My grandmother once said that India is the best place to be a woman. She cited the familial support network available to pregnant women in India, the respect accorded to mothers, the value placed on femininity, even the way the humidity makes a woman’s skin glow and hair shine glossy. I countered with the stigma against divorce, the emphasis on domesticity, and Fair and Lovely skin-lightening cream. All evidence, as far as I was concerned, of my motherland’s misogyny. “Of course,” I conceded, “there are a lot of powerful women in India … Mrinalini Sarabhai, Kiran Bedi, Medha Patkar, you, and your opinionated sisters! But you’re all still ruled by old world customs.”
“You don’t understand,” my grandmother told me, eyeing my androgynous sweatpants and t-shirt getup disdainfully. She’d just overheard me laughing with a male friend at a dirty joke, and she was far from pleased. “Men in India would never talk with a woman like that,” she said. “If you had grown up in India, you would understand what it means to be a woman and a feminist. To do everything that the men do, but still get the respect and the attention of a proper woman. Not just this American empowered-woman business of trying to act like a man.”
I bristled. Trying to act like a man? There is no greater insult to a feminist than to accuse her of male mimicry. You undercut her capability, originality, potential; you privilege what is masculine over what is human. And you imply that there is some specific way that women are supposed to behave. In Anita Rau Badami’s Tamarind Mem, the Mother Superior in an all-girl’s school exults her female pupils to “remember the three Ds—decency, dignity and decorum—they are your armour in the world outside. They will help you hold your head aloft in times of distress.” My grandmother probably thought that I was entirely D-less.
I was (and still am) acutely aware of my position as an American, so I held my tongue and refrained from saying anything about the inequity of limiting women to knock-knock jokes and saris. Cultural relativity, I chanted, reminding myself that women in India—just like women in the States—come first in class in co-ed schools, run companies, fly airplanes, drive trucks, and raise families. I wasn’t about to advocate that all women should speak and dress the same way. We liberal-mouthed-and-dressed American feminists had yet to bring to power a woman president. So who was I to talk?
“Women are feminists in India,” I said simply, “and women are feminists in America. We’re the same women! We’re just different kinds of feminists.”
I didn’t want to give credence to my grandmother’s portrayal of the Indian woman as one who rules the roost in private but knows how and when to defer to societal (patriarchal) expectations in the public sphere. To my mind, that stereotype of the “whole” Indian woman was just as problematic as that of the Western feminist as someone who sluts around and burns bras and is generally unladylike, purportedly because she hasn’t managed to tie down the appropriate man. But I had to acknowledge that the Indian and American conceptions of liberation were at odds, especially with respect to language and sexuality. Now, after having spent the summer with relatives in southern India, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe we have entirely different conceptions of womanhood as well. If my American conception of womanhood is, in fact, entirely without Ds.
A claim to difference is always a dangerous claim to make, especially in light of our hopeful transnational and international women’s movements. But frankly, I don’t feel like myself, my normal young woman self, when I’m in India. I’m some other woman, a woman who would never wear shorts in public (even if I wanted to go for a jog in the enclosed compound of my grandmother’s apartment), a woman who volunteers to flatten chapatis in the kitchen, a woman who enjoys shopping and dressing up, a woman who won’t be seen in exclusively male company, a woman who humors talk of marriage proposals and always serves her parents first when passing around the potatoes. My family doesn’t demand these things; I do them automatically when I arrive in India. And I’m not saying that I like or dislike becoming a more traditional, perhaps more deferential, woman. I place no value judgment on culture. There is a great deal of discomfiture that accompanies my metamorphosis into cook-in-the-making and mother-in-the-making, but there’s also a degree of liberation. I’m still as capable and intelligent and ambitious as I pride myself in being in the States, but I’m free to dress up as well, to ask for recipes and play with babies and do all those things that, perhaps subconsciously, I’m afraid will mark me as too much of a woman to be the equal of a man.
I’ve grown out of congratulating myself for not being able to cook; I no longer malign marriage as glorified prostitution (at least not consistently). I’ve reached my own second- or third-wave feminist identity. Still, as I look toward graduate school and what my mother swears are a woman’s peak years for fertility, I am all too aware that women cannot have and cannot do it all. Career and family may not be mutually exclusive, but they’re certainly competitive aims. At home in the States, I present myself as future-professor, future-writer, future-world traveler, always undomesticated, never tied down. And never too feminine. I can come first in class and I can drink my male peers under the table. There is nothing they can do or say (drive, date, dance) that I won’t as well. I match them all, shot for shot, d for d.
In India—perhaps because I don’t live here permanently—I’m willing to perform more orthodox gender roles. I enjoy the fact that my femininity is appreciated, that there are some things that men just will not say in my presence. I don’t feel any less capable than I do in the States, but I am more conscious of being a woman, with all the restrictions and privileges and limitations and benefits that accompany the claim.
And if a component of my feminism is to champion femininity, to assert the worth of womanhood, then maybe that awareness is a step in the right direction.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a junior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.