The recent response to the young actress who chose to quit Bollywood to preserve her faith has thrown up several interesting issues. Religion, the big bad world of movies, an 18-year-old’s ability to take life changing decisions and the freedom of choice all are explosive issues in their own right.
The issue of freedom of choice for women is a minefield.
Firstly, our choice muscles are weak. Women, in particular have not had the freedom to exercise choice for several centuries. We rarely made decisions. Our decisions rarely impacted the larger world. Our safety and survival was closely tied to our willingness to take orders and obey a higher male authority. We had to adhere to our cultural script- Marry the man chosen by parents, have male children as mandated by the scriptures and behave according to the rules of society. The Others told us what to do, what to think, what to wear, how to sit, how to cry, how to hide ourselves away, etc, etc. Women who cracked open the code were punished. Those who obeyed were rewarded with reverence, acceptance and affection. In fact, not exercising individual choice led to peace and harmony in the household and society even if it may have meant sacrificing one’s own needs. This is the latent code deeply embedded in many women.
Firstly, our choice muscles are weak. Women, in particular have not had the freedom to exercise choice for several centuries. We rarely made decisions. Our decisions rarely impacted the larger world.
Even today, many women feel that they don’t really have a choice in the decisions that they to make.
I had to quit after my baby. I had no choice.
We had to live with my in-laws after marriage. I had no choice.
I quit the organization rather than make a big fuss about the harassment. I had no choice.
I have to live with my abusive husband. I have no choice.
I have to do the karva chauth fast. I have no choice.
There have been many significant changes in the last century that have impacted women. Women were given the right to education, the right to vote-the ultimate exercise of having a say in the government. In India, more women are choosing their own life partners. Many women are choosing to work. A handful are even choosing not to marry or have children. Even as women are exercising choice, their actions come under scrutiny.
Secondly, the world does not like us to make choices that go against the prevailing norms. As long as it adheres to expectations, we are quite happy to approve of her decisions. If any choice is out of the ordinary, it seems as though the whole social fabric of the nation is threatened and we get into a tizzy about these crazy dangerous women.
Sania Mirza’s choice of a spouse.
Sunny Leone’s choice of a profession.
Tanushree Dutta’s choice to speak out against sexual harassment.
Malaika Arora’s choice to marry a younger man.
Secondly, the world does not like us to make choices that go against the prevailing norms. As long as it adheres to expectations, we are quite happy to approve of her decisions.
Women who are not celebrities have faced struggles and social pressures if they wanted to pursue anything that challenged prevalent norms whether it is wearing jeans, carrying a mobile phone or worshipping at a particular shrine.
Choice can be scary. However, in today’s world not exercising choice is not an option. Women cannot afford to go back to the dark ages. We need to choose and chart our own future despite the possible backlash. We need to be decisive and then actively choose those decisions as our own.
Choice gives us permission to imagine a better self and it holds the promise that we can create that better self through our own volition. In many ways choice is about possibility, says Sheena Iyengar, the author of a very insightful book-The Art of Choosing.
How can we prepare to make better choices? Whether it is a choice of clothes or career, some principles of good choice making are universal.
Many women are well informed about a host of things but quite ignorant when it comes to finances or the rule of the law. A woman I was coaching realized the state of the family finances only when her husband asked for a divorce after 17 years of marriage. She did not know that all the property bought with their joint income was in the name of his mother. Lack of information restricts our ability to control our future and limits options especially if we are in bad marriage or bad job. It is important to read, speak to other people and keep in touch with what is happening in the world around us.
Balance logic and emotions
Women are often accused wrongly, of being too emotional, of doing things only with the heart. In my lived experience I have not found it to be true. Many women are capable of cool logic and objective decisions. Any choice has to be made facts and feeling. Weigh the pros and cons and also listen to your gut. Even when in love! Even in the throes of passion!
This is a tricky one. We are usually looking for people who agree with our choices. When shopping with my friends, I am very happy if they like my choice of outfit. But before making important choices, we should also invite contrary opinions. Ask somebody who is not like you, someone who can bring a different perspective to weigh in on your choice.
Women are often accused wrongly, of being too emotional, of doing things only with the heart. In my lived experience I have not found it to be true.
A young woman I know was rebelling against her family’s demand to marry a man of their choice. Many friends advised her to elope immediately with the man she loved. But one of the friends pointed out all the negative consequences of such an action. Though she was initially unwilling to listen to this friend, the new perspective helped her to come up with a better plan to persuade her parents and plan for her future.
There is no guarantee that the choice I make today will give me success and happiness tomorrow. Life is unpredictable and full of changes. Taking ownership of our choices is a matter of courage and conviction. We cannot blame anyone else if things go wrong. We cannot say ‘ I told you so’ or ‘ It is your fault’ to a parent, a friend or spouse, even if we made a decision under pressure.
Choices have consequences- both positive and unpleasant. We need to own the consequences. This is the difference between a decision that has been thrust upon us and a wholehearted, possibly imperfect choice.
Who knows what will happen to young Zaira Waseem a year from now. Will she be happy with the return to her faith? Will she regret giving up the glamour and fame? No one can tell. It is for no one else to tell.
As a mother of an 18-year-old daughter, I know it is not easy to take decisions about your life when you have all along relied on the advice of elders and seniors. We spent a torturous two years figuring out what my daughter wanted to do after school. We are the privileged few who have many options when it comes to education and career. My husband and I gave advice, we gently nudged, we made persuasive arguments for some cases but we told our daughter that it was ultimately her choice. She has chosen to go to University in US, thousands of miles away from us. We hope for the best but really don’t know how things will turn out.
I do know that if my daughter changes her mind half way through her college life and chooses something else, she would be prepared to deal with the effects of that change. She has made the choice mindfully and with complete ownership, she will find a way to live with any consequence. It will have been a learning experience, not a failure if things don’t work out.
Even if many women have not had the opportunities, we are now keen to give the younger generation the liberty to pursue their dreams. We too have more options now to study, travel, work and choose our lifestyles. Now, despite whatever the world may say, we need to have the courage and grit to make and standby our choices. We have some freedom to choose. We must allow our choices to lead us to freedom, learning and growth.
Image Credit: Wiki Commons
Nirupama Subramanian is an author, leadership development facilitator, certified coach and co-founder of GLOW-Growing Leadership of Women. The views expressed are the author’s own.