By: Sindura Vuppu
My mother was one of the first women in her conservative circle to defy gender norms and become financially independent. She wanted to be someone whose identity did not depend on anyone but herself. She became the first female engineer in her circle and had endless career opportunities at hand. She had it all. Until she got married.
As a woman from a conservative family who also married into another, her identity was tightly attached to her husband’s family. There are three roles assigned to a married woman in the patriarchal environment which she grew up in: a daughter-in-law, a wife, and a mother. For several years, her in-laws expected her to quit her job and dedicate her life to household chores and “womanly duties.” She fought for her career and continued doing what she was passionate about. But on the other hand, societal pressure to become a mother had started to fall upon her. First a wife, then a mother. The appreciation she deserved for building a career that seemed impossible to achieve at the time was never given to her. Her financial independence and individual identity were ignored since most people adapted to the belief that a career woman cannot be a good wife and a mother.
As her career took off, she was offered a job in the US. She was the first woman in her circle to fly to the US on an employment-based visa. Once again, none of that mattered. According to the people around her, her familial duties were more important. Her husband had a job back in India and her stay in the US was temporary. Although her career and life in the US were going smoothly, his situation forced her to quit her job and return to India. Patriarchy expects the wife to compromise and make sure her husband is the priority, even if it is at the cost of her own happiness. To this day, she recalls the sacrifice that she’d made because of the countless expectations that society and her own family had placed on her. She was forced to choose between the career she had worked hard for and the unending familial responsibilities that were imposed upon her. She abandoned everything that she had established for herself in the US and went back home.
She continued to work in India and never gave up on her career despite all the criticism. Having two daughters was considered difficult and sometimes even unfortunate. They believed that a working woman would not be able to “watch” her daughters or pay attention to their education and well-being because she would not have any time for them. Having a son, on the other hand, was not a problem at all because he “didn’t need protection.” The criticism and lack of acknowledgement of a woman’s professional life was and is still common in most conservative Indian families.
As always, she proved them wrong. My mother has worked hard to make sure I study well and develop a strong sense of self. Her career was never a problem to our relationship. In fact, it inspired me to work hard for what I am passionate about and prioritize my desires. She instilled in me the confidence to be what I want to be and never let anything or anyone bring me down. She has always believed that women need to develop an unbreakable spirit and a strong sense of self, especially in a society that is constantly trying to limit, restrict, and belittle them. I was never restricted, unappreciated or blamed. She let me explore, make mistakes, and learn from them.
Three years ago, she flew back to the US. This time it was less for herself and more for her daughters. Once again, she abandoned everything that she has worked so hard to establish back in India just so we could get a better education and a better life free of the societal pressures that have affected her. Even after all these years, she is judged based on her non-professional “responsibilities”: how well she is taking care of her husband and daughters. But this time, I make sure to tell her that she is an inspiration to many young girls like me and that she is appreciated for making the choices that she has made in her life.
Although Indian society has seen much progress since my mother’s time, it is still not enough. Women are now encouraged to have financial independence and live for themselves, but many conservative families still view a married woman as the mere extension of her husband and his family. Any slight deviation from the societal norm results in criticism and degradation of her choice. The wrong notion that a career woman cannot live up to her familial responsibilities has to be questioned. In fact, splitting women’s role as either a “family woman” or a “career woman” is misogynistic and unnecessary. They can be both or none at all, and that has to be their choice. Only then can a woman live her life on her own terms and be free of society’s judgement.
My mother once told me something that I believe will always stay with me: “They judge a woman who chooses to prioritize herself because her worth is somehow measured by how much she sacrifices for others. They think of her as intimidating and scary because she is “too strong” or “too rebellious”. In reality, she just wants to live for herself and not give in to unreasonable judgement. So if someone says you’re intimidating even though you’re just being yourself, it means you’re doing it right”.