Our Mothers, The Reluctant Feminists

Social Commentary

Our Mothers, The Reluctant Feminists

Illustration: Akshita Monga

One of my earliest memories of my mother is from a sunny summer afternoon. She has a slipper in one hand and a pervert – who has just fondled a girl in the street – in the other. Between swearing at the perv and smacking him with her slipper, she’s yelling for someone to call the cops, while admonishing the crying girl to be brave, and more importantly, stay there until the cops arrived. The gathering crowd merely joins in the chorus of swears and the occasional slap, until finally, a cop comes along, and hauls the whole jingbang away.

My mum, grew up in a family of nine – seven siblings – and never went to college. She put up with an alcoholic father and deadbeat brother, while making sure there were piping-hot meals on the table at the end of the day. My mother is a staunch feminist.

All my aunts tell me stories of how she’d bravely stand up to her father whenever he came home drunk and in a foul mood. She’d fight her mother to let my aunts go out with their friends, when my grandmother, in her wisdom, decided that good Catholic girls should not mingle with men before marriage. My mother was a feminist way before she even understood what the word meant.

And then the tide turned.

This woman, who’d slap misbehaving men on the street, got married… to a man who was a famous sexist. He instructed her to stop wearing salwar-kameez, which she loved, and switch to the Catholic aunty uniform of skirts and floral blouses. In complete contravention of her egalitarian proclivities, she willingly submitted to her husband’s whims, putting them before her own. My dad put a schism in her feminism.

One of my earliest memories of my mother is from a sunny summer afternoon. She has a slipper in one hand and a pervert – who has just fondled a girl in the street – in the other.

I’ve tried and tried, but I have not been able to understand this dichotomy. When it comes to the men of the world, she’ll fight them tooth and nail, but when it comes to my father, she’ll submit without so much as a squeak. How does a woman go from feminist crusader to patriarchy sympathiser and misogyny mascot at the drop of a hat?

During a lazy Sunday lunch a couple of weeks ago, I casually mentioned that my cousin was heading to Goa the following day with her boyfriend. Stressing the word, “boyfriend” and “Goa”, she cocked an eyebrow and asked what my issue was. She even threw shade by saying I could have joined them, if I had a girlfriend. A couple of morsels later, I brought her up to speed on #MeToo and the world in general. Before I could finish, my father decided to join in and dropped some classic victim-blaming fire by saying, “If you dress wrong, of course men are going to want to try their stunts, you know how some men are.”

I waited for my mum to react – surely this had riled her up. She simply nodded and said, “What do you expect? You try to be sexy and expect men not to react?”

After pulling off a Sybil, my mother went back to being good old Juliana, and shovelled more rice onto my plate. I finally decided to call her out. Surely, she couldn’t be on the fence about this: On the one hand, happy for my cousin’s out-of-wedlock dirty weekend in Goa; on the other, agreeing with my father blaming women for being harassed. “You can’t be hypocritical like that, mumma,” I said.

Women like my mother have been mentally conditioned to conform to their husband’s school of thought once hitched

She pulled the bone out of the fish on her plate and said, “Hypocrisy would be listening to people on the internet and nodding along, even though you disagree, just so you can be part of their gang. Your father wasn’t wrong in saying that.”

Really, go figure.

I think my parents’ wedding vows were a bit different. The priest probably asked my mother, “Do you, Juliana, take this man, to have and hold, to love and cherish, to blindly agree with even though it may go against your ideals, until death do you part?”

What happened to my mother is reflective of what happens across the section of society she inhabits. Women like her have been mentally conditioned to conform to their husband’s school of thought once hitched. Like Manchurian candidates they’ll wait, appearing to be normal everyday women who believe in equality, until certain trigger words uttered by their husbands turn them into complacent drones, denuded of their individuality.

This must be an example of what the kids call “intersectional feminism”. You know, how there is no “one-size-fits-all feminism”. The boring definition states that “cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society… race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.” In other words, my mum might be a feminist in most ways, but still can’t shake off the mentality that she had internalised while growing up: That a woman’s husband was still her God. And so, my father became the patriarchal, misogynistic kryptonite to her Superwoman.

Women who might have burned metaphorical bras before, are brought down by one single gold ring which seems sacred. It’s like their wedding ring is some sort of “One Ring” that makes the wearer’s feminism invisible and ties their fate with that of their Sméagol-like husbands. Bereft of the benefits of a better education, devoid of the modern idea of feminism we’ve subscribed to on social media, and without the benefit of woke husbands, my mother and others like her are reluctant feminists. They simply go on to prove the adage, “Communist until you get rich, feminist until you get hitched, and atheist until the plane starts to fall.”