Ahilyabai Holkar was Malhar Rao Holkar's widowed daughter-in-law who acted as a regent head for her young son upon Malhar Rao's death, until his own demise a year later whereupon she became ruler. (Image Credit: Chitrashala Press)

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“Isn’t that dress a bit tight?”

My mom’s remark stopped me in my tracks. I was leaving home for college in my new salwar kameez. It was in a rare moment of defiance that I’d bought the shocking pink outfit a week earlier. Until then, I’d worn clothes with high necklines that hung loosely on my body. Usually with nondescript patterns in earth tones—in short, anything that helped me blend into the background. My mom’s remark continued to rankle the rest of that day.

I look back now, several decades later, and have caught myself saying the same thing to my daughters. I wonder — have we really changed our perceptions of how women should act, dress, or think?

When the Indian women’s hockey team created history at the Olympics last year by reaching the semifinals, it raised the hopes of other women athletes in India. But how many of us truly grasped the many challenges these hockey players had faced to make it this far? They had to overcome gender, caste, and class barriers at every stage. These were likely bigger challenges than those the women faced on the hockey field. Whether it is hockey or bringing more girls into STEM, women continue to fight stereotypes and discrimination, breaking the bias at every stage.

From Akka Mahadevi to Ahilyabai Holkar and Savitribai Phule, and in recent times Medha Patkar, history has repeatedly shown how women in India have impacted social change while fighting a patriarchal mindset. When #MeToo moved from a hashtag in 2017 to a social movement across the world, it seemed an opportunity to hold the powerful to account and embark on meaningful action.

However, the slut-shaming and harassment that followed in social media effectively made it hard for most women but the strongest to speak out. As we celebrate women every year for their accomplishments, how do we create real change to build communities in which women are free of bullying and daily microaggressions, whether at home, work, or anywhere in between?

Until recently, I believed that the best way to effect social change is to start with our children, especially in how we raise our boys. Ads such as “Boys don’t cry” (or more importantly, they don’t make girls cry!) made this point powerfully when it was first released in 2014. If our youth can lead us, be it to encourage conservation or fight climate change, why not for overcoming regressive gender roles?

However, the more I interact, as a teacher and a parent, with many young women, I wonder if another opportunity, just as important, is being missed. I speak of the misogyny women, young and old, internalize, which leads them to be the enforcers of the strictures of the patriarchy—whether in saas-bahu roles, or other forms of social policing.

The oft-used Gandhi’s words to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” should spur us to look for ways to break this insidious cycle. Here, I believe it is important to begin having conversations with not just the young who are both eager and open to change, but the middle-aged and older women. It is we who need to start this in every community we are a part of. It may be uncomfortable, and we might lose some friends along the way, but we can’t leave it to the young alone to carry the burden.

The fiery Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi envisioned a “pudhumai penn” (modern woman) who could choose her own path. Let’s prepare the ground for her by holding each other accountable.

Chitra Srikrishna is a writer and musician living in Boston.


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