The empowered martyr

When watching the character portrayed by Priyanka Chopra in दिल धड़कने दो, I felt a sense of familiarity. I have met this personality before. She is smart but confused. She is too sensitive, is hurt by the insensitive remarks made by the feudal males around. Forever overshadowed by a dominating father and later a passive aggressive husband, a mother who does not think much beyond her social circle and a mother-in law who has I-have-this-ailment-dialogues for every occasion, where can she express herself, where can she let her hair down? Her only outlet is her brother who understands without the need for words. She has everything, a husband who can provide for her, a job, she goes out of way to be supportive to all, but she is still the “daughter” and the wife who has to bow to everyone’s wishes.

No, this is not a film review. This is about this character, this person who a lot of us can relate to and maybe find within us and around us. And whether she is really empowered. The famous dialogue “I allow her to work so she is empowered” is so clichéd yet a fact we encounter daily. I kept on thinking about it long after I came back home. We made fun of it. “I allow you to make tea”. But the reality remains that you and I have heard this before. The world is changing. But the old world, with its own charm, had its own nasty viewpoints some of which still linger. I have heard my MIL remark “हम नहीं allow करते तो तुम कुछ नहीं कर सकती थी”, many years back. No, I actually respect her a lot, she comes from a generation where she was a pioneer in many respects having worked most of her life while most of her peers just cooked, slaved around at home and expected the same from all  बहू’s  around. I get the feeling that she says it more to herself, convincing herself that is the case and therefore holding her head high in front of the-esteemed-mom-in law-circle.

One of my friends from school days, I still remember, stayed right next door, when I would go to her home in the evening, she would be making chapatis for the family. – we were maybe in class VI at that time. Her mom would sit around not doing a thing. This girl, barely in her teens, had to make 40-50 chapatis before she was allowed to play with me. And if she resisted, her mom would give her a tight slap in front of everyone with dialogues like “चूल्हे में झोक दूंगी”. I have no idea where she is now and did she carry the same baggage in her next phase of life or she has changed. Would she be able to say No to her husband or she would remember that slap and comply.

My dad was a dominating husband, at times he would treat my mother pretty shabbily. She was a working woman, but had no say in any kind of decision-making in the family. She hardly ever had money to call her own and at times had to hide money from her husband in order to meet her social responsibilities. There were times when she would devalue herself so much, and declare she was dumb that is why her husband would treat her so. She could not even buy a saree without seeking permission. A generation earlier but I can see the similarities between her and this character portrayed by Priyanka. She would do great in her job, everyone would admire her, except her own family, who would treat her like dirt.

This is not about being a woman, it is about treating human beings with respect, not changing the level of respect because the person is a female.  My maid in Delhi would come to work beaten black and blue by her drunk husband and I would be more upset than her. Tell her, Let us go to the police and she would refuse. She said she had nowhere to go. I told her I’ll give her shelter, she still refused. She would laugh with a black eye and a broken tooth but still go and give all her earnings to him. Many educated ladies I know are in the similar boat- don’t have anywhere to go. So they deal with the sufferings- not silently any more- nobody does a Nirupa Rai, they fight, they suffer and they comply. I feel so strongly that females must be financially independent as far as possible, so when you have a strong need, you can step up for yourself and call it quits and move on. Priyanka needed an anchor before she could take the step. But are we so weak? A person I am very close to, is unhappy in her marriage, but she has a sick child and is not qualified enough to earn. So she survives in a loveless relationship with a husband who only comes home to eat and sleep, 7 days a week and gives her money to run the house and feed the family. Yes, he does provide for her. Maybe she should be happy in her silent suffering.

In Maharashtra, a lot of women work. And support their husbands. My maids earn more than their husbands and sons but still undergo the torture of being beaten at times and when they fall ill, there is nobody to look after them. But the social stigma still remains, the सिन्दूर  has to be there, the husband must be fed, even if they go hungry. Remember the character played by Sridevi in English Vinglish. Wasn’t that a classic example of a similar case. Someone who is gently smothered, unintentionally, who wants to break free, but within her social bounds. You need a will of steel and a heart of gold to be that and do that.

The biggest problem with us women is that we do not give ourselves the respect we deserve, we do not speak up for ourselves. In our mind we are still the commoners or slaves and our husbands and sons’ the Kings and the Princes’. The day we realize we are all equal, the world will be different. By treating your male counterparts as superior beings, we are not doing a favour to them. We are sending them the wrong signals and just when they get used to it, we will blame them for not supporting us in household work or other needs. But then kings don’t do that. Is sacrifice the way of expressing our love or our gratitude in being provided for?

Recently a woman employee in my office resigned. In a strange manner. Her husband called up to say she is not coming to work any more. When she was called, her husband picked up. She would not even come to the phone. After a number of discussions, she just came and said I can’t work for personal reasons and refused to elaborate. I can’t even begin to imagine the circumstances that compelled her to take such a step.

And how we love to make sacrifices and tell it out loud. We will eat after feeding everyone else (I do that too). We will not say No even if we have a headache. we will leave our jobs to accommodate the family. Someone I know has been cribbing her ever since I know her- All my life I am sacrificing for my husband and my children and I have done nothing for myself. Why didn’t you? If you had the will power and strong desire to do something for yourself, nobody would have stopped you. Being a martyr and blaming others is the easy way. India is a free nation, we don’t need martyrs any more, voluntary or involuntary, even empowered ones.