Growing up in India, my sister Sudha and I were raised as feminists by our mother even though, at that time, we did not quite understand how the term applied to us. We simply understood that we were expected to grow into strong, independent, self -sufficient women, and so we did. My older sister was a practicing physician until she retired a few years ago, while I took a different path into law and continue to practice even as I raised my own family.
Both my daughters have left home now, to pursue their own dreams and careers, bolstered I hope, by the tenacity and drive of the women in my family. My daughters clearly understand what it means to be feminist though they will define it differently from my baby boomer generation. They are millennials/Gen Z women of the ‘woke’ generation, who use terms like ‘intersectionality,’ ‘cisgendered’ or ‘heteronormative’ to interpret their version of feminism.
It reminded me that feminism and its goals have evolved over the years, building on the achievements of previous generations. Feminist goals that began with voting rights have grown to include reproductive rights and workplace equality to including men as advocates of the feminist agenda. Today, it’s not unusual for men to call themselves feminist.
Certainly, the goals my daughters have set for themselves in their version of feminism are broader in scope and so different from mine, not just generationally but even culturally. Today’s young American feminists want the experiences of women of color and minorities factored into feminist goals of equality. Any biases I encountered growing up were primarily gender-based – my ethnicity or skin color were never a factor.
My mission at that time was to find equality as a woman and fight the discrimination evident in my environment. It made me realize that back in India, some women are still fighting those same battles, even though my daughters who share my Indian heritage, are battling different ones. It reminded me too, of an elderly Marathi lady we called Aaji, who came to take care of my mother in the last decade of her life, and who I view as an original feminist.
Aaji lived across the street from us in a government-subsidized flat for low-level civil servants. Her husband was a government peon who provided a simple but comfortable life for his wife and three children. Aaji was well into her sixties when she joined our household as a carer – the first job she had ever had in her life.
Aaji came to us on the recommendation of our cook, her neighbor. My ailing mother needed help with everyday activities – bathing, dressing, combing her hair. Aaji arrived every day, clad in a traditional nine-yard saree, cheerfully batting away my mother’s short-tempered, brusque complaints. During her breaks she would remove a wad of tobacco stored carefully in a small cloth bag with pockets, crush and mix a concoction and pop it into her mouth.
As my mother grew to depend on Aaji’s gentle ministrations, so did her fondness and appreciation for this slight woman, with the thick spectacles and tiny bun knotted tightly at the back of her head. Aaji was gentle, but firm, keeping an eagle eye on the “boys” who took care of my father and cheerfully responding to my mother’s exacting demands. When my daughters arrived on their vacations, she would escort them everywhere, convinced that nobody could keep them safe the way she could.
All the while, she made careful observations of our household of outspoken women, who uninhibitedly shared their opinions and hopes about their lives and their future.
Aaji’s son lived nearby with her two grandchildren whom she loved dearly. But clearly, Aaji’s favorite was her
granddaughter Nishita, pretty, pigtailed and bright. She had great hopes for that girl. She knew that though her son loved Nishita, he could not afford a college education for her. That privilege would go to his son.
So Aaji became a woman with a mission. Nishita and her future would become her responsibility. It was a daunting undertaking for a woman her age, who came to feminism in her dotage. But she had observed the women of our household and inherently understood that empowering women gave them clout.
Looking back, I can only respect the singular determination with which Aaji pursued her goal. She was getting older, weakened by a bout of viral fever, and was once attacked by a gang, that used chloroform to subdue her and steal her gold bangles. My mother tried to offer support and a pension to retire, but Aaji persisted – she made it very clear she was not going anywhere as long as my mother was alive. When my mother passed, Aaji was the one who bathed and dressed her for the funeral.
She continued to work at our home for two years after my mother passed away, until Nishita graduated from college. Only then, did Aaji retire, self-sufficient, with a pension in her name.
In my mind, Aaji is an original feminist. Her definition of feminism especially for her grand-daughter would mean maintaining her independence, being safe from abuse or exploitation, getting an education and a career – someone who would pass on those values to her own children someday.
When I compare Aaji, myself and my daughters to other women on their feminist journeys, I realize that feminism has more than one definition, goal, and path. In India, and elsewhere in the world, change comes more slowly and everywhere, there is an Aaji making a huge difference in her own quiet way.
This article is based on a conversation with Madhu Mehta, a lawyer who grew up in India, studied law in the UK & the US, and practices law in New York.
Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents
Photo Credits: Nithi Clicks