My great-grandmother never made a single selfish decision in her life. From the moment she woke up (earlier than everyone else in the household, to begin the morning puja) to the moment she went to sleep, she focused on everybody else’s needs. She was the first to serve food and always the last to eat. She was the one to receive guests, the one to clean the teacups, the one to bathe the children.
She never knew what it felt like to say “I’m going for a walk because I feel like it,” or “I’m going to watch a movie today.” There was nothing that she felt entitled to in her 84 years of living. She was the kind of woman that most Indian women are taught to emulate.
The rhetoric of selflessness has always been preached to women. It’s in our religious texts (Sita sacrificing her family in order to prove her purity), in the films we watch (Mother India showing us the archetype of Indian womanhood), in the news that we read every day (young girls staying home so that their brothers can afford school fees). Unconsciously or consciously, women are held to a higher standard than men.
For instance, every time a woman is molested after dark, men take to Facebook to express their opinion in droves. They almost always say the same thing — “if you don’t want to be molested, you should stay at home”. You see, men can’t control themselves, and so we are expected to sacrifice the small pleasures of life, like drinking a beer after work with our friends. It’s for the greater good!
It’s the same in the workplace. Take Indra Nooyi, who is easily the most successful Indian businesswoman in the world, and one of the most powerful women in the world. You might call her a role model. But the day she was named President of PepsiCo, she came home at 10 PM to her mother saying “Go buy some milk. You forgot to buy milk.” When Indra asked why her husband couldn’t buy the milk, she was told, “He’s tired. Listen, you may be President of a company outside this home, but here, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the mother.”
So she went out and bought the milk.
Some might take this story to be inspirational and cite it as an example of humility. I see it as another example of the way that we are kept in our place, reminded that we cannot put ourselves first. Would anybody expect Indra Nooyi’s husband to do household chores when he got home from work? Would anybody question whether he was fulfilling his husbandly duties? Would he admit, as Indra did, that he felt like a bad parent for being too busy to pick up his children from school?
When I tell older people “I don’t want to get married right now,” or “I’m not planning on having children,” they look at me in complete disbelief. I try to explain my reasoning, but they cut me off with “That’s selfish. Don’t you think your parents want to see their grandchildren?”
Selfish. It’s a word that is weaponized against Indian women in a variety of ways; a word that I instinctively flinch from.
As I look at the men around me, I see how loud they are at work, how assertive and demanding. I see how instead of selfishness, this is viewed as ambition, how it is framed as something desirable. I see how they behave at home, how they throw their clothes on the floor, how they leave the dirty dishes on the table. They never offer to lay the dishes, or wash up, or even push their chairs back in. From a young age, they are taught that women will clean up their mess.
The invisible, intangible burdens weigh even heavier. I see how my friends patiently take on the lion’s share of emotional labor, supporting and comforting their boyfriends through the bad days. I see how little they get back. Sometimes it’s painful to witness.
Sometimes it’s funny, and we learn to joke about it with each other. I tell my friends about the time a DJ invited me on a date and I showed up only to realise that he was the house DJ that night, and that he expected me to stand and listen to him for three hours. They tell me about how their boyfriends don’t seem to care about their hobbies or take an interest in their art. We find solace in group chats with other women who share our plight.
This inequality naturally extends to the bedroom. There’s a lot of talk about the modern, sexual woman, the Sex and the City prototype, who is liberated enough to demand oral sex, or multiple orgasms from her man. However, Indian women have a long way to go before they achieve this kind of outspokenness.
In heterosexual encounters, pleasure is seen as the exclusive dominion of the man. Dr. Mahinder Watsa, sex columnist for Mumbai Mirror, says that men are such in a rush to get off that they don’t attend to their female partner’s needs. Many women I know are afraid to bring up the topic with their boyfriends, so they fake it or become resigned to an unsatisfying sex life. It’s just another one of the many sacrifices we make.
I’m not sure what being selfish means for an Indian woman. The dictionary tells me that it means “lacking consideration for other people.” When I read that, and think of the Indian women I know, I want to laugh.
I think especially of the mothers I know, the ones who get up early to pack their sons’ lunches. The most credit they seem to get is a Facebook post on Mother’s Day. “To my dear mother, who does everything for me.” Sometimes, these mothers don’t even see those posts because they’re not on Facebook. I wonder if heaven will recompense these women for the work they did, because this world doesn’t.
What I do know is this: I’m tired of the narrative that women are selfless. It’s easy to place Indian women on a pedestal, to say that they are somehow better than men, and thereby to argue that they should be the ones to nurture everybody at the expense of their own well-being. Sometimes, when I tell men I’m a feminist, they say “Well, I agree that women are better than men.” It is an answer that frustrates me, because it is such an easy way to evade responsibility.
No, I want to say, women are not inherently better than men. We are as mortal as men: as full of weakness, foolishness, and vanity. We have the unrelenting human desire to be selfish, to prioritize our own desires and place ourselves first. It’s just that — as my great-grandmother knew — we are not afforded that choice.