We are constrained by our own existential realities – a statement that may incite a vociferous debate. However, it is more a matter of acceptance than discord. It is not easy or commonplace to think out of the box and therein lies its merit. Transcending the bounds of the known requires not will but wish – a choice of the heart. To understand, appreciate and empathize with what does not comprise our conceptual and immediate world necessitates a kind of transmogrification of the mind crossing over barriers of limited knowledge, baser apathy and reluctance of intent. Intolerance is founded upon our resistance and disinclination to approach a view point that may be in absolute variance with our own and a hurry to jump to the conclusion that not following the routine may be a disguised attempt to cover up an ulterior motive or a hidden handicap.
This little preface to a more elaborate citation that follows is with regard to the buzz word of contemporary social progression – the movement called EMPOWERMENT that has been initiated with great enthusiasm by the various agencies of governance and non-governmental bodies in the country; a subject which is as sensitive as burning and delicate – EMPOWERMENT – the tool of emancipation of not only the womankind but mankind itself. Else how do you visualize a civilization strengthening and surging forward if one half of the population remains chained behind? Logically, it is impossible.
Empowerment is a multi-dimensional and multi-layered project which evades a cognitive absolute. It has several facades and many divergent and variegated aspects associated with it. When women crossed the threshold to march alongside their male counterparts to earn a livelihood her financial independence was said to be a step towards empowerment. The first female engineer, astronaut, pilot or doctor was milestone achievers. As the light of education seeped into the curtained domain of the housebound girl children, another landmark vision of empowerment was attained. There was a time when very few women corporates made it to the Board Room. The first gatecrasher (not in the exact spirit of the action) of course opened the floodgate of many other worthy ones to follow suit. To our urban consciousness these broad examples are constituents of empowerment.
Again empowerment has a contextual relativity and tone. When Anita, my neighbor, decided to open a tiny beauty parlour in one of the front rooms of her flat, her father-in-law did not much like the idea of a working daughter-in-law. Anita’s plea was that she was contributing to the family coffer without stepping out of the house. Her husband who did not enjoy benefits of a secured job put in tacit support. Surprisingly, it was her mother-in-law’s wholehearted encouragement and backing that decided the matter. During one of our heart-to-heart chats, Anita had confided that she considered it a complete waste not to utilize the skills that she had acquired before marriage. The monetary gain supplemented the utilitarian value of her work skills which not only kept her engaged but also gave a purpose to spend time meaningfully.
For our maid, Chandra, a victim of domestic violence, absconding from her husband’s house, with the aid of another man, seemed the only life-saving course. When Charles Darwin propounded his famous Survival of the Fittest theory, did he not imply that it was the empowered who were the likely survivors in the process of evolution or vice versa, it was the survivors who recognized foremost the need to empower themselves in order to befit a continuously changing environment ?
Empowerment thus flouts status quo. It is the first mantra of adaptability and adoptability. It is like the escalator which takes the rider up on its own volition. Its motion is circular indicating a never ending process provided you were the one ready to put your foot on the first step first.
Remember Scarlet O’Hara of that incomparable classic ‘Gone WithThe Wind’? I was rather confused by her character – her total lack of virtue and her unabashed selfish opportunism. Yet she was the heroine of the epic novel. I was too inexperienced then to fully comprehend the intricate nuances of the chronology of change at the same time I could intuitively sense a survivor in her who had the dynamism to confront every challenging situation of life with a head-on-collision-kind-of-attitude. In doing so, she, a pawn in the hands of history, epitomized the paradigm of historical divide and change, surviving as well as imbibing it – an empowered woman!
That brings to the next most important question. Is empowerment goaded by the streak of narcissism present in human genome or is it an instinctive pursuit reflecting the need of time? Perhaps it is the intrinsic human tendency to build and rebuild one’s own self? When Bachhendri Pal scaled the Everest, the adrenaline in her blood stream must have, at every trek, pumped her up with a high measurable to that of the feeling of invincibility. Up at the peak she must have looked down upon the world with the inflated spirit of a conqueror? Conquests dazzle us with an aura of empowerment. Victory elevates one from mundane drudgeries and petty hardships. However, exceptionally, winning can also make us realize the defeat of soul like it did to Asoka The Great (witnessing the mass killings of the Kalinga War which he had himself waged to confiscate the feudal republic of Kalinga) – a transformation from physical to spiritual empowerment.
For my married colleagues, a more understanding and receptive husband and caring mother-in-law meant little steps further towards empowerment. For harassed and stressed out working women and householders alike a few hours of me-time is a means towards empowerment. Two and a half decades ago when I decided to go single my family had to be consoled as well as counseled to accept my decision. And then there were those neighborhood busybodies who took upon themselves to snoop out the skeleton in my cupboard, which had, according to them, prompted me to take such a decision. One of my female colleagues had once asked me how I had mentally reconciled to spinsterhood. What she actually meant was how have I brainwashed myself into believing that I am still happy being single? I was upset over it for a long time and asked myself a number of times whether I was deluding myself in thinking that I couldn’t care less if I were single. These were so-called modern, educated women who put these questions. Two and a half decades later, I have mustered the gumption to ask myself do I need an excuse to believe that I am happy ? Again, it was these colleagues who maintained stony silence when I once broached the subject of parenting homeless children. It was these colleagues who considered not dressing in a certain way or following fashion positively down market. It was these colleagues, who nurtured secret desires to smoke, taste the booze and watch a raunchy blue film without their husband’s knowledge. They were the adventurous lot, no doubt, and felt a kind of thrill in doing what they were for centuries not allowed to do in public. One amongst these, who hailed from the backwaters of our country, once purportedly told her subordinate that she should not be taken lightly as she belonged to the mod crop of ‘jean’ clad women. To the deprived and rustic (with due respect) a cross over to the urban milieu and embracing its ways and means and lifestyle is coming of age. While we marvel at an eunuch heading a Panchaayat, how many of us address them as human beings when accosted by their coarse mannerisms?
