We are living in a dystopian world. Each morning, I have to convince myself that this is not a page from an Atwood novel. I struggle to make my peace with a world where politicians and acquaintances alike are speaking the (what I believed to be) forgotten tongue of hatred and discord. Fortunately, it is in these uncertain times that revolution galvanizes.
No matter where in the world you are reading this from, it is likely that you have read about the silencing of American Senator Elizabeth Warren by the Senate Republicans, as she was reading Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter against Jeff Sessions, a man whose life-work entailed fighting to keep African-Americans from voting.
What Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, said later, to explain his decision to interrupt Warren, has become the whetstone that the Feminist movement needed.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Across the globe, social media is exploding with examples of incredible women, who have fought against oppressive systems to leave an imprint in history! #ShePersisted has become the war cry of angry women, who are determined not to be ‘put in place’ by a patronizing system.
The irreverence is not limited to the States. There is a growing commentary in urban India against women who speak their minds. Leaders, and their avid followers, in the country, are shamelessly advising women to ‘stay at home’, ‘cover up’, or ‘shut up’ to control ‘unfortunate sexual accidents’. It is, therefore, a time to refresh our memories and be proud of what we stand for.
This is to remind us of the rock stars, the women who were pushed back, reprimanded, and held back. Nevertheless, they persisted:
This Sahitya Akademi fellow, born in 1909 in Kolkata, was denied an education by her conservative grandmother. She sat opposite her brothers, as they received their home tuitions, and decided to learn the alphabets, albeit upside down. Inspired by her secretively bibliophile mother, Ashapurna developed her love for the written words. She has gone down in history as one of the finest Indian authors and a strong proponent of Feminism. #ShePersisted
Rukhmabai was born in Bombay in 1864. Per the customs of the time, she was married off at the tender age of 11, but stayed with her mother and stepfather for many years after. She ignored societal scoffs and continued her education under her stepfather, who was a doctor. In March 1884, 9 years after her marriage, her husband Dadaji demanded that she come live with him. Rukhmabai refused on grounds that they were incompatible and the marriage was a farce. Dadaji took her to court for restitution of his conjugal rights on her. Even as erstwhile judicial system directed her to relent or court imprisonment, Rukhmabai remained steadfast – choosing jail over the unpleasantness of this unwanted communion.
She argued against being compelled to honor a commitment, that she was too young to make at 11!
In 1888, Dadaji accepted monetary compensation in lieu of the dissolution of marriage. Rukhmabai went on to study medicine in London and become the first practicing female doctor in India. This court case was one of the key influencers for the eventual abolishment of child marriage in India. She may have lost that trial, but technically, she won a big one for the team! #ShePersisted
Bachendri was born to a lower middle class family in the Garhwal district, in 1954. She fell in love with the mountains and climbing at the age of 12. Pal went on to complete her M.A and B.Ed. but never gave up on her one true passion – scaling the uncharted heights. She scaled Mt Gangotri and Mt. Rugragaria as a young student-instructor.
Bachendri received stiff opposition from her family for choosing mountaineering as a career, instead of the safety of a life as a school teacher. She was told that climbing mountains was a man’s game! Nevertheless, #ShePersisted.
She went on to become the first Indian woman to scale Mt. Everest and a legend in the world of Mountaineering.
In 1903, a young and beautiful Durgabai Kamat was separated from her husband, Anand Nanoskar, a history professor at the J.J. School of Art. A single mother to a daughter, Durgabai had three options to choose from – domestic service, prostitution or the camera. The incredibly talented woman, who could paint and play a number of instruments, chose a travelling theater company, for survival.
The men, who played female characters in movies then, were most antagonized by the first woman actor in the country, and made her life difficult at every step. Nevertheless, #ShePersisted.
She was chosen by Dadasaheb Phalke for Mohini Bhasmasur and became a celebrity. She paved the way for many generations of beautiful actresses in the country, while raising a daughter alone. Her daughter, Kamlabai Gokhale, herself became one of the most popular artistes of her time.
This is only a small illustrative list of the power of the Indian woman and what she might achieve in the face of an oppressive patriarchy. There are millions of others who have fought to ensure that our generation of women have the education and opportunities that we deserve. It is with us to keep the fire burning.
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