I was on a holiday with my family in Salzburg, Austria recently. On one of the evenings, my son was insistent on a boat ride in the Salzach river. Being a tourist season, we had to wait in a queue to get in. Standing just next to us were two young Tamil-speaking couples. I say young, because they looked recently married and did not have any children with them.
Tamil being my mother tongue, I couldn’t help but over hear their conversation. I gathered they lived somewhere in Europe and were taking a weekend break in Salzburg. One of the couples seemed to have lived longer in Europe and they were helping the other more newlywed one to adapt. The experienced man advised the newlywed guy to save up around 200 Euros a month from his salary, if he wanted to travel around Europe. It seemed like they were the classic software professionals on a long-term assignment. Both the women though presumably “housewife”, seemed educated, at least with a bachelor’s degree, as they spoke about their college days in Madurai.
At one point they started discussing about their post cruise plans. And the newly wed wife said she had absolutely no energy to walk anymore and they should just get back to their hotel. The husband was not amused and said, “you complain about walking all the time”, and referred to a similar instance a few days earlier when they were out somewhere. To this, the newlywed woman said that she was not used to wearing closed toes shoes and hence her foot hurt a lot when she walked. At this moment the more experienced woman stepped in and suggested that she take her toe ring off. The newly wed was quiet and didn’t say anything. The more experienced woman said it was ok to remove the toe ring (metti in Tamil- one of the ornaments that married women are supposed to wear) as it was not practical to wear it with closed toe shoes. To this the newly wed man looked at his wife and said, ”maybe that is a good idea, why don’t you speak to my mother and check if it is ok to remove the toe ring”! The wife didn’t say anything. She seemed to accept her husband’s suggestion.
My blood rushed to my head at that moment. I seethed within, for the young woman not standing up and making her choice. And was aghast at the husband who seemed to lack the practical sense and wanted his wife to check with his mom, who was sitting 7000kms away, and had no idea about the weather or the amount of walking one had to do in Europe. I felt education had totally failed in this case. It had not made them stand up and choose freely and wisely what they want. They were unable to grasp the spirit and the meaning of the many traditions and the rituals, and chose to be bound by the mere external manifestations, which many a time are not relevant in certain time and space. Adorning a toe ring wouldn’t make them any more married or not wearing one, any less Tamil for that matter.
I did not enjoy rest of the cruise. I kept thinking about that couple. How could the man be so unconscious and suggest such a thing. And here was this woman, who had just let it be. She had the “education”, she was exposed to different cultures, she had reasonable economic freedom-yet she seemed to accept the suggestion that her mother in law decide for her. I felt like she had failed me in some way. And wondered what gives some women the strength to make their choices.
Then I heard another instance. This time, from my colleague. His wife and he run a learning centre for girls who drop out of school, as they have to help their parents at home or in the farm. The centre prepares them to take their 10th standard and 12th standard exams. And for those who want to pursue bachelor’s degree through long distance education, they support them in as many ways as possible. So this was about a young woman who had passed her 12th standard and she had been married off. They had no hope of her coming back to do a bachelor’s degree as they had seen this trend quite often. To their surprise a few months after the wedding she was back, stating she wanted to work and pursue further studies. She offered to help teach younger kids so she could earn as she studied. When my colleague’s wife enquired further on how she had managed to convince her family (we are talking about extremely low strata of economy here with subsistence levels of income and many social taboos with respect to women), she apparently said that she had decided that she would not let marriage come in the way of what she wanted to do. So right from day one, she refused to cover her head with the sari pallu. The elders weren’t happy with her assertion, but when she did not change her mind, they let her be. A few weeks later during her menstrual cycle she refused to sit outside as is the practice in many Hindu homes even now. This did not go down well with the family, so she threatened to leave the house and go back to her parents if this was the only way it would work. They finally accepted when she explained to them that the ritual had a time and place in a different era when there was poor sanitation, but with a toilet in the house and access to sanitary pads, she did not need to sit out. May be she got lucky with the family, but if she had not asserted herself in these small things, she may not have been able to come back to study. I felt a sense hope on hearing this story.
I also realized that while education may provide us the basis to rationalize, the real source of power which gives us the confidence to make choices that shape our future, lies within each of us. Any amount of education would not help a woman who can’t decide about her toe ring. And a little amount may be enough for a woman in a village, to change centuries of custom because she chooses to tap into her inner source of power.
Empowerment is in making small choices every day. We can let the other take charge of our lives or we can choose to decide about matters that affect us. We always have the choice.