Breaking free

Breaking free

Once, a man visiting the huge elephants in the Barnum and Bailey’s circus was surprised to see that they were restrained with only a small rope, something that they could have easily broken. Their trainer explained that it was the same size rope that had secured them when they were young. “Back then, this rope was sufficient to restrain them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away,” he said.

This is the story of Indian womanhood. From the moment of her birth, the Indian woman is constantly being reminded of the perimeters of her life, each of which is intimately associated with dire consequences if breached. These consequences always have to do with the honour of the family, so the burden on the woman is enormous. These invisible shackles, placed on her early in life, make it extremely hard for her to overcome.

Out of moulds

However, women are breaking free of these shackles these days. Yes, these days, women are breaking into many an all-male bastion, and succeeding spectacularly.  Take the case of Shanti Devi in New Delhi, who works as a mechanic at one of the largest truck stopovers in Asia, Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar Depot. Or, Devi in Tirupur district of Tamil Nadu, who runs a roadside barber’s shop and offers hair-cutting and shaving services to men. Nirma Chaudhary of Rajasthan is one of the first female fire fighters of India, and Rukhiya of Wayanad has been a butcher for 30 years. Each one of these women has broken stereotypes about women.

There are more and more heroines like these in the news every day. Rajani Pandit is India’s first woman private detective. Neetu Sarkar was married off at 13 years of age, but took up wrestling because of financial difficulties; she’s a champion now. And Deepa Malik, a paraplegic, broke two barriers when she became an athlete. These women have challenged patriarchal mindsets in pursuit of their passions.

And there are other equally inspiring stories of women who have fought social prejudices. Shweta from Kamathipura area, the second-largest red light area in Mumbai, was constantly belittled and bullied at school, but fought back. Now she is living her dream of studying abroad at New York’s Bard College. Similarly, Puja Wagh, from the Sangamwadi slum in Pune, was to be married off young. However, she not only completed her Master’s degree in Commerce, but also passed CA exam in her first attempt.

Her choice!

But then, alongside these stories are other stories of unlikely ‘heroines’. What of the women who have refused to marry eligible grooms just because their homes do not have their own toilets? And the women who walked away from the wedding mantap in their wedding finery because the grooms were either drunk, or diseased, or weren’t educated, or too old, or demanded too much dowry? When I picture these events actually happening, with family and peers pressuring these women to ‘settle’ for whatever they got, with visions of familial and social ostracism looming, I get chills — just imagine the courage it must have taken for these women to take a stand.

 Let’s face it: in India, a ‘normal’ life for a woman includes marriage, by hook or crook. If you can’t find someone, your parents will catch one for you. The bait is cast either through contacts or, in these ‘enlightened’ times, through matrimonial sites. That is what Induja Pillai’s parents did. When she saw how the profile didn’t begin to describe the real her, the 24-year-old replaced it with a frank reflection of herself and what she wanted, revealing that she was ‘a happy loner, with messy/shabby boy cut hair’, and that she didn’t intend to grow hair any longer.

The stereotype she broke is just as important as any other, isn’t it? To take responsibility for yourself, to boldly state what you want, amid all the hypocrisy that surrounds women — it takes guts.

And, every day now, Indian women are showing that they have guts, in spades. Women are refusing to wear the mangalsutra, which is ridiculously linked to their husbands’ mortality. They are refusing to touch their husbands’ feet, a tradition which acknowledges a man’s superiority to his wife. They are refusing to step back, giving up their dreams to submerge their identities, and become second-class citizens in their own homes. They are refusing to become commodities, to be given away in marriage to another family, and to become baby-making factories for it. And they are questioning norms, and changing equations.

These changes, though they may appear inconsequential and sporadic, reveal a great deal about the emancipation of the Indian woman. They show that she is not only breaking into all-male cliques, but she is also breaking the bonds that are holding her back from achieving her full potential.

Breaking stereotypes is great progress indeed. But even greater is when we break our own limiting beliefs, like when an otherwise-traditional woman makes it a point to invite her friend, a widow, to her Navarathri celebrations.  Now, that’s progress!


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