In Kanpur, six months of my fellowship has been about marketing organic products by the farmers. On a random working day, I was involved in a sales campaign, customers were coming to ask about the organic products that we were selling. A middle-aged man wearing kurta pajama came and stood by the stall for a while. He knew a lot about organic farming and was sharing his insights about the same. Just when he was about to leave, he said to my co-worker Devesh, “Aap Log Inn Madam Ko Kisi Sahi Kaam Me Kyu Nahi Lagate”. “Inse Organic Kichidi Banvaao Aur Beecho”. While I liked the idea of selling organic Kichidi, why should I make it? I could not contain myself and asked:
Apko kyu lagta hai ki khichdi main hi bana sakti hun?
Aj nahi to kal ma to banna hi hai, khana to banana hi padega.
Maa to bann jaungi, usse khana bannane ka kya matlab?
I was furious and condemned him for thinking that its only woman’s job to cook. I have always liked to think of myself as an independent girl, I will decide what I want to be in life. I wasn’t ready for the constant questioning that one in supposed to face when one breaks a little away from the norms. This incident kept me hooked to the topic of gender norms and roles set by society for a while.
The incident also reminded me of one of my favorite films, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, which is based on Tagore’s story The Broken Nest. The film narrates the story of a beautiful, young, intelligent woman hailing from an upper-class Bengali household. Charu is the wife of a passionate young man running an English language newspaper, he loves his wife dearly but has no time for her. The film makes two things very clear about Charu’s life, that she is confined to the four walls of the house as if caged, she craves to see the world outside, she has access to it only through a window. The film portrays the constant tussle between a woman’s desires and what society expects of her. She is modern but not so much as compared to men. She wants to be traditional but she is not. Even though the film was released decades back, I think it still holds relevance for many women of today’s time.
Gender roles even in today’s time are well embedded in the norms of everyday life, women are seen primarily as a nurturer and men as breadwinner. If not, it creates a little bit of anxiety, the deviants are mocked upon or questioned. I was born and raised in Delhi. Until the age of 19 when I was in high school, patriarchy was invisible, I was not exposed to the concept as such. I used to think that it’s only natural that women cook for the family and if I am a good – girl I should not step out of my house after dusk. To dress a certain way, to sit ‘properly’, to ignore men who are staring.
A few learning in college including exposure to events like Queer Pride and Pinjra Tod led me to question the beliefs that were part of me as a result of my socialization. Queer Pride celebrates freedom of love and seeks to create space in society for nonconforming genders and those with homosexual orientations. Pinjra Tod or ‘break the hostel locks’ started by a few women from colleges of Delhi University against the social order that confines women to closed doors at night with a narrative of ‘Safety’. A memory from college is still fresh when ten of us girls from my class and a few professors went on a walk at midnight just to make a statement. It was the first time we had crossed the boundary, that day I felt that the streets are as much mine as it is of the men who wish to loiter at all times of the day or night. In these protests i saw people expressing themselves fearlessly, asserting their opinion and unapologetically shunning the social norms that dictate men and women to act based on their gender. For me these exposures have helped to come out of self-doubt and has weaved a little bit of confidence to question things that don’t feel right.
This was about the public space, the other end of the spectrum is the private world of homes from where the norms are learned. It is the home where boys and girls are first socialized from a very young age to act according to the norms. It is expected of boys to study in order to get a good job and girls have a choice to not take a job – priority always being marriage. There is a tendency to think education and work are two of the important weapons that help women out of the four walls, to make themselves empowered. Education plays an important role in the empowerment of anybody, not just women.
But, are things as straightforward in case of ‘work’? The label ‘working’ is given only to women who go out and work. We essentially consider these ‘working woman’ as empowered, which restricts us from seeing that a woman who chooses to be at home, managing a hundred different tasks a day as not-empowered, she is seen as non-worker and a house-wife. This modern-day thinking fosters the belief that housework is not work but just a woman’s devotion to her family.
Such labels not only exclude women who manage home from being counted as empowered but also excludes their voices. A change in society doesn’t emerge from empowerment which is based on labels such as ‘Educated’, ‘Modern’, ‘Working’. A widespread revolution against gender norms or patriarchy is also forgotten over a period of time. Change for real comes from everyday things where the women (and men) assert themselves and their choices. When children are not raised to think that boys and girls must act, behave, talk according to their gender. To constantly question the norms that don’t resonate with us, in streets as well as the home.