I like to wake up in the morning with the belief that I am free.What does freedom really mean for a woman who is young, educated, and living in urban India ? This fact has haunted me from the day that I realised my privileged existence.
Had I lived a hundred years ago, I would probably have been married at the age of 11, forced to bear children, and chastised for the birth of every daughter. I would have been uneducated….worse still, illiterate…and be forced to believe that if I dared to study my husband would suffer some misfortune. My husband would, of course, be at least twenty years older than me. If he were kind to me I would have been among the lucky few…not having to suffer abuse and marital rape, and being forced to live with the man, and having no one to relate my griefs to- or sympathise.
I would definitely not be choosing my husband. My parents would marry me off to anyone they thought was suitable for me. And in case my father owed anyone a debt, that debt would be paid off by marrying me off to the son of the person he owed money to. My marriage would also be based on religion, community and caste. A Gujarati girl could not marry a Bengali. A Brahmin’s daughter cannot marry a Kshatriya. She must marry a Brahmin-the irony, of course, being that Hindu women are denied the fact of caste. They are the daughters, sisters, wives and mothers of the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Shudras, but not Brahmins, Kshatriyas or Shudras themselves.
My movements would be restricted to the home and the ‘antarmahal’ –the inner chambers where the men would not enter. I could not even stand at the window and stare at the world outside. I could not meet a stranger, even within the precincts of my home without the ‘ghoonghat’-the Hindu equivalent of the veil or the ‘purdah’. I would also have to appear in the ‘ghoonghat’ before the elders in the family. And it goes without saying, of course, that I would be wearing a sari at all times of the day and night. Not that I have anything against wearing a sari—It is one of the most beautiful dresses any woman can wear—but what concerns me today that society and family would decide what the woman must wear. Not that it is much different today…it is society that fashions what we wear, but at least I have the autonomy to wear what I want to, from capris to shorts to saris !
And even God would not help me if I was unfortunate enough to be a widow. Those who have seen Deepa Mehta’s ‘Water’ will know what I am talking about. Those who have not, please watch it. To be a widow would mean to live like an outcast in your own home, if you were lucky. If you were not, you would be sent to an ‘ashram’ of widows…to live like an outcast in the midst of society.
As a woman, perhaps the most important privilege that I enjoy today is the fact that I have a voice. I am educated, and I have my own opinions on everything, be it religion, politics, or cricket. Best of all, I am allowed to voice my opinions, and be contradicted only in a healthy debate, and not because I am a woman who is incapable of thought. A hundred years ago, I would not have the right to ask my husband where he is going, or where from he has come. I could not question his decisions. I would have to accept unquestioningly all that he decided, even if concerned my most personal life. Not only my husband, but also the elders of the family, be it my own parents, or my parents-in-law. They would decide whether it was time for me to have a child, whether I should try for a son again, after having given birth to six daughters, or whether I should sell my personal belongings so that my husband can educate himself further, perhaps go abroad.
One more huge step in the emancpation of women in urban India is the question of marriage. No longer is it a matter of compulsion, but one entirely of choice. True, society does exert a lot of pressure on those who choose not to marry, but the fact remains that we can choose! My parents cannot decide when I want to marry, and whether I want to marry at all. Education has given us freedom, and the ability and the confidence to earn our own bread and hold our heads high. Today, women marry because they want to, and not because they need to.
The picture is not the same everyehere, though. Rural India needs to go a long way to emancipate their women. Even today there are hundreds of thousands of baby girls who are killed as soon as they learn to breathe. Of those who survive, very few attend school. Even fewer graduate from school. College is still unthinkable for girls in most of these areas. And they are still married off without being allowed their choice of husband in most cases.
Which reminds me again of how fortunate I am to be living as I do today…free from the shackles that bound the lives of women hardly a century ago, and continue to bind the lives of those far away from the urban centres of life.