My father was the first feminist I knew. I realise this now. He married my mother, who belonged to a different religion and didn’t insist she convert to his, unlike the norm especially back in the 1960s. Both my parents followed their own religions, and left me free to choose what I preferred when I grew up. It is a different matter that I chose to follow no religion when I did, and also that he was no longer around to see me make that choice not to choose. I think he would have approved.
As an eight year old, I didn’t see the barriers he was breaking when he bought me shorts and t-shirts, and trousers, setting into place a lifetime of living in jeans. “Dresses aren’t comfortable for running around and playing,” he said. “You need to be comfortable.” Never mind that the aunties in the colony were appalled at how ‘forward’ I was for a young girl to ramble around in shorts and t-shirts every single day. He made me his helper while he tinkered with the home repair every weekend. I could change a bulb, a cycle tyre, set up shelves, fix a radio, I was handy with a spanner and a tester back then. Alas, I was hopeless at any domestic chores.
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My mother would despair that she could never get me to enter the kitchen, he always shushed her. “There’s time enough for all that, this is more important.” What was more important to him was that I read all the books I could lay my hands on and more, learning how to mend a fuse, to assemble a cupboard, to box. Yes, he taught me how to deliver perfect right hooks, how to balance my legs while doing so, how to throw my weight behind my punch. “No one is going to come fight for you, you have to learn to fight for yourself.” At eight, none of the boys in the building dared bully me because I fought back like a hellion, and knew exactly how to throw my punches. I owe him that, the knowledge that when I walked down the street, no matter what the catcalls, the touching, the harassment, I knew that if push came to shove, I would be able to fight for myself.
What was more important to him was that I read all the books I could lay my hands on and more, learning how to mend a fuse, to assemble a cupboard, to box. Yes, he taught me how to deliver perfect right hooks, how to balance my legs while doing so, how to throw my weight behind my punch.
In the 1970s, there was no talk of the gender binary, girls were girls and boys were boys and girls who did not conform to the girly girl construct with ponytails, and pink frilly dresses, were indulgently called tomboys. I grew up a rapscallion tomboy, my hair perennially in what was then called a ‘boy cut,’ forever outfitted in shorts and t-shirts, climbing trees, chasing kites, jumping over compound walls, swaggering around to all intent like George from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, out-boying the boys. And of course, menstruation and the sudden developments on my chest changed it all. But Daddy wasn’t around to see me change from a girl to a woman. He died when I was nine.
My dad taught me to be a feminist before I had ever heard the word. Hell, I don’t think he had heard the word too.
My dad taught me to be a feminist before I had ever heard the word. Hell, I don’t think he had heard the word too. In 1970s India, feminism was still a distant construct, being unfurled in the West. In India, there were battles women were fighting, getting out into the workforce, fighting to be allowed to complete their education and not just be married off to the first ‘decent’ proposal that came along, to be allowed to space their children, to use contraception to delay pregnancies, to get sterilised after two pregnancies. My parents had one child, me. And he was happy. If there was a niggling discontent for a male child and heir, I never heard of it, never knew of it. I was the apple of his eye, and I was raised to believe that I occupied equal space under the sky as any son he had would have. He had taught me that I was free to wear whatever I was comfortable in, I didn’t have to learn to cook, clean and keep house just because I was a girl, that I needed to know how to take care of myself and defend myself if needed, that basic home repairs were something anyone should be able to do, and it wasn’t a task reserved for XY chromosome bearers. He encouraged me to think of a career, studying was important, I was always expected to be independent and earn an income when I grew up. With my dad around, I was daddy’s little princess but a warrior princess, not the one who waited around in towers, hoping for Prince Charming to ride up and do a spot of rescuing.
When he died, I remember his younger brother, my chacha, pulling me up rather authoritatively in front of the extended family for wearing what he thought was an inappropriate sleeveless top. I replied, “My father bought this for me. If he had no issues with me wearing this, I don’t think you have any authority to tell me not to wear it.” I was all of nine. My father had barely been dead a week. The world had already begun to censor me, a girl, shoe horning me back into the accepted box of how girls are supposed to dress and behave.
“My father bought this for me. If he had no issues with me wearing this, I don’t think you have any authority to tell me not to wear it.”
Thankfully, my mother was also made of strong stuff. She made sure no one put me in any box, except the ones I chose to climb into myself and pull the lid down over me when the world got too much to deal with. I would eventually marry a man who never ever policed what I wore, completely encouraged me to pursue a career and couldn’t care a damn whether the rotis were piping hot, nor expected me to make them. Perhaps, without his realising it, Daddy had set the bar high in my head already. Perhaps, the lessons my father taught me never really left me, only now as I grew up, I had a word for what he’d taught me. Feminism.
Picture Credit: Image Thirst
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV