Freedom
Contributor

I was introduced to the existence of she writes last August – and I have since then, wished to write something here. Yes, to sow seeds for possible germination into a ‘platform’, but also to hear and to be heard. Like in the lunch sessions sneaking out from our corporate conferences – where we talk of our busy lives and emotional outbreaks at work, or in the community forums – where I lurk in the comfort of my anonymity reading through posts that console me in my struggling moments with assurance of solidarity.

But what is there to write about my life in the United States? I stay in an upscale neighborhood in already affordable Phoenix in a house fitted with most upgrades imaginable – nice cabinets, granite counter tops, moderate to luxury furniture, oil rubber bronze finishes on hardware and a pool in the backyard. We drive to work together – a stress free commute given to most cities, dropping off our 1 year old in a nicely appointed day care on the way. I work in a building fully air conditioned, with nice and multiple restrooms (a comfort myself and several other women would give anything for in the country I come from), cafes, lounges and ample parking spots. I have a cubicle of my own and although my job is often stressful and hectic – I love the people in my team and look forward to meeting them every day. Weekends are filled with going to brunch or parties and week evening chores are done by 8 pm (thanks to a landscaper, monthly cleaners and twice a week cook) and I go to bed by 8.30 pm. But why do I then find myself often wondering about freedom still? And it’s obvious successor – equality?

I have wished and yearned for freedom always. Growing up in a big house with first and second cousins, grabbing the toys no one else wanted and the blames no else would; I had embodied love only as freedom. Freedom from judgments delivered partially and from trepidations of causing offense - in the house that was not ours. After all, our mother had been married off and the house now belonged to her brothers and their wives. The law didn’t quite allow for equal rights for daughters in parental property so it was generosity, not entitlement that allowed us to be there while our mother went to work. And why did she have to work when our father did too? That premise itself - unjustified and illogical, vetoed the need for us to subsist in our grandparent’s home. 

I could empathize well with the martyrs in the black and white patriotic films that were so often played on the national channel those days.  In the nation still young in her freedom. I understood well the anguish of having to follow rules that can’t be reasoned for and whimsies that seemed iniquitous. Freedom was worth dying for. I was proud to be born in a free country – oh the horrors of the otherwise! And I sang the national anthem the loudest in the school prayer line, making sure I maintained a posture so straight that my back ended up slightly arched.

The meaning of freedom changed with the passing years. Freedom, or rather the lack of it, altered faces. There was the girl who got acid thrown on her in the nearby slum, so we couldn’t talk back if someone hooted. Especially to the boys from the nearby slum who knew where we stayed. The other girl got raped while travelling alone in a cab. So going out alone was not permitted. If at all we had to - a crowded sweaty bus ride where there would be occasional groping was the thing to do instead of seeking the comfort of a cab. And then there was the girl who ended up dead. She had taken her life, the only thing to do if one got pregnant before marriage. So our elders were cautious, very cautious, with freedom.

I longed to walk as I wanted, unaccompanied and unsolicited, by the banks of Ganges. But I couldn’t, even in broad daylight. I wished to wear what I wanted, but had to leave home in the ‘suitable’ and change later. In a friend’s house, or in the small dark college washrooms. I wanted to eat what I wanted, but was afraid of what would be said – I didn’t want to appear greedy, after all, I would hear them talk later while pretending to be asleep. So I politely said no to the extra helpings. In the free country of one million, like thousand others, I was not free.

That certainly doesn’t apply anymore – I feel safe for the most part here, and yes I can still fall victim to horrendous circumstances – but I have faith that I will not be prosecuted in place of the perpetrator in the eyes of law or society.  I can eat what I want, buy what I would like to – and don’t have to pay much heed to what I wear, apart from being weather appropriate. In my corporate 8 – 6 job, with a husband working in the same company and with a child less than a year old, I do feel liberated. I have to endure only minimal criticism from family and in-laws, after all, much can’t be imposed over phone and Skype calls. And I read the horrible gang rape incidents from the comfort of my spacious living room with added assurance of safety of my gated community and security system. 

