Wake up, women of India!

You need to become more self-reliant.

by Tasneem Sheikh

Wake up! Wake up! I hear my aunt wake my sisters, cousins and me early in the morning. We were teenage girls on a vacation, staying at a distant relative’s house. The host thought it was a great time to throw a huge lunch party for relatives, while taking advantage of our unpaid labor – the labour of us teenage girls.

This was a small town in Southern India and I did not even hear about this party until the day before it was due to take place. Unwillingly, we did what we were ordered to do. After an hour, I was hungry and there was no sight of breakfast. Another hour passed by and we girls got a small snack, which we gulped down quickly. Then we went back to cleaning the vegetables and rice.

I am sure none of the girls enjoyed this chore, not even one little bit. But did we have a choice? The answer is, no. I cannot speak for others, but I definitely do know what the consequences would have been for me if I had declined to follow orders and to refuse to perform that stressful task. My parents would have yelled at me, comparing me unfavourably to other more obedient girls, telling me that I should be like them. This was the early 1990s. In India, women and girls are expected to just obey orders without question.

Women and children are only allowed to eat after the men have had their fill.

Lunch was served around 1 pm, but none of the women, including the girls who had worked nonstop on almost an empty stomach, were allowed to touch the food. This is because men get to eat first. Women and children are only allowed to eat after the men have had their fill. After serving the men, the women still had to clear away the dishes, wash them, until, finally, they could serve themselves food – at around 3pm. This is not just true for one lunch party. This routine is the same for almost every lunch or dinner party hosted inside homes or in wedding halls.

This is just a small sample of how girls are tamed. They are taught to be submissive and obey orders by their parents, grandparents, relatives, distant relatives – by anyone who is older, for that matter. Asking “Why” is a taboo and can only get the woman into more trouble. By the time these girls become adults, they are well trained to obey their husbands and in-laws. I cannot even get started about the chaos of living in an oppressive extended family, the torture, the degradation and the whole shebang.

Indian Women, painting by Tasneem Sheikh

In the past two decades, Indian parents have increasingly realized the importance of their daughters’ higher education. This is a good sign, however the achievement of finishing school and getting a degree or a postgraduate degree is futile if girls are not made aware of their self-worth and if they are still expected to be submissive; submissive to parents, husbands, in-laws, and society in general. Living in a democratic country is not enough if there is no democracy for women and girls at home.

Living in a democratic country is not enough if there is no democracy for women and girls at home.

A young Chartered Accountant, Divya was tortured for years by her in-laws because she could not meet the in-laws’ ever-increasing dowry demands. Her parents reluctantly complied with all demands and assumed that, and I quote,

“I thought, slowly, everything will be fine.”

A young Chartered Accountant, Divya, was tortured for years by her in-laws who could not meet their ever increasing dowry demands. Her parents reluctantly fulfilled all demands and assumed, I quote:

“I thought, slowly, everything will be fine”.

Divya is the face of many Indian women who are probably undergoing something much worse as you read this article. I choose Divya’s example as it amazes me that she belongs to the same state, Tamil Nadu, as the successful personalities like Google CEO Sundar Pichai, former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and honorable late Abdul Kalaam, former president of India.

In an era where humans are planning trips to Mars, femicide and infanticide is still prevalent in India. As I write, dating is still thoroughly frowned. Pre-natal sex determination is illegal in India because otherwise too few girls would be born and there would be a severe gender imbalance. Very little has been done to improve the plight of girls and women in India.

Strong Woman, painting by Tasneem Sheikh

To make matters worse, the entertainment industry has been telecasting soap operas based on cliched mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships. These soaps help entrench the oppressive traditional extended family system where the mother-in-law plans, plots and manipulates her daughter-in-law.

These brain-numbing shows caricature women as catty and spiteful, and not only do they promote hatred of women, but they also train the people – glued to the television, – in new tactics to bring more drama and negativity into their extended family domain. To sponsor soap operas like this, most of the advertisers show women in submissive roles.

In 2018, All Out, a mosquito repellent brand, launched an advertisement that received 6.4 million views. This advertisement boasted of “supporting” mothers who were tough on their children. The advertisement encouraged the idea that daughters-in-laws should wait on men and older women and serve dinner to family members. The implication is also that daughters-in-law should accept ridicule from husbands and mothers-in-law. The daughter-in-law is always shown to be someone who never stands up for herself. She doesn’t utter a single word in the course of the whole advertisement.

In an era where humans are planning trips to Mars, femicide and infanticide is still prevalent in India.

The irony is that a significant percentage of Indians relish and savor such poisonous dramas. How can one expect a child to respect and love their mother when the social environment teaches that child precisely the opposite of respect?

The venom of the patriarchy has penetrated so deep into the Indian system at all levels that it is impossible for people to think things through clearly and articulate properly what feminism entails. Misogynistic nitwits join the “stand up for tough mothers” brigade. These are people who ignore the toxic, patriarchal environment infested with woman haters and bullies.

On the bright side, in India, we do have some men now who have rejected the patriarchal norms and support women’s social, political, economic and personal growth, regardless of what their parents and their culture teaches them.

My mentor, Dr. Sanjay Saxena, didn’t simply support his wife, he also helped her on every step of her personal and professional journey. Today his wife, Professor Purnima Awasthi, is a well-acclaimed researcher in one of India’s leading universities. India needs more men who see their partners as equals and as not submissive robots. On the other hand, India needs more financially independent women, too.

India needs more financially independent women, too.

Here is my advice to all girls and women who are struggling to survive and live a better life. Not all of us have received the support we need from our parents or our immediate environment. However, it is never too late to choose our friends and partners wisely. Let us treasure the people who make an effort to be in our life, who love and respect us for being ourselves, as women. At the same time, let us not think twice about distancing ourselves from those who are disrespectful to us, to girls and women.

If we get rid of the oppression of women and girls it, becomes easier for women and girls to laser focus on their goals. My mentor taught me,

“People will come and go, even I won’t be with you forever, and the only thing that will remain with you are your goals and accomplishments, so Invest In yourself as a woman.”

This is the most important lesson I learned in life as a woman and a human being: one must be self-reliant to escape the expectations, controls and punishments of the toxic patriarchy that currently dominates in India. Women in India have to become more self reliant.

I hope that all women WAKE UP to the possibility of changing the world and creating a better and happier life.

Tasneem Sheikh

Tasneem Sheikh is a university lecturer and a passionate advocate of the empowerment of girls and young women. She is a self-taught painter. After a long gap of 15 years, Tasneem has found herself painting again and there is no stopping her now.

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