Dear women, do you know how fleeting female power is?

Ritu Bhatia
Ritu BhatiaJul 08, 2018 | 17:53

Dear women, do you know how fleeting female power is?

“You’re so pretty,” he would say, every time I was alone in his office with him.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to escape that noise in your head.

It’s triggered by the condescension in a man-friend’s voice, when he tries to convince you that your opinion on anything (why Section 377 of the IPC is archaic, or vanilla ice cream from Mother Dairy is tastier than Kwality’s) is irrelevant; or attributes your angry reaction on a particular day to your hormones (are you having your periods or something?); or raises his eyebrows when you say you deserve more in life — of money, love, fun, friends — whatever.


women1_070818050928.jpgSo many men had claimed power, at my expense [Representative photo: Reuters]

By the end of the conversation, you end up feeling smaller and dumber. Or maybe you protest, without knowing what exactly you’re riled up about. Then, you compose yourself, and carry on doing your thing, till the next incident, when the cacophony strikes again. This time it’s triggered by the plumber, whom you’ve summoned to fix your drippy taps. He stares mutinously at you and tells you all the taps need replacing.  You protest, and suggest he use some washers instead — at least first check if this easier, cheaper measure will stop the dripping. He throws down his spanner, and glares at you:

“Arre madam, why you interfering… this is a man’s job… you know nothing about it.”

For as long as I can remember, I have borne the brunt of maleness, the brand of maleness that comes at the expense of women; that’s derived from asserting control. In Feminism and Religion Rita Gross defines patriarchy as “rule by fathers” and that’s literally how I see it today. During my growing up years, the boundaries of my life were set by my father, and breaking them had unpleasant consequences.


So, I went along the decisions my dad made on my behalf: which courses to take in college, what hobbies were worth pursuing, friends to meet, and so on.  He set rules and limits, and I didn’t protest.

Like other girls of my generation, I was brainwashed into imagining I was free. My idea of liberation equaled exposure: education, travel, and privilege. And I had it all. By the age of 18, I had travelled across Europe, Africa and the US. I’d had a six-year-stint in an International school, in Lusaka.  I was a competitive swimmer, could speak French and drive a car. If that wasn’t liberated, then what was?

I was 23 when I got my first job as a microbiologist, in a plush development agency, led by a man who’s been in the news for harassing a young woman in the workplace. When I met Mr Big Boss, he was at the peak of his power, and adept at throwing it around to get the women he fancied.

women_070818051427.jpgSomething was amiss, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it, or name it. [Representative image]

“You’re so pretty,” he would say, every time I was alone in his office with him. “I love the colour you’re wearing.”


Rather than feeling flattered, I was uncomfortable.

My feelings intensified when he offered me opportunities to travel, and earn more money than I’d ever dreamed of.  Then one day he asked me to accompany him for a conference on energy conservation, in Spain.

“We’ll have a great time,” he said. “The hotel is great, the pool is amazing and you can do as much shopping as you like.”

I said no, and he got mad.

By my fourth no, he’d had enough. He complained about my “incompetence” to the HR department. I was fired.

Everyone blamed me for the situation. “He didn’t touch you, so what’s the big deal!” was the general reaction.

Yeh to hota he hai—this goes on,” was another.

Worse still, were the hostile reactions of colleagues in the company, who thought I was faking my story about Mr Big Boss’s lecherous moves.

“She’s just an attention seeker,” I overheard someone way.

Every single brush with the ugly aspects of masculinity wove itself into a gigantic web within, tightening its grip around my throat. Something was amiss, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it, or name it. When I started writing about my experiences, twenty years later, readers told me that what I was describing was patriarchy. Really, I retorted, with a note of wonder in my voice. Is that what I’ve been experiencing all my life?

So many men had claimed power, at my expense. So many women’s experiences matched mine. I was aghast at my lack of understanding of feminism. You see, the real concerns of feminism were defined in the 60s and 70s, when I was a child. So, I grew up without a political position and context for my existence. I hadn’t heard of Gloria Steinem or Kate Millet; didn’t know what “patriarchy” meant; or understand how different the world was for men and women. 

Till the age of 25, I had no idea what feminism was all about, or that the feelings of oppression I struggled with arose from being pushed into a box, by the men in my life. I never questioned why men rarely had to fight for their rights to money, property, social status, respect, and a life of their own choosing.

In my characteristic manner, I stumbled upon my own meaning of feminism, through books. Not the writings of feminists Steinem or Millet, but through the more subtle lens of writers Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood.

My mouth fell open when I read Lessing’s exploration of female liberation, motherhood and politics in her feminist classic, The Golden Notebook.  I marveled at the bold moves made by Erica Jong, Simone de Beauvoir and Anais Nin, to live life on their own terms. But when I read The Handmaid’s Tale —  Atwood’s horrifying portrayal of a world in which women are trapped, abused and mutilated to get them to conform to a patriarchal theocracy —I was bereft: Was I destined to a future like Offred’s? 

handmaid;s-tale_070818051033.jpgWas I destined to a future like Offred’s? [ Reuters file photo of protesters dressed up as characters from The Handmaid's Tale before the referendum on abortion law, in Dublin]

Twenty years later, I am still unsure about the answer to my own question. Indeed, the era of #MeToo is relevant:  women’s voices are being heard, and feminism is the political vocabulary of many more young women, who practise the ideology deliberately. Yet the archaic fears of women portrayed so dramatically in the TV series The Handmaids Tale are still real.

For, I’ve learnt how fleeting and tenuous female power is. It can be snatched away any second, by the judge who decides you have no right to alimony; the landlord who refuses to rent you an apartment and the plumber who won’t listen to you.

The question of how to make my power — and that of all the other women out there — real and tangible, remains unanswered.  

Last updated: July 08, 2018 | 17:53
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