Empowerment entails overhauling of the age-old mindset. While the arm of government that I serve recognized and extended facilities to single women bread-earners taking care of their dependents, it was my peers and colleagues who refused to acknowledge that a single woman can be the head of a family or meant to have a family for that matter. One of my male colleagues once blatantly told me, “Where is your family? You’re not married !” A number of times, Invitation Cards from Office would read only my name while my ‘fortunate’ colleagues had a “with family” tag on theirs. Quite a lot has changed since then. Nowadays, women opt to remain single. Seconding their new found singlehood does not necessarily mean undermining the institution of marriage. It also does not mean approving the number of divorces which is on the rise in the country – the lack of patience and tolerance for each other, the lack of time and faith invested into a relationship so essential for it to grow and mature. My friend and her beau, both professionals, have well-charted out plans for furthering their careers which include getting enrolled for more advanced courses with a view to update and enrich themselves in their respective fields. Marriage is also on the cards. Dividing their time between high-profile jobs and compulsory-attendance classes, I really wonder how they intend to make their marriage work. Have they really thought of investing as much into their new life which they are heading for? Or will career be their first priority always and marriage just a side-dish to be savoured during occasional meals together? Which takes me to my next musing – can we empower ourselves divesting our attention off our near and dear ones and relationships which we hold dear ‘on-paper’?
Singlehood or the choice to remain single, in contrast, provides another facet of life. The option is not an easy one as it seems to many married friends of mine. It is as difficult as making success of a marriage. While burning bras is misrepresented as liberation, equally singlehood, contrary to prevalent mindset, especially amongst married women, does not signify escape from responsibilities, duties and obligations which being part of family and society entail. Even though it is grossly undermined, even in today’s progressive times, I would say singlehood is definitely as much a statement on feminism as motherhood is. To reiterate my earlier thought, I am glad that more and more women are able to voice their preference in this respect (whether to get married or remain single) which implies that they have alternate options to select from, a freedom of choice, which was earlier completely unavailable to them. To look beyond perceived notion is also a way forward towards being empowered.
Empowerment, in the final analysis, thus, is a crusade for identity. To know thyself – what we are good at and what our limitations are; what we want to do and what we loath; how to improve upon our own selves and internalize that improvement to our own benefit; to discard the obsolete and adopt and adapt to systemic and societal changes. One of my senior female colleagues, supposedly liberated and empowered, once refused a chair considerately drawn towards her by a male colleague, remarking, “Remember! We are at par now and can draw our own chairs.” Well, a small incident which still rankles with me. Can we call ourselves empowered by repulsing something nice and humane as chivalry on the part of our male counterpart?
While our urban consciousness restricts periphery excluding the millions in the village who do not have paper degrees to brandish and declare themselves empowered, we should not forget that the woman who rubs shoulder with the menfolk at the construction site is also a professional. So is the traditional midwife or bone-setter with knowledge born out of experience! So is the homemaker whose core-competency in smoothly managing the household, a twenty four hours job, need not be out rightly discarded, devalued or derided as ‘routine stuff’ just because it’s not paid service or require prestigious paper degrees. More so because it comes naturally to her!!! And which is natural cannot always be perfected through learning. Prabha, my maid does not share her salary to keep the kitchen fire burning. Instead she has been saving the same to invest in a small-scale tertiary industry that she and her husband are running with the help of other family members. Chinmun, my ‘life support’, has been tending three kids and a liability of a drunkard husband, who is given to squandering money painstakingly saved and rightly invested in necessities.
Like all other dynamics of social development, the concept of empowerment is not static. Time shall add many new dimensions to it. Many new ways shall be discovered and devised, in near future, to suit requirements hitherto unforeseeable. Having said all that, it may also be underscored that empowerment, at its rudimentary level, envisages a conducive societal framework free of regressive practices and aberrations like dowry, sati, child abuse, rape, sexual harrassment at workplace, murder, etc., a healthy economic infrastructure backed by sound and uniform education system and equality of opportunity with emphasis on self-reliance and economic independence wherein child labour would be a forgotten tale and a definite political will to develop this exemplary model of human habitation.
However, success of a movement lies in solidarity. As long as we misunderstand and misrepresent the essence and ethos & found our rapport with the opposite sex and our own on distrust and skepticism, empowerment shall tend to be just a misadventure. It needs to take on a holistic and inclusive approach to be more impactful and effective in the true sense of the term.
Being single therefore does not mean singlehanded. It means singlemindedly working towards a goal which awakens us to a greater consciousness and elevates us to a higher plane. When Tagore wrote the song, “ekla chalo re” he did not intend a lonely travel. On the contrary, what he meant was that a person of conviction should courageously follow a path less-trodden taking along the others with him. And that is exactly what the Mahatma did to whom the song is incidentally dedicated.
We, in pursuasion of Tagore’s Clarion Call, have to do exactly the same. Walk with head held high taking the world along with us on a road less-travelled.