Living in Delhi has made me a feminist hypocrite (though maybe me becoming a femo-crite is somehow offset by my boyfriend simultaneously turning into a feminist).
How does a strong, independent, highly-educated, liberal-minded, well-travelled woman who identifies as a feminist suddenly and consciously impose patriarchal restrictions on herself?
Well, I sort of got railroaded into it. Pun intended.
You see, the first carriage of every Delhi metro train is reserved for ladies (at the front of the platform the hot pink signs adorned with sparkly stars and happy, cursive lettering could be mistaken for adverts for the latest Barbie. But no. They simply demarcate this gendered space).
On my hour-long commute into work each morning and evening I have been traveling in this wagon of womanhood with nary a thought for its feminist implications. I guess I’ve been too distracted admiring all the bold patterns and bright colours Indian women wear.
It took a ride with an Indian colleague to get me really thinking about why life in Delhi challenges my belief that feminism should be a practice as well as a theory.
“I supposed you want to travel in the ladies’ carriage?” my hip, young, middle-class work-mate asked me as we walked from our office. She made the word ‘ladies’ sound dirty.
I nodded enthusiastically.
She rolled her eyes and said “Alright. Let’s go. I wouldn’t normally ride in the women’s carriage, but you’re a foreigner so I suppose I understand why you’d feel more comfortable there.”
Our communal commute turned into an impromptu lecture on hip, young, middle-class Indian feminism; each point punctuated by a stop of the train. My new friend doesn’t think the women only carriages solve the problems of gender inequality – if anything, they perpetuate it.
Besides, the discomfort of being stared at by men is probably the most benign manifestation of India’s deeply ingrained misogyny. Most of the truly awful stuff happens behind closed doors, within families. Moreover, the ladies’ carriages effectively remove women from the rest of the train, meaning that those who remain in the mixed gender parts of it attract more attention or are made to feel unwelcome because they should be in ‘their own’ carriage.
Of course my colleague is absolutely right. And in a place like Australia (where I come from) I would take her advice and not condone a division of the sexes by using ‘women only’ anything. But this is India. And I’m glad of any opportunity to make my life here a little more comfortable. I’m glad of the less crowded ladies-only carriages and I’m glad of the ladies-only security check. And I’m even glad of the little smile of sisterhood solidarity I get from the ladies patting me down through said security check.
But I am concerned that since arriving in Delhi I’ve fallen into a few behaviours that I would consider anti-feminist in Australia. For a start, I’ve dragged my boyfriend here to act as my husband on demand. I wear a fake wedding ring, though I believe that claiming to already belong to a man is a really counterproductive way of rejecting unwanted advances.
I expect him to be what I think Indian society expects a ‘husband’ to be; in charge of everything. When there’s a deliveryman at the door, I expect the man to deal with it. Ditto when a cab fare needs to be negotiated. Ordering dinner? Same again.
With the boyfriend momentarily upgraded to the role of husband, my own status in the relationship has also changed. Sure, I’m still the bread winner and the mastermind behind this whole Indian adventure. But I know my new place. I no longer mind that shopkeepers will always speak directly to the man by my side while ignoring me.
I’ve stopped getting angry every time I have to fill in a form that asks for my husband’s or father’s contact details as though I can only be legitimated through a male’s authority. And that one time an auto-rickshaw driver insisted on shaking my hand then held it in his moist paw for way too long while looking me up and down, well, I really should have called over my ‘husband’ (who was nearby but distracted) to make it clear he did not appreciate his property being coveted.
I’ve taken to dressing as modestly as I can – altering my personal style to fit into social expectations of how ‘good’ women should look. Worse still, I’ve caught myself looking askance at women who flash too much shoulder or ankle. The double standard of men who wear paunch-hugging shirts and revealingly tight jeans does not concern me.
In Australia I believe that smashing the patriarchy begins with the individual. Feminism is a daily personal struggle. But here in Delhi I seem to have forgotten that one person can make a difference.
So am I a femo-crite? Am I being hypocritical of my feminist beliefs because I’m playing into gender inequalities? Or am I just deservedly exploiting every little advantage I can in an inequitable system?