Fifty Shades of Freedom

140825737It’s Independence Day, 2014, and urban Indian women are negotiating myriad freedoms.

Sanjivini, a mid-level finance analyst in an audit firm, is demanding her right to be safe on her way to work from Model Town in northern Delhi to Gurgaon. She cannot afford a car, and she hates the sexual harassment she has to face on the public transport system. When the 29-year-old newlywed asks for an office cab or shuttle service, she is told she can look for work closer to home if she is afraid of the commute. At a Women’s Day party in office, a male colleague tells her, “None of the men here get special treatment or office cabs. You women demand equal rights but in truth want extra benefits.”

Nineteen-year-old Anju is in Delhi working as a maidservant. This wasn’t the plan; the idea was to go to nursing college straight after completing her 12th from the local convent in her Bihar village. But her parents still have three more children to put through school, and she’ll have to pay for her own education, she’s told. So she accompanies an aunt to the big city in search for a job. Soon she is trapped in a vicious cycle: her income is sent back home to support her family so she has nothing left for herself and her fantasy college admission. Freedom to study would have been nice.

Asha, a 53-year-old svelte, wealthy Mumbai housewife, shyly brushes off the entire concept of freedom. Once a gold medallist in college and a maths whiz by passion, she now plays the strategic role of daughter-in-law, wife, mother and mother-in-law, calculating emotions, moods and relationships 24×7 in a joint family. Is there any freedom she needs? Freedom to speak her mind? Freedom to travel or write or perhaps even work? Freedom to express her own needs from time to time? It’s better not to talk about freedom, she says, and changes the subject.

Priyanka gave up her job as an editor in a Mumbai media house when her husband was transferred to Bangalore and mom was no longer around to help with bringing up the kid. A second baby soon sealed the deal; the 35-year-old couldn’t dream of going back to work. She tries at times to freelance from home, to squeeze in time between picking the kids up from school and shooting off copy on deadline to an information-technology magazine or posting updates on her blog. But she’s always late, for everything. Freedom to not have to choose between work and family? Sure.

At 24, Nisha is of course confused. Her 50-something boss keeps his hand around her waist whenever he introduces her to someone at their MNC office in Bangalore. He also keeps his elbow on her shoulders and once kept a palm firmly fixed on her thigh all through a two-hour conference as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The MBA graduate loves her first job except when the boss is around; she dare not talk about it to her colleagues. They’ll think she’s asking for it to rise through the ranks. And she dare not complain to HR; they’ll choose him over her any day. Is there something like freedom to work without being pawed?

Some others aren’t negotiating freedom at all. They’re the ones with the blank, burdened gaze as they pass along yet another basket of sand at the construction site, their grimy babies rolling about on the ground. They’re the ones with black eyes and scarred palms, tightening the dupattas around their waists as they head into the posh bungalows to cook and clean, their drunken husbands still in bed in the ghettos. They’re the ones under the flyovers, lying listless between rounds of begging, in their teenage eyes a vacuum where humanity is supposed to be. They aren’t fighting. They’ve given up.

The battle’s nowhere near being won. But there are moments of hope. When a woman breaks an ancient tradition to become a head priest in a temple or the president or prime minister of the country. When a woman is elected the speaker of the Lok Sabha for the first time. When the new Chief Justice of the city High Court happens to be a woman. When a widow has a second marriage based on love and respect. When a divorcee is no longer stared at or called a loose woman. When a girl can wear a short skirt and win an international sports championship and no one raises an eyebrow or an uproar. When women pilot airplanes and none of the passengers crack jokes. When a single woman adopts a baby.

Freedom, Indian women have learnt, doesn’t come easy, free or cheap. In fact, some would tell you freedom isn’t a destination at all. It’s a work of precious progress. You build some, you lose some, you build some more. Then, if you’re lucky, you can look back and say, “I didn’t always do it my way, but I did the best I could – and I savoured every little drop of freedom to the fullest.”

First published on TheNewsMinute.com

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