What does the F-word mean?

The definition of feminism has changed over the years. From equality and respect to freedom and independence, here is what it means to women across generations
What does the F-word mean?

CHENNAI: We women…we try to fit in throughout our lives. Because they put us under a microscope — how we walk, talk, dress, express! At 13, my peers would judge me for not being ‘feminine’. I played more sports and had more body hair. Ashamed, I’d secretly use appa’s razor to trim my thick eyebrows.” Sitting in her little room overlooking the bustling, vibrant streets of New Delhi, 23-year-old Harini’s voice becomes small, zapped of colour when she laments, “There were days I just cried and cried because I felt I wasn’t enough in the eyes of others.”

In Sweet Karam Coffee, a Tamil web series that aired last year, three generations of women — a 70-something athai, 40-something marumagal, and 20-something pethi — suddenly embark northwards on an adventure of a lifetime. Third-generation Niveditha, much like Harini, is an outspoken, promising cricketer…but several sixes away from society’s ‘prim and proper’ pitch. At every pitstop, the three generations break handcuffs, shackles, and chains, coalescing with the women who once lived within. Fearless. Fabulous. Free. Why, some may even call them the F-word! Feminists, dear all, feminists.

And while pop culture disdainfully paints on its clichéd canvas an angry young woman who loathes men as the embodiment of feminism, one’s curious vein pops out to decipher what women — in our cities, castles, valleys, villages, hamlets, hillocks, coasts, and crevices — really define as the F-word in their worlds. Harini says, “It is the freedom to be myself. One fine morning, I woke up and just told society: I don’t care.”

Women and their dreams

Vaidehi first fires a perplexed look across the table laden with scrumptious A to Zs when she hears the F-word. But the initial confusion fades into an upside-down smile when she tells her tale of travails. “I’ve been married for 52 years. In those days, it was ‘get married, be a good wife, and don’t talk back to your husband’. Maybe somewhere along the way, I forgot to dream,” chuckles the 74-year-old paati of three.

Growing up in a village in Tirunelveli, Vaidehi had big, big dreams that dared to tear out of her tiny, tiny kitchen, which she had pretty much helmed since the tender age of 10. A big, big doctor she wanted to be. But tragedy struck when her mother fell ill. “I had to take care of my family and lost a year of education. Then I got married and that was that. Chores, cooking, cleaning…mind you, there were no fancy machines to do it for you in the 70s,” she quips.

Today — be it in a mud house in the middle of nowhere or a mansion in a metropolis — an Indian woman is expected to ‘do it all’. So when my mother stepped into the workforce again after 13 years of caring for me and my little sister, the same society which wowed her clamped its intrusive foot down and bellowed out that she was a ‘bad mother’. Well, amma just turned the other cheek!

Although Vaidehi could not do the same, she blesses us with her wisdom: “Get financially independent. Girls, fearlessly run behind your dreams!”

Glass, glass, everywhere!

Thirty-three-year-old Thrissur-based engineer Shaheeda is piecing together her dream life, one corporate step at a time. But she knows deep inside that the steps are only so many, for beyond them lies the ghastly glass ceiling.

“Women’s ideas are just not heard! And you know what…a male boss once asked me if my husband would ‘allow’ me to join a team outing. Also, we corporate women need to be very careful about what we say and how we present ourselves. If a woman is more dressed up, she is dumb. Even if she does get a promotion, they say ‘Oh, she’s pretty, that’s why’. And if she is less dressed up, ‘Oh, she is not presentable only!’,” bemoans Shaheeda.

Society seems to swing between championing and abhorring the very symbols of beauty it once crafted and polished. No wonder then that a group of women in 1968 marched on the streets of New Jersey, hurling high heels, lipsticks and mops into a ‘Freedom Trash Can’ to protest the swimsuit round of the Miss America Pageant. The round was only removed half a century later but the double standards occupy a plushy little box in society’s rigid brain.

This rigidity pompously decks up as another avatar at home. “I did house chores, my brother didn’t. He could roll into the house at 12 am but I had to be in by 6 pm. And no matter how accomplished I become, my family, including the women, confide only in my brother for important matters,” laments Shaheeda, adding that such a mindset makes women each other’s biggest foes.

