Indian women demand agency in a paternalistic society

By Anika Baset

Walking Towards Ourselves | Catriona Mitchell | Hardie Grant Books

“India is one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a woman – or so the international press keeps telling us. But behind the headlines, what is it really like to be a woman in India today?”

India is on the precipice of unprecedented social change. The brutal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in 2012 resulted in waves of backlash across the country, demanding a government response to the ingrained misogyny that has long been ignored. Yet the country remains bound by centuries-old traditions and cultural expectations, which often leave women silenced and marginalised.

“Laws and education are trying to bring about a change in society,” writes Leila Seth, India’s first female High Court judge. “Empowerment is the buzz word…but the change in mindsets is slow. Equality between men and women is taking its time.”

Walking Towards Ourselves is an anthology of 19 stories of women navigating these complex social boundaries as they demand the freedoms they have for so long been denied. Their lived experiences of what it means to be a woman in modern India take the reader on a journey that is, at times, both foreign and familiar. The book sends a clear message that regardless of background, culture or religion, women should be the ultimate gatekeepers of their own lives.

A key feature of this book is the ambitious scope of the stories within it. The diversity of India is reflected in the backgrounds of the authors, who each come from a different stratum of society. They are connected, however, through their shared experience of womanhood in a country riddled with paradoxes, where mythological women are worshipped as goddesses, yet a bride’s worth is determined by the size of her dowry.

Some tales are unique to the cultural context of India. Author Rosalyn D’Mello speaks of her struggles with self-acceptance in a society where standards of female beauty are judged on the fairness of a woman’s skin.

“Even now I cannot explain how or when I came to be desired. Having spent my girlhood being made to believe that my dark skin would interfere with any such possibility, I was and remain surprised by every instance that proves the contrary,” D’Mello writes.

The result is an anthology that offers misogyny as the only explanation for the abuse of women.

An anonymous writer delves into the horrors of marital rape, which is not considered a crime in India. “The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away… he is the husband for whom I have to make the morning coffee.”

Other stories are more familiar to a Western audience, as they reflect some of our own realities. Editor and writer Mitali Saran laments the persistent judgement she receives for being a divorced, child-free woman in her mid-forties; yet she remains unapologetic for living life on her own terms. “Leaving a jewel of a man is not something you do lightly. In a society that is pathologically devoted to marriage and hates free-range vaginas, you can expect shock and horror,” Saran writes.

Meanwhile, essayist Annie Zaidi reflects on the unfair onus put on women to guard their safety in public space, and writes about having to gauge the safety of a place by counting how many women are visible.

The result is an anthology that offers misogyny as the only explanation for the abuse of women. The fight for women’s rights in India is not limited to a specific cultural or geographical context within the country. The manifestations of gender discrimination can take a myriad of forms.

Another notable feature is that the stories within the book are written in first person. Despite varied authors, the narrative voice stays direct and compelling throughout. The powerful storytelling, coupled with the strength of the protagonists, presents a group of women who remain resolute, dignified and determined in the face of brutalities inflicted upon them.

Western discussions of women’s rights in the developing world are often marred by a saviour complex, where women are depicted as helpless and in need of rescue. Walking Towards Ourselves directly challenges these easy stereotypes. Ultimately, it is both a celebration and call to arms for women, in India and beyond, who are determined to write their own destinies in the face of entrenched structural prejudices that often stand in their way.

“Autonomy is the most powerful drug in the world,” Saran writes. “The ability to govern your own life, your own thoughts, to make the choices you want to make is wild high given to too few people around the world”.

Walking Towards Ourselves demands that Indian women are given agency, to not only determine their own paths, but to also drive the social change needed in their conservative society. Critically, the reader is invited to walk with the writers of these stories, not walk for them.

Walking Towards Ourselves is now available from Hardie Grant Books.