Women must stop feeling sorry for speaking up
Guni Vats is a scholar at the University of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, India. She writes about issues affecting women, particularly Dalit women. Here she shares why it’s important for women to speak up without being apologetic.
I was born in Haryana. In India it is a place that is known for female infanticide. I am one of two daughters, and without a son for our parents it was a weird time back in the 90s.
When I was born, my mother was advised by the local elderly women to consult a doctor about the possibility of not keeping me. My mother’s sister said she would adopt me so that my mother could have another baby. She was told about different herbs that she could consume to deliver a boy, and my eldest sister, aged five, was told to pray every day for a brother – even though she always wanted a sister. Despite this my mother was happy about me being born.
There is a custom in India called Kua Pujan, when the entire village celebrates the birth of a boy by worshipping the well, the place from where they source drinking water. When I was born, and when my sister was born, it wasn’t done.
My parents have been asked who would perform their cremation rituals, as they do not have a son. In Hinduism it is believed that a father can only go to Heaven when his son sees him off – it is a son’s responsibility. Death was discussed from an early age with my family, and as young girls my sister and I were always told by my parents to perform the final rituals, and to not depend on other family members. That is hard for me.
But my parents never let me feel that I wasn’t enough. My sister and I were never taught to be timid or shy or feminine. We were sent to study, and we were top of our class, in school and college. I am privileged to not have witnessed a single episode of infanticide or domestic violence. I have been brought up among very strong women.
Haryana is a state of contradictions. Infanticide is a big problem here, but women have the freedom to study and to practice sports that are conventionally dominated by men, such as wrestling or boxing. If you watched India’s participation in the Olympic games, you would have seen that Haryanvi women are pioneers in these sports.
Living in a joint family
Being born in this environment has meant that feminism has always been part of my life. My sister and I realised the importance of equality while we were growing up.
When I was in my first school year, I started living in a joint family: an extended family arrangement, with many generations living in the same home, usually headed by the oldest member. My dad was transferred to Lucknow, and my mother being a government school teacher in Delhi meant that we couldn’t go along with him. In general, people live with their paternal grandparents, but we decided to rent and live in my maternal grandmother’s house.
Joint families have a way of suppressing your voice in the mildest way possible. They dictate everything you do, from what you wear to how you speak and who your friends should be. I remember my grandmother saying very early on that “girls should not have male friends, they should have women friends”. Gender was specified to me – I didn’t realise I was a woman until I was told I was a woman.
When my sister started pointing out that I was saying sorry a lot, I realised that I was not allowed to speak up, and for fear of being suppressed I was censoring myself at every turn. From that moment, feminism became important to me, because women should be allowed to speak without being apologetic about it.
Because I could not discuss this at home, I realised it was important to get out of my bubble and find my identity. I wanted to learn about feminism and what it means to me.
Feminism must be intersectional
I have been travelling around India and realising how, when we talk about women, we tend to put them all in a group. That has been a hindrance to feminism in India, with its diversity, different languages and different problems.
Because I was brought up in Delhi, I wasn’t aware of how serious the caste issue is. But when I went to Rajasthan for my masters, one day during a desert storm I saw an old lady standing and waiting. She must have been more than 90 years old. I couldn’t understand why she was waiting for more than an hour near a pot of water. It turned out that she was waiting for the upper caste man to come and let her have a sip of it. Seeing this shocked me, and the ideals I had been brought up with in diverse, metropolitan Delhi.
I’ve been writing about Dalit women since, and I’ll keep writing about women who need representation: women below the poverty line or from lower castes, and across the gender spectrum. Because no woman, whoever they are, should feel afraid to speak up.