It's a Friday evening and I'm watching Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Toilet: a love story). For those of you who haven't watched it - you should. It's based on the true story of an educated woman who leaves her husband because his village thinks it's humiliating to have a home toilet, requiring the women to go in groups to the local field at 4am with a jug of water to carry out their basic human needs. The woman's education was regularly blamed by all concerned for bringing shame on her family, her village and her culture.
This criticism struck a nerve, because it's a very familiar line to me (though not quite in the context of wanting a home toilet). Quick background on me - I'm a self-proclaimed geek who used to read on the bus home at age 9, achieved 11 A*s at GCSE, somehow managed to successfully complete a degree from Oxbridge and am now working hard to make something of myself, with my sights set high.
I'll throw in the caveat here that I am immensely grateful to my parents for always prioritising my education as I grew up, despite, like many Tamil homes, the struggles of a working class family. My dad worked from morning 'til night every day to make ends meet, but there was never a question around sending me to those tuition classes at age 10 to give me the best chance in life. I remember the pride on my dad's face as he rushed to hug me after my graduation ceremony and how joyful a moment that was.
But you see, that once source of pride became my downfall the moment I stood my ground to choose who I spend my life with. As I now approach my expiry date of my 30s, my dad and my brother say my Oxbridge education apparently made me think I'm white. I’ve also been told my education wasn't worth 5 pence/ cents because I'm stupid when it comes to life. I have many aunts and uncles who regularly corner me at family events and call me semi-frequently to grill me on my marriage situation, but never congratulated me at my educational milestones nor have they been interested in what I do now. Where many families would be proud of a young woman who managed a team of employees by her mid-20s and who works internationally to try make a difference, mine said it made me forget my roots. The day I came home and told my mum I'd been successful in an interview for a promotion - her response? Who cares about your work promotion, your cousin is onto her second promotion - she'd just gotten pregnant (her first promotion was getting married of course).
I question many things when hearing the level of bitterness and shame that radiates from my family's words. Would I hear those words if maybe I'd picked a different educational path such as becoming a doctor (because who could ever question the worth of a daughter who achieved that holy status)? Or perhaps if I were a Tamil guy instead of a girl? Or if I had been more obedient and married that guy my family had wanted to arrange when I was 18 (yes you read that right) or those other guys they suggested over the years, ignoring the fact that I really didn't like most of them?
As women, we have it hard enough to climb our way up the career-ladder - it's all stacked up against us, even in the western world. Being female, being an ethnic minority, looking younger than our actual years (those meetings where you try to be taken seriously while looking like you've just stepped out of university). Being not only a full-time working woman but (now or someday in the future) also being a full-time wife, mother, daughter and a daughter-in-law. How many of our Tamil male, working counterparts have the same expectations to ensure their homes and families are looked after?
We battle through the many barriers, only to be told our education and our career has made us too smart for our own good or that classic phrase, “paditcha thimir” (arrogance from being educated). It's heartbreaking. But ultimately, the problem isn't the education. The problem is having a voice. Education opens windows and doors; it gives us insight into other cultures and other ways of living, it makes us think about what's right and what's wrong; it makes us question our rights to equality. That education adds volumes to our voices and makes us stand up for ourselves. Shame on us.
The poet Bharathiyar wrote the striking "Puthumai Penn (modern woman):
"நிமிர்ந்த நன்னடை நேர்கொண்ட பார்வையும்,
நிலத்தில் யார்க்கும் அஞ்சாத நெறிகளும்,
திமிர்ந்த ஞானச் செருக்கும் இருப்பதால்,
செம்மை மாதர் திறம்புவ தில்லையாம்;
அமிழ்ந்து பேரிரு ளாமறி யாமையில்,
அவல மெய்திக் கலையின் றி வாழ்வதை,
உமிழ்ந்து தள்ளுதல் பெண்ணற மாகுமாம்,
உதய கன்ன உரைப்பது கேட்டிரோ!"
Rough translation :
"Her head held high she walks while looking everyone in the eye,
She is a fearless possessor of integrity,
She is a proud possessor of wisdom born out of conviction,
The resolute woman does not falter or feel inferior;
Despite facing sorrow and criticism,
She is capable of deriving pleasure from her life,
Throwing off vanity, she emits the beauty of a woman,
She rises, making her voice heard!"
Bharathiyar was considered a revolutionary in his time. As a society, we may have moved forward from the days of girls not even going to school. But it saddens me that more than a 100 years since that poem was written, Bharathiyar's views on the modern woman still seem revolutionary. It remains a sin for many Tamil women to face her elders or the men in her life and give her opinion on how she wishes to live her life, especially if that opinion goes against their own.
If one day I lower my gaze and marry a guy my parents choose, I'm sure I'll become golden girl to my family again. But in the meantime, as hard as it is to hear and as much as my ears may bleed, I take their venomous words in one ear and let them out the other. Because some day they may realise the flaws in their words. But today, it's down to us women to be proud of ourselves and become the best we can be.
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