But why then, do I lay awake at night – wondering if much has changed?

Why do I feel that I know this woman – who is rising up the ranks in a mostly male fortune 500 company where being a woman is favorable, but being ‘womanly’ isn’t? Being a woman allows to be in the protected category of ‘technical females’ which all companies want to promote and proliferate. But the ranks are run by men, so being womanly provokes discomfort. The lack of numbers is disadvantageous, as it feels like swimming against the tide. The women - the few of them - discuss in despair how everyday how they made ‘womanly decisions’ or ‘showed emotions at work’ –mistakes which they fear will relegate them inevitably. And strangely once again, this woman – once again she can’t really choose what to wear. She looks put together, civil and appropriate, but maybe a little ‘too’ put together – walking through the factory floors, she often raises eyebrows. A possible indication of less grey matter, or even worse – of having too much time on hand. Looking disheveled, yet acting in composure is appropriate. With a baby and a managerial job, she is expected to look exhausted. If her husband on the other hand, ever shows up looking unkempt, comments fly before too long on how his needs are obviously going uncared for. Telltale signs of not having a ‘good wife’. She is often complemented – but rarely on her achievements. Because maybe there are none – maybe she got a pass to move ahead, as she is a ‘technical female’ who just managed to find time to pump every other hour in an ill appointed mothers room while typing non-stop to finish her presentation. Is she free? She doesn’t know; but she is grateful for all she has. She is grateful to be not assaulted, to be allowed to work, and for the freedom to drive. And she works harder and harder each day to endorse her gratitude.

She gets pressured to call extended family after an exhausting day at work. The calls in which tacit expectations are expressed on who should still be cooking after equal hours at work. Their comments not too different from her colleagues, who often remark frivolously on how her husband seems to be losing weight having to eat the inadequate cafeteria food, while their wives packed them home cooked bliss in multi size containers worthy of a buffet spread. She is expected to find these insinuations amusing, after all they were not meant to imply anything. Assuming and indicating implications would make her a feminist. Why do I feel I know this woman? Why do I feel her walking with me - every day?

I also hear the stories of others. Attending prestigious Chai chats and ladies lunches. They work equal hours yet assume the master share of housework. They are the ideal mothers, while the fathers are busy following dreams of achieving greater good or attending the needed extended hour meetings. They came home early, feeling ashamed, knowing that they will be judged by peers. They throw parties, bejeweled and exhausted, and post photos without delay. There are those who cry - their spouses lost tempers and they are to be blamed for it. And yes, being condemned on lacking in house chores can’t be compared to getting dowsed with acid, but I can’t help but feel that somewhere the stories are related. My gut tells me that prejudice and role-setting, protected in century old cloak of tolerance and entitlement can reach unimaginable outbursts where consequences are non-existent. After all, there is a woman I know of who was doused just for lacking in cooking skills. Hence I can’t feel free. Even in the United States of America. Not yet. And thus there will be a lot to write about and I am looking forward to it.

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Comments
  • Philippa Anne Rees

    Sorry it took so long to find my way to this ( SW is still unexplored). Its a very good start in articulating your unique view, and the parallels you draw between the countries, (or women within them) does highlight the essentially subordinate role women are expected to submit to, it is not openly oppressive, but somehow 'internalised' and kept there.

    I have never felt it, but I have never had the security of being a 'kept woman' either! Perhaps none of us can wholly escape our own past until we really examine our fears, and either accept or discard them.I thought this was really well written so congratulations.

  • Anjali Mitter Duva

    It's true, one is never free from the assumptions and judgements of others. Women are expected to play multiple roles. As you say, there is much to write about. Thank you for sharing and starting here.

  • Kristen Harnisch

    Dear Tanu, 

    Your honesty is inspiring, and I am fascinated by the comparisons you make between your "old" life (in India?) and your "new" life here in America. I'll be interested to read more about your journey to "freedom." Thanks for sharing!