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BEYOND “A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN” – ARSHIA MALIK

I have reached a stage of empowerment where I am constantly lifting other women up with positivity and appreciation. In the subcontinent, women are not used to being appreciated and grow up amidst a lot of negativity. Rarely are they honoured for their lives and the work they do. So, a little praise here and there, a little encouragement and the lessons of saying ‘no’ – once in a while, go a long way in nudging the underrated women to start their self-discovery. I still encounter professional jealousy, but now that I am very secure in my skin and about my abilities as a schoolteacher, I am empathetic about why colleagues would bitch about me in the workplace, having rarely come across an independent-minded woman. My empowerment is no longer about financial independence or speaking out. I have come a long way from Virginia Woolf's seminal extended essay, 'A Room of One's Own', now that it has become a beautiful reality for me in the Township that I live in. Let me explain the reference to Virginia Woolf. The title of her essay based on two of her lectures comes from Woolf's conception that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Virginia identifies women writers such as herself as outsiders who exist in a potentially dangerous space. 

She noted that women have been kept from writing because of the constraints they face and their relative poverty. Her essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce, work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face. In her essay, Woolf is speaking out to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal setting. She moves her audience to understand the importance of their education and sums up the stark contrast between how women are idealized in fiction written by men, and how patriarchal society has treated them in real life. She did this by creating a fictional character of Shakespeare's sister Judith. 

Although my life and several other women writers' lives contradicts Woolf's essay in the sense that we wrote with no rooms of our own, in dire poverty and amidst objecting men and callous women, and yet had a voice; it is an important piece of feminist literature and was given a tribute by a blog which started out as Shakespeare's Sister and ended as Shakesville in 2019. The blog's original author, in regard to the essay, wrote:

I am the heir of all the Shakespeare's Sisters before me, 

who carved out rooms of their own, 

tiny pieces of space and time, 

in which they formed the habit of freedom 

and mustered the courage to write 

exactly what they thought. 

I took up their legacy with breathless gratitude 

and compelling need, 

and I created a room of my own, 

built of 1s and 0s, 

where I try to honour them, 

as best I can.

Despite the Kashmir conflict interrupting my education, I qualified, found jobs and became financially independent since the age of 19; changing jobs as my qualifications, education and experience grew. The writing was an idea that a Contemporary Artist's Group from Srinagar put into my head. The wonderful and encouraging boys from the group with their camaraderie and bonhomie accepted me when I became their PR Manager and were the first people to listen to me and respect my opinion in the 90s Kashmir. I became a columnist and started contributing to the local dailies. You, reader, have no idea what oxygen that was with no Internet, or social media to give validation to my thoughts, ideas or views. It's been a roller-coaster journey from that time to this (material for a book, possibly) but my son's room, my growing library (rebuilt after losing it in the September 2014 floods), my terrace and stairwell garden, and home gym make up my Zen space in my apartment - a testimony to a life rebuilt as an 'ideological refugee' in my own country. Never complacent about circumstances, having developed the 'refugee mentality' due to self-exile, a forced migration, and flash floods in September 2014, I turn my mind towards the women living around me even though I am pretty happy with my life right now.

The Township is like a mini India with colleagues from all over. Somehow, a lot of single, lone and widowed women, seem to have converged on this Township, brought together by their life's journeys respectively. It is still not a close-knit community yet, we are still unlearning the patriarchy we all grew up in irrespective of our cultures and religions. Normally I don't mind people coming up to me and abruptly asking me to dye my hair. I have grown up with this subcontinental trait of encroaching on one's personal space, trust me, nothing beats Kashmiris believing that everyone's life is their personal 'jagir' especially women. But over time it can get a bit too much and once in a while I do retort back. 

And here's my retort:

We are a country still fighting the caste system, have reservations, for the marginalized and are decades away from the true spirit of the Constitution that Babasaheb had envisioned. Our majority of women sarpanches still do not make independent decisions, domestic violence is a stark, "normal" reality and laws are still being amended to bring India on par with the 21st century. So –

  • Why are our women getting their world view from stupid TV ads like Fair & Lovely Fairness creams and the sickening, maddening Ekta Kapoor "K" serials?
  • Why is the scientific temperament an alien concept even among Science teachers and lecturers who breeze through evolution and genetics, teach quantum physics yet have talismans, threads and religious symbols adorning their bodies?
  • Why are women insecure about a financially independent woman who is comfortable in her skin and has accepted aging as a natural state of life?
  • Why are we not spending those crores on women empowerment instead of more fighter jets and tall statues?

Christopher Hitchens, the English-American columnist, essayist, orator, journalist, social critic, author and co-editor of more than 30 books, and 5 collections of essays was famous for saying, "The cure for poverty has a name, in fact: it's called the empowerment of women. If you give women some control over the rate at which they reproduce, if you give them some say, take them off the animal cycle of reproduction to which nature and some doctrine—religious doctrine condemns them, and then if you'll throw in a handful of seeds perhaps and some credit, the floor of everything in that village, not just poverty, but education, health, and optimism will increase. It doesn't matter; try it in Bangladesh, try it in Bolivia, it works—works all the time...”

The women of my Township have a lot to learn about empowering but it is a start. At least they listen to what I have to say. I am more of an actions-speak-louder-than-words kind of person. Plus, I walk-the-talk. Generally, I don't believe in imparting advice because each one's life is different and we each need to figure it out in our own way. But I think India is facing a new discourse this century, with men and women vying for space for their views and equally fighting for their rights. Because, you see, reader, Virginia was wrong about one thing. In my part of the world "Men too need rooms of their own." Tribal patriarchy suppresses the rights, potential, and voices of men too. Now with the skewed sense of empowerment that millennial women are showing, men need to read Woolf's essay too and start empowering themselves too. I don't believe in a specific Women's Day because both, men and women and for that matter children too, the queer, the marginalized struggle every day to be recognized, to be heard, to be understood and first and foremost to be accepted. Symbolically, it may be good to have an International Women's Day to mark the achievements but for us women who are constantly smashing back misogyny and matriarchy or patriarchy, it is a Woman's Day every day. 

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