October 07, 2007

Taking Feminism Out of the Coffee Lounge

FEMINISTS USUALLY get bad press. Who wants to listen to a bunch of whiny women who bitch and moan even when it’s not that time of the month? And those of us who do identify with the feminist cause find ourselves defending behaviors and battling misconceptions and stereotypes because we feel the need to make it clear that “it’s not what we’re about”.

Then really, what are we about? A group of people who are comfortably off in life and can afford the luxury of time and space to complain? Are feminists the ones you see wearing intentionally plunging necklines and demanding equal rights over cappuccino? Or is it time we looked outward through the floor-to-ceiling walls of our local ‘cool place to hang out’ and played Spot the Feminist in the real world?

Savita Dhumak is your everyday working class woman, with her hair neatly pulled back in a bun, her bangles matching her saree for the day. She works at my preschool, attending to the children, should they need help in the restroom or the paddle pool or getting changed. Twenty years ago, in a move that shocked her community in Jamnagar, Gujarat, Savita married a man she loved. That he did not belong to her ethnic community was second in the list of crimes she had committed, the first being what she patiently explains as her “love marriage”.

Being the eldest in a family of four children, she set the worst possible example then, but today, all is fine and dandy, and she is warmly accepted each time she takes a trip back home. She is proud of her husband’s position as caretaker in a Cabinet Minister’s bungalow in South Bombay and has raised her daughters to follow their minds. But she is no less proud of the work she does with children. Now, if you have fleshed her out as aggressive, opinionated and intimidating, it’s time to use White-Out.

What strikes me most about her each time I see her is the dignity she carries herself with, even while scurrying about with a bunch of multicolored balls. And the respect she accords to each person she interacts with, regardless of age and status. Her humility teaches me lessons every day and there are times when I am ashamed of my unwarranted cocky behavior. She has clearly not let her choices inflate her sense of self, but instead lives by them through dedicated action. She is articulate, certainly. But never oppressively so. A woman who didn’t make it past high school, she has a keen sense of private and public space and the definitive parts she occupies in both. I may sound over the top when I say that her existence is a joy to watch, but she intrigues me. I want to hear her story, celebrate her fortitude, and not have to piece together the woman she is from the snatches of information I cull from our conversations.

But then I remind myself, this isn’t just about me. It is a lesson to be imbibed and I’ve already been trying: to look around and watch out for feminists where I least expect to find them. But maybe it isn’t time to go looking for feminists with a microscope just yet. I first need to free my blinkered mind and acknowledge that feminists exist everywhere. They may not blog like I do, or apply for a Ph.D. degree because I can, but their message is in their actions. They’re out there, for sure. It is up to me to gulp down that cappuccino, settle the bill, and step out onto the bustling street again.

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3 comments to Taking Feminism Out of the Coffee Lounge

  • apu

    I think there are feminists everywhere, and it has nothing to do with the necklines they wear or the places they hang out. sure some are aflluent and some are not. class will play a key role in which issues are important to them. and yes, as the ones at the affluent end of the spectrum, i think we have a responsibility not to lose sight of issues which affect women at the other end of the spectrum. though it shouldn’t mean we can’t talk about issues that affect us too.

  • @Apu: And that was the perfect precis for my entire post. 🙂

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