Saturday, October 30, 2010

All the Old Knives

...all the old knives
that have rusted in my back, I drive into yours,
ma semblable, ma soeur!

- Adrienne Rich, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law

I was re-reading much of the poetry that I read when I was in college and it was fascinating to discover the layers of meanings in these texts that had slipped my eye earlier. Meanings that are created in my personal universe because of all that has happened to me. It is delicious to sink your teeth into this newness because you know that you could never have unearthed it earlier- it just wasn't time yet. I find this to be the greatest joy of reading literature- it's a creature alive that grows and responds each time you stroke its back. You find meanings in the text that are intimate and speak to you in a way that even the writer, often from some other culture, period, and even gender, couldn't have imagined.

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law was a poem we had in our Women's Writing paper in our 3rd year. Even back then, the three lines I've pasted at the beginning of this post spoke to me a great deal. It touched upon the irritating argument that people often wield when dissing feminism- women are the worst enemies of other women, so why blame men? No amount of explaining that patriarchy is a system and mindset that is actively and passively perpetrated and strengthened by both men and women can get you to convince the non-believers.

And if you think about it, it does seem absurd that women themselves want to put down other women right? It was a woman who threw her girl baby out of a toilet window last week. It was Saina Nehwal's grandmother who was so disappointed at her birth that she refused to see the baby for a month. It is the older women of the family who tell the younger women to sit down for a meal after the men have eaten. It is the mothers who are indulgent about their son's habit of evading housework but highly critical of their daughter's disinterest in the same. It is usually women who go to great lengths to put down beautiful women (it's the botox, she's not natural, it's the make-up, it's just skin-show, she's FAT). It is I who was amazed and touched by M's talent for cooking and it was he who reminded me that I was comparing him with other men who do not do any housework and not women who do this as a routine job.

Women are catty, bitchy and intensely judgmental about their own sex in a way that seems so mental. I don't claim to be a saint in this respect. I've hated many beautiful women simply because I knew I could never look like that. The second a really hot woman walks into the room, your girl radar immediately classifies her as a bimbo or at least, you feel a pinch of instant dislike creep into your veins. Though so many of our concerns and disorders have to do with the way we look, I suspect that we're more often than not dressing up and covering up to escape the critical eyes of other women than men. If it's an older woman in a silk saree who looks good though not really as ravishing as the younger one in a mini skirt, we are a lot more generous. Aunty is sooooo pretty! What tejas! Our generation can never manage to have that kalai on our face! And so on.

What is it about ourselves that we hate so much? Why do we put down and hold back the women in our lives who are fighting to fly? Why do we want to push them back, make them go through every insult, every deprivation, every snatch of opportunity that we ourselves went through because of our sex? Why are we so keen to drive the knives that have rusted on our backs into the woman next to us? Is it because we truly believe women are inferior to men? I don't think so. Many of us have seethed in the unfairness of gender inequality. Even the mother who threw her daughter out of the window but kept her twin brother, I'm sure, has felt it. It is possible that it is because she seethed so much under its weight that she even did what she did. And yet, instead of turning this indignation into a productive anger against the system, we let ourselves down by keeping this cycle of hate going.

Psychologists say that victims of abuse often turn into abusers themselves. Is this our malady too? Ask yourself this question before you hate. Ask this before you tell your daughter that she will be too old by the time she finishes her PhD. Ask this before you anxiously fawn over your son-in-law. Ask this before you set the table for the male guests to eat first. Ask this before you say a rude woman at your workplace is that way because she's unmarried. Ask this before you say Sania Mirza is just a glamour doll. Ask this before you order just a salad when you eat out. Ask this before you sit in front of the mirror, hating the bulges, the wrinkles, the grotesqueness of your female form threatening to swallow your self-esteem. Ask this before you turn all that hatred upon yourself. Let the knives that have rusted fall to ashes.


Uncle Srini said...

Super post, GB! *Applause* And I do not mean that in a superficial way! :)

Probably, M is right in that men who do whatever household work they do of their own accord are often compared to others who do not. My culinary skills are not wow but I always like cooking a meal for people at home (problem is often when I am in Chennai if mom and sis are around, they don't allow me to do it. I don't claim myself to be a magnanimous male, but still... ;) :D)

Coming back to the main theme of the post, I think insecurity is rampant and pervasive in various aspects of life. I guess the key lies in first understanding that we feel insecure before going onto find its roots and chop them off. So often, denial seems to be such an easy and enticing alternative that people tend to scrape the top layer of a problem and leave to the next!

The last paragraph was telling: each line is quotable. The line about the PhD will particularly stick. I would love to see my daughter being a doc (if she wants to be that is) :)

That's a good fill of reading from your blog in the last two days! Savoured going through each post! :)

CW said...

Oh my god, your post blew me away! All that tossing-and-turning at night is worth it, to us. :-D

Kookaburra said...

you had been writing faster than I had been reading! and all the pieces have been a treat - witty at times, brutally honest at another moment, a combination of the two with a relaxing sense of humor too ...
Celebrating 25th year with two books - hearty congratulations!
Discovering Adrienne Rich thanks to you!

Chandrima said...

just wonderful!! keep going GB!!will meet soon..

The Bride said...

I love my current boss just a little more for being a great boss and a woman just to put the "women bosses are the worst" stereotype to rest. Unfortunately, I had been plagued by a run of neurotic female bosses that had made even me wonder. But yay for the current one!

I think one explanation is the abused turn into abusers thing, which seems particularly pertinent in the case of mother-in-law behaviour. Another might be that women are subtly conditioned to compete with each other, as if there isn't enough room for more than five successful women in the workplace or men enough for women to marry (when actually in India given the sex ratio, there are too many men to marry). I noticed this weird thing when watching America's Next Top Model (sorry, I love that show)...the African-American or Latina models seem to compete with each other the most viciously (when I would've thought they'd band together and support each other) as if there wasn't room for more than one model 'of colour'.

vishesh said...

My sis gets away with not doing home work and probably everything :P

But well men are the enemy of other men too....there is always the need to dominate..some can feel it and others don't..but men have to dominate, they can't accept another man to be a leader/more popular than themselves, esp. if there are women around.

maybe this is the way evolution has shaped us up?

Uncle Srini said...

Vishesh: sort of disagree! :) I think there are men - and women - and I talk not just theoretically who are quite content to be soldiers in life without ever craving for leadership. If it comes, it is fine; if it doesn't it is no big deal! :)

And coming from where I do particularly, the not so beaten track if you will, there is much more symbiosis than there is rivalry!

As I mentioned in my earlier comment, I think it comes down to insecurity and once we have identified it and agreed we are insecure, it becomes a straightforward choice of working oneself out of it or be fuelled by comeptitiveness. Nothing right/wrong with either; just a personal brand of living!

n said...

Cheers, sister.:*

Anonymous said...

Jealousy and sense of insecurity are there among men,women and children.It is more pronounced in the case of women as the intensity and the range of vulnerabilities are higher and almost pervasive.
In dehumanizing situations mothers and fathers sell or kill their babies.Maternal grandmothers generally don't refuse to see a granddaughter.And men and children agonize over their looks.
victims of all types of abuses may turn into abusers or MAY NOT.There is still so much of goodness around but as Mark Twain said, " It is very wearing to be good."