Updated: Dec 12, 2020
“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are”
-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The first time that I realized I was not free was during the 21st year of my life, crying tsunamis and gasping for air on my bathroom floor. Constantly negotiating ownership over my life since age 13, I wanted to move to a different country for my education- a country with better opportunities, whose culture would allow me to be unapologetically myself (at least to a greater extent than in my own). The response to my well-planned and almost executed ideas - “Get married, and you can go with your husband”.
When I think of the women of my country and I think of all of my experiences, I feel like I could write a book of shared traumas, but what good would that do for any of us.
If you are a woman, you have most likely experienced these events in your life and all you can do is nod in agreement. If you’re a man, you might think I’m exaggerating and give me a list of ‘buts and ifs’ (please don’t ‘not all men’ at me).
How does an entire country, especially one as diverse as India is in its religious and cultural roots, collectively agree on the way to oppress women?
It’s in our religious texts, for example, blaming Eve as the reason we’re suffering, or an entire kingdom questioning Sita on her fidelity to her husband, often telling us to cover up, quiet down and serve our families and our societies. Women can only exist honourably as mothers, not wives without children and certainly not women without husbands. The constitution of our country guarantees women equal rights, equal legal remedies and equal pay for equal work. However, reality is so much more different than India’s portrayal of ‘woke culture’ to the world.
One of the biggest ironies lies in the plethora of goddesses we worship- Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and good fortune, while most of India’s daughters are denied ancestral wealth and land, and are forced to pay large amounts of dowry; Durga is the goddess of power and strength, in a country where a woman’s strength is defined by her marital status while her body autonomy is the business of her closest male relatives; Kali is the goddess of death, in a country where until recently women were burnt alive in the funeral pyre along with the bodies of their husbands; and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, exists in the same place where numerous girl children are denied their right to an education in favour of early marriage.
Culturally too, we agree on certain norms in order to be a respectable and desirable woman in society. Look at any matrimonial advertisement from any religion or class and you’re likely to spot the same set of requirements. Talk to any matriarch and they’re bound to have the same complaints about the suitability of their daughters-in-law or daughters. “Women need to be independent, codependent and dependent at the same time,” said one of my friends when discussing his family's impossible standards for a future daughter-in-law.
What does an ideal ‘wifey-material’ woman look like in my country? Wakes up with the rooster, does her chores, gets the family ready for their day, dresses stylishly (yet modestly) for her own day at work, is a boss at work, comes back home to be subservient to her husband, selflessly takes care of her in-laws (but never her own parents. In fact, parents who?) and finally rests after completing her wifely duties whether she wants to or not (TW: marital rape is considered understandable, not illegal).
All of these things make me think of my own prospects as a woman. The thought of needing a man in order to exist, the safety of which is not guaranteed within the walls of my own home, the pressure of being respectable and perfect just so that I can be peaceful, it’s overwhelming. On some days I force my eyes to look at the reality in which my mother lives- the officer of a reputed bank, cooking, cleaning and asking for permission- and I am forced to look at the mess I’ve smeared across my own two hands. Unable to stand up for the woman I love most in this world or support her to stand up for herself, what qualifies me to talk about the comforts and confines of other women’s lives?
I realise I lack the freedom or the courage to stand up for myself, for my mother or my friends. I refuse to be a scared little girl who is begging for permission to live her life - but how does one break free from centuries of traditions upheld by everyone you know and love? It is easier to fight villains you know are the bad guys - give me a Dr. Oct or a Joker any day, but how does one win a fight against your own father, brother and husband?
The only solace I find is in the hope that someday I will have a little girl of my own, and my sisterhood and I will manage to gather enough courage and strength to make the world a free and safe place for her.
Sahana J Alma is from Bangalore, India. She loves dogs, books, stories and people (yes, in that order). She describes herself as that weird best friend from books who spends a lot of time staring at things and spacing out (a typical INFP). Sahana loves listening to people: if you want to talk or send journal entries to a stranger you can reach her on Instagram @cluelessweirdo or via email email@example.com