I have been thinking of women empowerment quite a bit lately. In a steering away from my usual academia oriented thoughts on this issue, of late, I have been wondering about issues of theory and praxis in gender studies. Random conversations with people from various segments of society have made me wonder about the penetration of theories of empowerment into the lives of women.
A few minutes before I sat down to write this, my barely literate domestic help was sharing her troubles with me. She is not at all an effusive person. On the contrary, her silent but efficient presence for about three hours every day in my house reminds me of the story of the Shoemaker and the Elves. I wonder if any of my readers are aware of this story for children but it has stayed with me through the vagaries of time, especially due to its dubious message. I never could figure out why those elves, under cover of darkness, did the thankless work of creating those lovely shoes that made the shoemaker a reasonably rich man. I now know why my elf is here rather than in her village about which she gets so nostalgic on those rare communicative days. She has had to migrate, lose the familiar environs of her village, forego the support structure of the village community, turn into a semi-skilled worker from an artisan and regularly worry about her children’s future in this big bad city, to ensure that her husband breaks out of the habit of gambling. She has all her losses tucked in her armoury to throw at the husband each time he shows signs of steering towards gambling. And she puts them to good use. Recently, she used all of these and, for good measure, added the threat of a stick. This woman is totally entrenched in patriarchy but has learnt to negotiate her space within it. My instincts, training, and experience have taught me to fight patriarchy and to be wary of women who try to work from within the patriarchal structure but I have new admiration for this woman, especially when I compare her with the young girls I meet in this huge metropolis.
Recently, while travelling in one of those wonderful air-conditioned DTDC buses, I saw a young man sitting on a seat reserved for women while a girl stood, struggling with a huge bag, clutching the too-high handle. I walked up to him and pointed out that the seat was reserved for women. He vacated it without a murmur. As it turned out, the passenger sitting next to him debarked at the next stop and the girl sat on that seat. Striking a conversation with her, I asked her why she had not demanded her right for the seat. There was a strange and poignant vulnerability in her, “what could I do, he was sitting there?” I didn’t know if I should empathise with her vulnerability or get angry with her. Here was a young girl, obviously a college student in this metropolis, who feels she cannot demand a right for which hundreds of her predecessors fought for years. The idea that the reserved seat was a safe and comfortable place within a crowded public space did not percolate down to this urban young woman while her need to come across as an amiable, independent and physically strong young person was overwhelmingly there within her. What’s more, she was not thinking of her sisters who might need this space and of doing her duty towards them by reiterating women’s right to a reserved seat.
What’s with young people nowadays?
This question has been haunting me quite a bit of late. Regular interaction with the young adults I teach begs this question rather often. One such instance was a debate competition that I judged with two other colleagues. The organizers of the youth fest, in their wisdom, thought the topic they announced in advance should generate some excitement. The topic for the day’s debate was: “This House believes that live-in relationships are a threat to Indian Society”.
I will focus only on the contents of the debate that day and ignore my analysis of the form and structure of the presentations.
One would have thought the team arguing against the motion would win hands down, especially due to the demographic representation of the house; it was overflowing with urban young people in their late teens. The motion was not put to vote but the arguments for and against the motion indicated the direction the wind took that day. 26 out of the 27 young people who spoke that day were envisioning marriage to be the ultimate goal for each romantic relationship. The ones speaking for the motion were probably using this premise to build an argument, I thought, but why would the ones speaking against the motion shy away from alternatives to marriage, I wondered. The 14 participants who spoke against the motion were unanimous in deeming a live-in to be a trial run for a marriage.
Apart from the glaring lack of research on the institution of marriage, on the definition of the term and on the various forms of marriage, there was not a thought spared to relationships among the LGBTI people. Not one of the participants critiqued the mores of patriarchal, heterosexual marriages. No one worried about the situation of women enduring abusive marriages while there was a great deal of worry over girls getting “dumped” by guys in live-in relationships that go bad. And the best one of them all, the participants as well as the interjectors from the audience kept asking, “What will happen if the girl gets pregnant?” I really wanted to yell, “Go figure that out” but being one of the judges there I had to maintain a grave demeanour.
I mean, what is up with these young people?
Are these their real thoughts? Are they that dumb? Or is this their idea of politically correct thought that should be presented from official platforms such as the lectern? Apart from the maddening lack of research, why is there such resistance to new avenues of thought? Is this urban complacency speaking? Have they fallen hook, line and sinker for the consumerist propaganda of Hollywood rom-coms and Bollywood cinema that celebrate the big, fat, expensive wedding as the ultimate dream of every individual?
I got some of my answers that day, in the form of one of the participants. The 27th participant, the one exception who acted as a foil to foreground the lack of depth in the thinking of this young crowd. She had fire in her belly. This agrarian metaphor fits her perfectly. She could barely speak English, was far from an advertisement for MNC brand names in her attire, did not flaunt a chic hair-style, and hardly had any make-up on. This girl kept trying to divert her peers’ attention towards alternatives to marriage, to the oppression within marriages, was asserting the need to look beyond marriages. Here was a girl who battled with the very real threat of being pushed into a patriarchal marriage and was building her ammunition against it. And on the other side were all those urban young kids who think that they are way beyond the machinations of patriarchy. They believe they need not worry about reaching their dream destination of the grand consumerist wedding to the one they love or will learn to love, a la the Bharjitya movies, however, they sure are worried about unwanted pregnancies and getting ‘dumped’.
Is it time courses on gender studies were rethought? Should we teach them Germaine Greer and Shulamith Firestone? Would it help them? Or should we figure out new ways of empowering them to face the crises in their 21st century urban lives?