For as long as I can remember, I have tried to silence this nagging voice inside my head. It says mean things that seem to get meaner as I make my way through life and the inevitability of experience lends credence to its claims: You will never be a whole person because you are a woman. Every one of your battles will be an uphill one because you are a woman. Yours will be just another voice silenced among many others because you are a woman. You were a disappointment to those who gave you life because you are a woman. And no amount of accolades or achievements you can amass will ever change the fact that you are a woman.
Before you go on and start feeling sorry for me, I should tell you that my life so far hasn’t been a battlefield, despite what my current state of mind and opening paragraph would have you believe. Born and raised in an upper middle-class family in Northern India, I have had quite a holistic upbringing. Some people who have known me as a child have gone so far as to claim that I was quite the little brat. That I got away with many things and have been thoroughly pampered all my life by virtue of being my parents’ first child. They usually go a step further and add “in spite of you being a girl…” in some shape or form in their anecdotes, but this is not going to be a rant against them. As luck and self-love would have it, in spite of being a girl (the horror…) I have grown up without the slightest doubt as to the love my family has for me.
My beef is not with easily shocked groups of people. India is full of them. It is with the systematic perpetuation and practice of archaic ideas and philosophies in Indian culture that have more often than not put me at odds with the very people I love and care about the most. And as a 28-year-old single independent woman, I have this sinking feeling that my battle with my own has only just begun.
I have moved countries twice in my lifetime, graduated top of my class with an MBA, gotten myself in and out of debt, successfully changed multiple career paths, and even found my true calling in life as a writer with a full-time day job—but all my conversations with my mother inevitably boil down to whether or not I am trying to look for a suitable matrimonial match.
I feel the need to mention that where I come from, it isn’t just a piece of gossip for a young woman to be single into her late twenties; it is an act of defiance against the social order. I will admit to the fact that every time my mom puts it that way, it only fuels me more to continue down this road of self-actualization and independence. Who doesn’t like the idea of being a rebel!
But there is more to it than my childhood fantasy of being a pioneer. Truth be told, it is a problem that sometimes feels too big for one person to take on. It isn’t just the sly remarks of your once-dear friends, cousins, extended family, even colleagues, expressing incredulity at your “not-married” status, but the deeper subliminal messaging in the voices of disappointed parents and mentors who, despite being highly educated in their own right, feel the constant need to conform to the edicts of a society I no longer live in or am an active part of.
In most of our conversations about my “defiance,” my mom resorts to old-school emotional blackmailing, when phrases like “Because that is how it is!” and “What will people think?” fail to shake me enough to change my mind. And she is not your run-of-the-mill downtrodden woman who never got an education. No! She is a strong woman who has always stood up for injustices against her and others, with a voice as assertive as it is incisive. I even heard her flip out on my dad once for blaming a fictional TV character for her choice of wardrobe and how it may have caused her to get raped at a late-night party. My mom did not rest until she made my dad feel terribly sorry for making such a nonchalant remark about such a serious issue. “Unacceptable!” she pronounced it. But when it comes to the matter of her daughter striving to be her own complete person, her voice falters quite audibly.
Tonight, we had the same conversation again, and I felt compelled to say something to her that I don’t like to bring up too often if I can help it. I said, “Of all the people in the world, I expect you to be my rock and shield…you, who were forced to give up your dreams and careers in the name of children that weren’t just yours…you, who weren’t allowed to follow your passion in music because the patriarch of the family considered singing to be ‘a deplorable profession for a daughter of a respectable family’…you, who have secretly read and re-read everything I have ever written and marvel at my grasp of the English language despite my convent school education…you, who have suffered injustices at the hands of a society that believes in keeping a woman in ‘her place…’”
There was nothing but silence on her end for quite some time, and then she said, “Why are you doing this to me? To us? Is this how you repay the kindness of parents who have allowed you to do and have everything in your life? Girls your age have kids here…and you…”
I know that a lot of hurtful things will be said and done before this matter is put to rest, but I also know that I cannot abandon this battle now or at any other point in my life. I cannot be another “could-have-been-this” or “could-have-done-that” woman, forced to take to her heart beliefs that go against her very basic nature and the simplest notions of justice and equality.
At the end of the day, in my own extremely grassroots and minuscule way, I am not just fighting for myself, but for countless women across the globe who are born, live, and die every day in the sincerest and the most vilely perpetuated belief that they are not a whole person on their own, that their life has no rhyme or reason without service to a man: whether in the capacity of a daughter, a sister, a wife, or a mother.
My life will be governed as any other independent man’s—by my own free will.