Virginia Woolf revisited
|For all the much-vaunted freedoms, Indian women|
are still seeking their niche
In the autumn of 1928, Virginia Woolf delivered an essay full
of thought-provoking, even groundbreaking ideas underpinned
with wry humour, to the students of the Girton College for
Women at Oxford. It was a rambling discourse but it was by no
means hard for the listeners to pick out the many nuggets
of wisdom it contained. Ruing the fact that women have, for
far too long, been subjugated intellectually, emotionally
and of course physically, by men, Woolf proclaimed that the way to
a woman's true emancipation lay in a room of one's own and an
independent amount of 500 pounds a year to live on.
Right to vote
In 1928, women had been given the right to vote for about
eight years; however, convention dictated that they keep to
the demure and narrow path, better seen not heard. Woolf
talked of being stopped at the door of an Oxford library
because women weren't allowed into those hallowed precincts
sans written permission or the presence of a male `guardian.`
She got in, eventually, lunched well as a guest of one of the
aforementioned males at one of the colleges, contrasting it
sharply with her meagre meals back at Girton. Women
scholars, it would seem, ate more poorly than did their
male counterparts. Small differences but stark ones.
Virginia Woolf talked evocatively, movingly of `Judith,`
Shakespeare's fictitious sister. Woolf gave to Judith all
the inherent talent and genius of her brother but said she
was most likely to have suppressed that talent... she was
but a woman, you see. If Judith had fought fate and taken
the high road to London pretty much as her brother had
done, she would have, in all probability, come to a
less- than- glorious end, of course. Woolf has us
imagine Shakespeare's sister with child, hungry,
helpless, hopeless, and eventually killing herself.
1928 to 2006. From having to found her own Press
(Hogarth, wIth husband Leonard) to Kali for Women
in India; from Woolf (Virginia) to Wolfe (Naomi);
from being refused permission to enter a male
domain such as a college library to the opening of a
Women's Library in London a few years ago, women
have come a long way. Or have we?
Not in India, they haven't. Thanks to the strong winds
of liberalisation that have blown open a few doors,
things have become easier in some ways for women,
at least in urban India. (Out yonder, beyond the reach
of MTV and FabIndia, lies the heartland where men
continue to draw up the Masterplan for living and women
fall into line). Back in Urbania, we have a generation
of women who do everything their brothers do. They
attend the same business or management colleges,
manage fiscal portfolios with facility and can close
deals with the same acumen traditionally credited to men.
A room of their own? 500 bucks a year? Ah, we have a
home of our own, and much more than Rs 500 a
year, these women exclaim. That may well be but
three-quarters of a century later, more women than
there should be are still looking for that room of their
own and the economic independence that follows.
Of course, the Indian woman circa 2006 AD, has more
than Rs 500 a year; the point is, she has learnt how to
stretch that amount for double that period of time.
She does stow away some bit for herself but that
happens only once in a rare while, the rest goes
into the family kitty, maternal or matrimonial. Of
course she has a room of her own; only, she shares
her bedroom with her husband, her den with the family
(it has the TV there, you see), her study with the kids.
She shares the PC; she may have a car of her own
but she uses it more often than not in running
household errands and for the school carpool than
for her personal needs.
Scene in India
Freedom? Not in India, not as long as they are still
fixing a dowry price on her head in Punjab, raping
her in broad daylight in Delhi. Not while they are still
attempting to burn her in UP, sell her in Orissa, forcing
her to don a burqa in Kashmir. Not while they are
ripping her foetus from her womb in Gujarat, forcing
her to ascend the pyre of her dead husband in Rajasthan,
not while they are still harassing, exploiting and
torturing her in Bihar, Kerala, Andhra, Maharashtra,
Bengal. Not as long as they are attempting to kill her
minutes after she is born in Tamil Nadu.
So, if Virginia Woolf was with us today, taking in all the
new-found freedoms of women, she would still say
what she said 75 years ago: women need a room
of their own. With all the freedoms that come with it.