My Father, the First Feminist in My Life

Modern Family

My Father, the First Feminist in My Life

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Istill clearly remember that lazy Sunday afternoon — Kishore Kumar songs were playing on our music system and the aroma of my mom’s homemade chicken biryani had wafted from the kitchen and filled our entire house. As a 10-year-old, I was lurking around the kitchen to get a bite of the biryani before everyone else, when my dad walked in and sat down on the dining table. On any other Sunday, he would be seen humming songs happily or playfully helping my mom with housekeeping chores, but today he seemed low-spirited, dejected, and lost.

My mom, who could read his mind in a matter of seconds, sat down next to him and asked him what was wrong. What followed was, I saw my dad weeping and sobbing for the next one hour. He held onto my mom as if his life depended on it and just cried. For all of you wondering what earth-shattering thing would have happened for a 45-year-old grown man to cry like that in front of his 10-year-old daughter and wife — he was crying because he was missing his departed father (my grandfather) a lot on that particular day.

That was my first memory as a child of seeing my dad cry. From then on, I would see him cry and be vulnerable on several occasions, every time he felt heartbroken and couldn’t contain it. Later in life, when I would see elaborate ads and media campaigns proclaiming “Men don’t cry”, I would realise that through his actions and expressions, my dad had already defined masculinity for me in ways that the world needed to realise and understand.  

As a 23-year-old, I don’t just identify myself as a feminist but I am also actively involved with organisations working for women’s rights and empowerment. But that’s today. In the past, as a teenager, there was a time when I had no understanding of what feminism meant, or what the nuances of gender-based discrimination were.

And in those days, knowingly or unknowingly, my father was my first teacher in all things involving equality and feminism.

Growing up, not once did my parents let me and my brother believe that household chores were my mother’s responsibly because she was the woman of the house.

If my mom cooked and laid the table for us, my dad would clear it and wash the dishes. If my mom walked around in sabji mandis bargaining and buying vegetables and fruits, my dad’s footsteps followed hers, carrying a bag full of everything she had bought. My father couldn’t cook, but I would see him compensate for not being able to do so by doing every little household chore that he could lay his eyes on — right from filling water bottles to picking up dried clothes. Growing up, not once did my parents let me and my brother believe that household chores were my mother’s responsibly because she was the woman of the house. The importance and necessity of division of labour at homes was a lesson I picked up early on.

While my parents’ coequal relationship became the foundation of my understanding of feminism, the way my father treated me built up on it. Never was I denied anything because of my gender. In fact, my gender was not even considered as an eligible factor in the decisions that we took or the conversations that we had. I was taught to follow my dreams, speak my mind, stand up for myself, be independent and unafraid of anyone or anything. And so was my brother. Tips, advice, and suggestions on how to lead our lives were never tweaked for my brother and I based on our gender.

After my board exams when my mom insisted I learn cooking, because “ladki ko toh aana chahiye”, my father took me to car driving lessons. When sending your 17-year-old daughter  from a small town to a big city for college was seen by his peers as a wrong and bold choice for a father, he shut them up by saying how proud he was of me. While everyone we knew advised him against a job that I wanted to take up in the so-called “Rape Capital” of the country, he told me to be brave, to be strong, and to go live my dream.  

My father defined the foundations of feminism for me in an age when he neither knew what it meant, nor was it much spoken about. And as someone who passionately feels about women’s freedom and  equality as an adult, I am grateful that the seeds were planted in my childhood.

However, the thing I am most grateful about is that my father led by example.  He didn’t just tell me what to do – he showed me how to.