The hardest thing to do is to come out from behind the glass walls of the tribe. You become so good at covering up, appeasing, never telling on its members, even when you know there is something wrong with the picture. As members of a tribe, glass walls of silence are built around us, the dominant among us think it’s safe to do what they want, get way with it, anyone who has felt their tyranny know to keep silent as they will be violating an unwritten social contract by telling.
You can scream, but no one can hear you through the glass walls. That is where feminism came in a generation ago. It broke through and told on everyone. But there was a price to pay, to come out and tell, for trying to upend the social order. Blowback. Things have come to such a pass that even the word feminism is now tainted with unflattering nuances. It now needs UN campaigns and celebrities to reclaim its place in the world.
I write in search of expiation. This is a piece I had wanted to write more than any other, but one that turned out to be the most intimidating to attempt. The effects of a lifetime wracked with guilt for not doing what is the norm won’t easily wear off. A norm that instinct tells you is deeply prejudiced even if socially sanctioned.
Being told that you are ungrateful and worthy of odium for not kneeling before your tribe makes you always doubt yourself, and go into hiding inside yourself. I had intuitively been a feminist, though undeclared, relentlessly passive-aggressive, unable to articulate myself clearly when frustrated by the oppressions of my particular realm.
I struggled for long to be free of the binding social contract I was born with, a metaphorical document, which had been signed on my behalf even before I was born. It was a contract based on gender and it was very country/society specific.
I was very young when the walls pressed in on me, but I became used to living with the suffocation. Back then I did not question it. The social customs of my culture burdened me, but I could not put a name to it. People busied themselves with their religions and gender roles and I too was a nameless being, a cog in the machine trained by culture not to throw a wrench in the works. But there would soon come a time when I could no longer make peace with the knowledge that I was not allowed to be free, to tell.
Today I experience a level of moderate freedom. Although, what I gained came fraught with dues and expenses. I had to pay for violating the terms of my social contract.
The first penalty was love denied. I had found in my unseen hand a list of duties to perform, which I dodged, perpetually awol. I was never sufficiently submissive towards my assumed betters as the contract specified. It was big things and little things. For instance, I noticed that the paterfamilias in my house would never pick up a broom to clean as that was regarded as a woman’s job, so I decided spitefully I wouldn’t either except secretly when his back was turned. In my world, he was asserting his right, and I was lazy and pigheaded.
Chastisement for violation was kindness denied. If you felt sad, cast off—rebellion would result in rejection—you had to shake it off, as you had brought on your own hardship. When you begin to violate your social contract that is the first thing you learn to live with, to get on without love. Then brace yourself for the hostility even from your sisters, friends.
I discovered much later that it was not that I had betrayed the tribe. The guilt I felt was punishment for trying to extract myself from bondage—perhaps my very own mild Stockholm syndrome. I discovered that to the people around me I would always be ‘an other’ not quite warm and human deserving of love, but a service provider, a worker bee. I could not see then how as a corollary to the unlove I would grow sour and resentful.
I did not question it until the day, I saw what it means to those who are loved. How they are easy-going, and their cheer not hard won from the world. Even though the love they receive also comes with conditions, it is not as restrictive or severe as the ones given me. They do not mind performing their duties because they are loved. I stood outside the glass looking in at them and sobbed. My snivelling self-pity has not ceased to this day. I wake every morning to it.
Feminism today requires apologists and celebrity promotion to restore its good name, because people like me were too afraid, ashamed to embrace what had become an old, unfashionable word. War alternates with appeasement. And now that the first wave of feminism is over, it seems to be the time to apologise to all those cast by that first wave in monochrome, the patriarch and the veil; to apologise to those of us in the intersections, living with diversity, race, colour and caste.
But in this piece, I do not want to apologise or seek apologies—if anything I seek expiation for myself. I am glad that someone somewhere, even if they were privileged pale women of a generation past, said something, put a name to it when I was not yet ready. So that I, in a remote corner of a tropical world shut in by orthodoxy, read their words and was able to convert it for use in my context.
I need those harsh, unalloyed words to fortify me more than ever now; when I feel the need to appease those who are quick to take offence and become belligerent; when I cower and try to placate those who are defensive about a way of life, however oppressive it may be—when I am down and I feel the need to crawl back inside the glass wall, back into the arms of a tribe that will put me in my place. My mind needs their words of strength born a generation ago far from familiar climes.
The cities in my country are now awash in a sea of blue-jean feminism. Across the length and breadth of this nation, diktats, against this one particular type of casual wear, have been issued by conservatives, who seem united in this cause despite their religious and sectarian differences. When I walk down the road and join in this sisterhood of denim, I do not want to act contrite, be conflicted with guilt, but walk proud in this piece of foreign clothing deemed impious but donned to herald to the world around us that a change has come, even though it sneaked in through a chink in the glass wall wearing jeans. The mercies are small, few and far between. We will take what we can get in lieu of love.