how we were denied the right to be person in light of roles and biology. To me, it’s politics, the struggle and shared trauma. To me a victory of feminism is had every day, in different ways, each time someone does battle with their trauma or the world, each time one of us sees and understands another, and a failure is had every day as well, as society continues to win and the trauma continues to pile. I know this because I am a woman. I understand it because of feminism. Feminism is what made me a woman.