Another Women’s Day has come and gone. All the right words were tossed in the right places – liberation*, equality, feminism, empowerment and such glorious words that generate goosebumps all over the place. All the right questions were asked in the right forums –  including, Will women ever be really free? Wherefore art thou, Romeo? To be or not to be? and such pertinent ones. After the fun was over, everyone left: the people went to have dinner, the chickens went home to roost and the cows went home to probably catch up on their nap. Until the next women’s day or the next time liberation is set on fire.

A few days ago, I read a tweet (unfortunately I lost its trace) which said that in Saudi, the laws that restrict women are typically upheld by older, traditional women themselves. Frankly, I don’t find that surprising at all. It is not because the older women are jealous of the youngsters (or such rubbish). It is a very simple (and well-known) fact that if we grew up believing something, it is not easy to change it. Allow me to take a few detours.

One day, in the nineties, I was watching TV with a woman as old as my mother. Let’s us just say that she had not quite caught up with the developments in the entertainment industry. After watching a song-and-dance sequence from a movie, she asked me if ‘they were all really women, or if they were men dressed as women?’ I replied that the dancers were really women. She didn’t comment, but I believe she was wondering how women could actually wear such clothes and dance, in front of so many people. Today we have gotten used to the idea (and worse). The shock has since worn off. But on that day, I don’t think the lady approved of what she saw. I don’t think the notions of ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ or ’empowerment’ were at the top of her mind; she merely found the sight distasteful. Given a chance, she might have suggested that these dances be banned. Of course, I am speculating now. She had not said a word.

Another scene. There was a cultural program in our college. As the evening wore on and the latest hit songs were being played, boys began dancing in the auditorium and some of the excitement caught on to us girls, too. We don’t need booze to get high, we just need the appropriate music and an incessant pounding in our ears. Some of us got up from our seats and began dancing. Needless to say, there were many eyes on us but we did not care. We had to dance. There would never be another chance. Naturally, some people thought we were doing it to attract attention. To their cramped minds, any other possibility does not exist.

The next day, we had an audience with the Principal –  a few of us who were ‘responsible’ for the rest of the ladies were summoned. He asked us about the previous night and informed us that it was very irresponsible behaviour. He did not know who the ‘culprits’ were, he said, as he looked at me pointedly. I did not blink. He wasn’t harsh or anything (and I now wonder if his mind was completely in it), but warned us of the consequences, should it happen again. Yes, I apologised on behalf of the girls (though I was not one bit sorry for having a little fun), and of course, it never happened again. I wonder if he went and said the same things to the boys too. Maybe a general warning was issued, which, he knew, will never be followed. After all, boys will be boys.

Truth is, there never was another chance and there never will be. I don’t think I ever had (or will have) the guts to get up and break into a dance, anywhere else. What would people think? I would rather squash all thoughts of ‘having fun’.

Those who have watched The Namesake might not remember a fleeting scene in which Tabu peeks over the crowd to see the first ceremony (probably naming) of her infant son. Her son! And she, the most important person in the baby’s life, is standing a few feet away, straining herself to catch what’s going on. She does not look sad, she is happy for him, but anyone who could really see through the mother’s eyes would know how much she would have liked to be right there, holding her son.

It seems strange that for a long time we never even thought about questioning anything, because that is how things have been. That was tradition. That was how it was done. We get used to the idea.

I grew up hearing that girls had better keep a low profile and dress properly and stay out of sight, for their own safety. And if anyone was a little too ‘forward’ (however exciting it appeared to me), I saw that she was frowned upon. No, I did not grow up in a ‘repressed society’ or anything. My generation will know what I am talking about.

Somewhere between then and now, the idea began to seep in: Why can’t we? It’s our right.

What? We have rights?
You mean, we can actually do what we like? Dress the way we like? Go to places we like, when we like? We can actually dance in an auditorium, without having to explain afterwards? 

It was new and it was huge. It was difficult to believe it; but once we wrapped our minds around it, it became like an addictive book – you can’t put it down, and you are hungry for more. But not everyone can get adjusted to the idea. It goes against everything we have been taught and believed since we were born.

Cue, the tweet on Saudi. We blame the older women for wanting to ‘uphold values’. But that’s what they have been brought up on. It is not easy to suddenly shift from a lesson that has been etched in, for centuries, to a more ‘liberal’ view. Change is not easy for anybody. It is easier and simpler to cling to what we were taught for generations. We were brought up right; and we were safe. We hid behind the numerous constraints and we did not mind. Why can’t you do the same? You make changes, and you are going to regret it.

It’s not only about right and wrong. It is about trying to change mindsets that have become as hard as granite. I too find myself occasionally struggling to check the urge to say, “Be careful. Don’t do anything that will get you into trouble.”

Things will change, but we have to struggle through many more such layers of inertia and resistance, and many more phases of unlearning and re-learning. There are many battles to be endured and many damages to be borne and many barriers to be broken and many mindsets to be changed.
Things will change, for better or for worse, because they must. 

* Is anyone else reminded of Nithya Menon in Kerala CafĂ© when they hear the word ‘liberation’, or is it just me?