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What Freedom means for Women

By Deepa Narayan
Last updated on: December 20, 2018 12:32 IST

Most women are searching for freedom within families, not freedom from families.
They want to find the 'I' within the 'We' as they navigate the world inside and outside their homes, says Deepa Narayan.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Ahimsa, 25, who works at the State Bank of India, says, 'Only family can give you a sense of belonging and identity. Only family members can guide you best as to what is wrong and what is right.'

When we asked women about their biggest fear, it is invariably about loss of family and safety of family members, it is hardly ever about the self.

This too makes sense.

Most women are searching for freedom within families, not freedom from families.

They want to find the 'I' within the 'We' as they navigate the world inside and outside their homes.

Freedom is the hotbed of choice, decision-making and desire.

A young woman making a decision is therefore engaging in a dangerous political act.

That is why khap panchayats, local-level, all-male decision-making bodies in Haryana punish girls over noodles, jeans or telephones -- it doesn't matter what it is, it is the fact that a girl has made an independent decision that is dangerous.

It signals moving away from the 'We', the family and community, to the 'I'.


A woman's 'self ' is the sacrifice to the family, polity, economy and society.

Since we have not seen or acknowledged this cultural sacrifice clearly, women blame themselves.

They become the only self-blaming and self-hating species. This too keeps women in their place.

There are some shifts.

Women are delaying getting married.

When women are supposed to exist only in relationships, there is no single force more threatening than the single woman who delays marriage, is financially independent, lives on her own and has high earning power.

She is part of the 71 million single women, altogether 21 per cent of India's 353 million adult women, that includes large numbers of widows, and abandoned and divorced women.

This statistic was noticed first by marketers, who sell cars, life insurance and travel.

But despite their numbers, the world has not adjusted and single women remain an awkward social phenomenon who are not desirable role models in the imagination of young girls or other women.

They cause nervousness.

Their mere presence shatters the fundamental cultural assumption that 'There is no such thing as a woman outside of mother, wife, daughter relations'.

Single women are dangerous by definition.

If a single woman is a threat to society, a single mother successfully raising a child outside a marriage shatters completely the story of women not existing outside relationships with men.

A few women are forging new paths to an independent self and defining their own mix of duty and desire.

But it isn't easy.

Ritika, 44, arrived at my house in a blue summer dress with her partner and daughter, 14, in tow.

She married at 23 and divorced after ten years when her husband wanted to marry someone else, and she decided she would raise her baby girl even though she had very little money.

She went to work in an MNC, starting at the bottom.

For a decade, she did nothing but work and raise her daughter.

It was tough. She says, 'Even in a cosmopolitan city like Bengaluru the social structure around a single woman breaks down, it's not that people want to actively make you uncomfortable, but conversations stall, people don't know what to say to you.'

'For many years there was very little social interaction. As a single woman, everything is easily misconstrued in society. So you draw a circle of caution around you.'

'But you need people, you need support; I surrounded myself with women, at home to cope with the house, maids, creches and at work my entire team is female.'

'Women school principals were the most cruel. They blamed me for everything.'

'My most dominant feeling was guilt, all the time. I was away from Isha a lot, I had to travel for work. I was always tired.'

Today Ritika is a CEO, wealthy, and has a live-in relationship with a committed man, a former boss. She is happy.

In the quest for family and freedom a few young women are negotiating new forms of joint-ness.

Gayatri, 35, is a brilliant engineer.

She is warm and soft-spoken.

She delayed marriage till 34, when she says she 'grew up'.

She was confronted with the problem of Chetan Bhagat's Two States -- she is from the South and he is from the North.

She was totally clear that she would not live with his very conservative mother, but she confronted the issue upfront before marriage rather than avoid it and face the saas--bahu drama after marriage.

It took a couple of years before they could convince his mother that Gayatri was not a witch stealing her son away from her.

They met his mother separately and together multiple times.

The tide turned when Gayatri said to Dilip's mother, 'I can't live with you, but I will always come to your assistance when you need me, and I promise you that I will take care of you and in your old age when you are sick, I will live with you, but till then I need to have my own house.'

Once Dilip's mother realized she may lose her son, she struck a deal that has kept everyone happy.

Dilip's mother, who runs a medical clinic, cooks his lunch every day and sends it to the office where Dilip and Gayatri work as partners running a large company.

Gayatri's lunch is included but there are often special treats for him but not for her! Gayatri laughs it off as a mother's love.

Gayatri has negotiated her own balance between duty and desire that will keep changing with time.

Kindly note that the photographs have been published only for representational purposes.

Excerpted from Chup, Breaking the Silence About India's Women, by Deepa Narayan, Juggernaut, with the publisher's kind permission.

Deepa Narayan