Mallika Writes: View from the Bridge

FEMINISM? Who's that?

One of the attributes of a victor is that he assumes that anything that happens in the world happens in relation to him, either for him or against him, but with him in mind anyway. Judging from this attribute, the male has won. Why else would a male figure in the understanding of the word feminism?

“Oh, so you are a man hating feminist hm?” I am often asked, more often than not by men, but not infrequently by women. Curbing my irritation, and the slight disdainful curling of my lip, I retort, “My being a feminist has nothing to do with men”.

I became a feminist long before I learnt the word. My genes must also be so predisposed, as most of the men in my family, along with the women, have believed in the equality of humans rather than in the inferiority of some groups such as women.

At 12 I remember having my Social Studies teacher crying on my shoulder because she was in a lousy marriage, and was really in love with the Gujarati teacher and didn’t know how she could continue living the lie that was her marriage. I see the scene today. She wasn’t much taller than me then and could comfortably put her head on my shoulder. I remember bristling with indignation as she told me about the callousness of her husband, and telling her of how a marriage could only be one of equals. I advised her ( I have since given up advising) to try and talk it through with her husband and if that too failed, to leave. “You are an independent woman, with an income. You don’t have to put up with nonsense. But are you sure the other teacher won’t be the same?”. I can not recall how all this ended.

Family folklore was full of feisty women. Stories were retold with gusto, often by the men. My aunt Lakshmi’s story of course was the most recent, with her being in charge of the Jhansi regiment in the INA army. Equally heroic was the story of my other aunt Mridula, who, dressed as a Pathan, rode through firing and looting lines on the newly created Indo-Pak border in Kashmir, helping women and children escape and rejoin their families. Her later fight for the rights of Sheikh Abdullah, her house arrest for many years under Panditji’s regime, and her being called Boss by everyone continued to fascinate me.

No less dramatic was the story of my matriarchal maternal great grandmother. During the Mopla uprisings she was alone in our ancestral home in Kerala, in charge of both the home and the fields. Owner after owner was fleeing the marauding hordes and she too was advised to leave to save her life. Unwilling to flee, she waited for the rioters with her gate open, unafraid and unflinching. When the raiders arrived she invited them in for lunch, saying that they must be tired after their rough ride, and promising to discuss matters after they were fed and rested. Legend goes that the stunned rioters came in, ate, washed, and left promising to protect Anakara, our tharavad.

Then there was my paternal great aunt Anasuya. At a very young age, encouraged and looked after by her younger brother Ambalal, she decided to set up a textile labour union in Ahmedabad, the Majoor Mahajan. In 1918 she took the labourers on a strike against the millowners for a 1 paise raise in pay. The President of the Mill Owner’s Association was her beloved brother Ambalal. Both refused to budge on the issue of the raise. They invited the newly arrived Mohandas Gandhi to arbitrate. A settlement was arrived at, peacefully, for a half paise raise. Both parties felt vindicated. Anasuya remained at the helm of the Majoor Mahajan till her death at the age of 87.

Growing up on these stories, it hadn’t occurred to me that human beings were categorized by sex, race or religion. Innocence lasted till I was in my teens, and I considered it my natural duty to fight for what was right against what was wrong. I later realized that what I was doing was called feminism or humanism - fighting for the underdog or underbitch as the case might be.

When did feminism become a dirty word? Was it when militant bra-burning feminism, pants wearing lesbian ( read unfortunately as man hating) feminism, I want to better than him feminism was taking over the West? But when did we, a country where the majority of people were the inheritors of the Ardhanarishwara, ally ourselves with this totally foreign concept of women trying to catch up with men on the men’s terms?

Draupadi is different from Sita or Savitri. Sita as most of us know her is a fairly repressed, submissive and pativrata stree. That is not how Kamban or Valmiki or any of the other nearly 298 authors wrote of her. But HIStory and male priesthood has managed to sterilize her to suit male conveniences and the need for a slave and bedmate. Savitri likewise has been reduced to the icon of sati protagonists. Forgotten is her wit and wisdom, forgotten is her needlelike intellect. Misremembered is her need to live only if her husband remained alive. Forgotten is her tactical victory over Yama.

But Draupadi somehow managed to escape reduction and marginalization. Even in the versions of the Mahabharata as we know it today she remains a woman proud equally of her intellect and her womanliness, her strength and her vulnerability. She does not equate intellectual rigour with stridency, or a quest for the truth as aggressiveness.

Indian feminists have the privilege of being the daughters of Draupadi. Our endeavour to find our place in society is not to be mistaken as following the path where males have already tread. Ours is a path taken by my aunts, by my great aunts, by my great-grandmother, a path which takes a different route to find our place in the sun, not that of the males of the species. Our strength, our USP, lies in our being women. The minute we desex ourselves, the minute we try to be like something we are not i.e. men, our defeat is writ large.

Do you remember the legend of Navratri ? The world was being destroyed by the demon Mahisha, and one after another the Gods were being humiliated and annihilated. At last, the Gods decided that their only saviour could be Devil or Shakti. To help her they each gave her an arm. For nine nights and nine days she fought, and on the tenth, killed the demon and saved the world, ensuring our existence. So could this have been done if the Gods had all given their arms to, say Brahma? Believe me, if it could have been done by a God, they would have done it. But it couldn’t. They had to come to the Female; and even if they armed her with their bits, the bits did not make the whole that killed the demon. That was all that and more. It is this and more that is our inheritance. And that has to do with us, as women.

My office sometimes resembles a shelter for women. A male dancer brings in his sister who is being harassed by her husband. The 80 year old maid of my neighbour comes in to say that her son stole her pension papers. The phone rings, and its a woman who has seen my show and wants to know the morality of not telling her husband that she is having a child by someone else. My daughter comes in to say that our bitch is on heat. And then a production assistant comes to complain that his rich wife has taken their bullock and walked home to her own village because she thinks he is neglecting her and loves his parents more. She has left their children for him. I lend an ear, to all of them including my male assistant, and try and clarify their thoughts and needs. Because I am a feminist. And because I am a humanist. And because for me they are often if not always the same.

I like to think that I make friends because of the way people are, not because of which sex they belong to. I have nearly as many men friends as women and they tell me that I treat them as friends not as men. My women friends endorse this view. Where then does this question of hating men come from? From my initial comment on the perspective of the victor?

Some of my earliest dance and performance pieces are about women’s oppression of women. Yes, the reason is often the conditioning that they have had in a male society, but the truth of their oppression remains. And I consider those dance pieces as feminist. I let younger men , or those my age, open doors for me, get up and serve me a drink, cook for me, lift my bags. And I don’t think that is unfeminist. I like to look my best, for myself. I like to be in shape. And if that makes a good impression, that’s fine with me. I don’t consider that being unfeminist either. Feminism, being feminine and being a feminist are all for me. That is what being a modern Indian woman living today is about.

Times of India, Ahmedabad


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