So Shaheeda is utterly clear about what she wants. “Feminism is equality for me. And doing away with gender roles both at home and work is the first step towards this.”

Human rights organisations loftily coin from their citadels terms like ‘equality’, ‘gender parity’, and ‘equal pay’. And countries across the world hold their palms up high to catch these coins. But what is the ground reality for our women?

The three thalaivis

“He used to come home drunk and beat me. He’d threaten to kill us. Fear, confusion, and anger weighed me down. And then one day, he ran away with another woman and never came back.”

Geetha shines with indescribable confidence as she recounts in pure Kannada her life — a chakravyuha of sorts if you will. Pushed as a child to toil in houses far different from her tiny shanty, little Geetha was often pinched by one ‘madam’ when the latter was displeased with her work. And when life threw a punch at her again years later, Geetha stood tall on the battlefield. For she had two mouths to feed.

Sitting next to Geetha is Bhavani, her 34-year-old engineer daughter. “Mummy also worked in a factory but didn’t get paid as much as the men and struggled to raise us. At seven, I was burdened by a sense of responsibility. But good people helped us…there was one uncle who taught me English. Others pooled in funds for my education. I did an MBA and now, I stand on my own two feet,” beams Bhavani.

A chirpy voice masquerades the two older women. Big, gleaming eyes, and a wide smile. Not a care in the world, free as can be, and rightly so. Four-year-old Satvika wants to be just like her mother, dress up, and dash to the office.

“I want for Satvika what I didn’t have…a carefree childhood. Society is judgemental of women but my girl can be whoever she wants to be.” Bhavani’s voice fades into an emotion that perhaps only her mother can understand.

Geetha heartily chuckles when she hears the word feminism, saying, “See, I don’t know what that means. But today, I am building a farmhouse in Chitradurga district all by myself. I feel stronger than ever.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is feminism for you. Bhavani does us one better: “Mummy went against all the odds. For me, that is feminism.”

A ‘meen’ reality

For Poongothai, the odds seemed to sadistically stack one on top of the other, barricading her from all the dreams that could be dreamt. “You know…I wanted to be an advocate at Madras High Court. But now, I wake up at 5 am. Make coffee for my husband. Do house chores. Then we go fishing. I sell our catch at the market. More chores and then I sell the leftover fish from earlier,” the 39-year-old somberly says.

In old Hollywood movies, fishing is this romanticised leisure activity. Something you do when you want to get away from the world. But for Poongothai, fishing is her life, the only world she has ever known. And her world only rains fish, not coins.

“We get paid less than them too. See, buyers bargain more gutsily with us and then we just have to adjust. And most men snatch the money from their wives for alcohol, beating them if they resist. I get so angry. Anyayam (injustice),” she says. Though unaware of the word ‘feminism’, the lawyer in Poongothai clearly wants something.

“Mariyadhe (respect), equal pay and adhikaram (rights). Adhe order la (In that order),” she boldly remarks.

Poongothai is truly being the change she wants to see, raising her two boys to ‘respect women’ and ‘encourage their dreams’. “Even as we speak, my younger one is drying the clothes outside. You know, if my daughter-in-law turns out to be an advocate, romba perumai-a irukum (I will be very proud),” she says.

Those who came before you would be so proud too, dear Poongothai. Like Virginia Woolf, who fearlessly clasped the pen and bested her male contemporaries, and Susan B Anthony, a figurehead of suffrage. And closer home, Savitribai Phule, who tirelessly advocated for girls’ education and Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, who protested the Devadasi system. Each of these greats, among many others, waged wars — in their own ways and capacities — against the systems that vowed to bring them down. That was feminism for them. For Harini? Freedom to express. For Vaidehi? Financial independence. For Shaheeda? Equality and ta-ta gender roles. For Geetha, Bhavani and kutti Satvika? Going against the odds. For Poongothai? Respect, equal pay, and rights. For me? Ah, the power of choice. That, I ardently believe, is an element that cascades into the rest.

You see, feminism is not about hating the other half. It is about you, your choice. To be or not to be a housewife. To work or not to work. To climb or not to climb the Himalayas. To…

Therefore, I choose to ask you, readers: What is feminism for you?

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